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Oscars 2011: How 'The Social Network' Could Still Win (but Probably Won't)

In the final hours before the Academy Awards, a look at the factors that are affecting the Best Picture race



Just a few weeks ago, the Oscars were approaching and all seemed right with the world. The Social Network, David Fincher's riveting meditation on the messiness behind the creation of Facebook, was every critic's choice for movie of the year. Its sparkling script, by Aaron Sorkin, and Fincher's restrained but typically adamantine direction created an indelible portrait of a modern antihero.

Then Hollywood started talking. The director's guild, the producer's guild, and then, fatefully, the actors guild all spoke, with one voice, in favor of The King's Speech, Tom Hooper's evocation of how Britain's King George VI learned to overcome his stutter. While boasting an enjoyable performance by Colin Firth as the troubled monarch, the thing is cinematically workmanlike and woefully predictable. (It's not as if anyone would make a movie about someone not overcoming a stutter.)

But this all made for a fun and unthreatening night out, and Hollywood—which at Oscar time has been rewarding more challenging movie-going experiences of late—nevertheless has almost unanimously given every award that wasn't nailed down to the Weinstein Company production.

To Social Network fans, to put it bluntly, The King's Speech has become a royal pain in the ass.

In a fairly comprehensive survey of predictions, the website Awards Daily found 38 places predicting a King's Speech win, and seven opting for The Social Network. (Two were rooting for Inception—now that would be an upset.)

Gold Derby's list is similar, finding 22 pundits bowing to the King, and but six friending The Social Network.

Not everyone is happy. Jeffrey Wells, the emotional and energetic proprietor of Hollywood Elsewhere, has called The King's Speech "a high-end buddy flick." Wells deemed it a "cultural-spiritual tragedy" that the film won the Director's Guild of America honors.

Roger Ebert, less melodramatically, agreed:

If I were still doing "If We Picked the Winners" with Gene Siskel, my preference for best film would be "The Social Network." It was not only the best film of 2010, but also one of those films that helps define a year. It became the presumed front-runner on the day it opened, but then it seemed to fade.

If you are a King's Speech hater—or just think, more defensibly, that's it's a nice film a cut or two above the ordinary—there are just a few areas of hope.

One is that there are a few discernible cracks in its façade. The thinking on best direction, for example, is that Fincher might pull out a win. He lost the director's guild award to Hooper, and that's generally a fairly dispositive result. But the British Film Institute, while predictably lavishing plaudits on The King's Speech, gave direction to Fincher over Hooper, who you think would have been a hometown hero.

It used to be extremely unusual for best direction and best picture to go to different films—perhaps one year in ten. But it has happened three times in the last decade, though the last time was in 2005, when Crash took best picture and Ang Lee won best director for Brokeback Mountain.

Second is the effect of preferential voting—another recent process change by the Academy. In the past, voters marked only a top choice on their ballots. With five nominees, it was theoretically possible for a winner to take the award with a bit over 20 percent of the vote.

But now, with the expansion to ten best picture nominees, the voters rank all ten of the films. (Or are supposed to, anyway.) Here's how the accountants tally the vote: If there is no clear majority winner on the first round, they eliminate the lowest vote-getter—and apportion that film's second-tier votes to the remaining nine films. The process is continued until a film hits the 50 percent mark. (There are about 6,000 academy voters, incidentally.)

You can see how this process could affect the outcome in various ways. In the most extreme case, a film loved by a devoted percentage of the voters (say, 35 percent) but reviled by the remaining 65 percent might come out on top in the first round of balloting--yet never see its tally increase.

To some, preferential voting has the danger of always rewarding the inoffensive. But it's a little trickier than that. To game out the scenario each year, you have to guess first what the lowest vote-getter in each round will be, and then where that film's second-place votes will be apportioned. Since the academy never releases voting data, it's necessarily a highly theoretical process.

Here's the one scenario fans of adventuresome filmmaking can take solace in. This year, if you assume The Social Network and The King's Speech are at the top and at least close in the beginning rounds, the question is where the second-round votes of presumed dark horses like Winter's Bone and The Kids Are All Right might go. My guess is that such voters would be more likely to rank The Social Network higher.

Of, even if they did the numbers might be small enough not to make a difference. We'll never know.

For true award-tally crunchers, there is the fact that the sophisticated American Cinema Editors gave a best picture win to The Social Network. For a pained and exhaustive analysis of the implications, see this essay by Awards Daily's Sasha Stone.

And finally, there is my pet theory, one that I think is not recognized enough by analysts. It's simply not true anymore that the Academy has a thing for high-minded films like The King's Speech. Very few "nice" films have won best picture in the last decade. A few were downers but fairly wholesome (Million Dollar Baby). But for the last four years, the films have been violent, unusual, bleak and unnerving. And the nominations lists have been dotted with even more difficult contenders.

It's another Oscar truism that The Social Network was hurt by having been released too early in the year—but The Hurt Locker was released even earlier. The Academy's current predilections are plain.

All that said, The King's Speech has a lot more going for it. The importance of the guild votes over those of the critics organizations is that their memberships heavily overlap with the Academy's. Since actors make up the largest segment of the voting pool, the results of the Screen Actors Guild awards are seen as particularly indicative.

And finally, there is the Harvey Weinstein factor. The longtime Miramax Films capo, who revolutionized Oscar campaigns over the last twenty or so years, is still in the business, heading up the Weinstein Company.

Even during several years of wasteful debacles in the publishing, fashion, and Internet worlds, Weinstein has continued to be a contentious presence at Oscars time. And this year, as part of a major PR campaign to demonstrate to Hollywood he has jettisoned the distraction and is back focusing the bulk of his energy on filmmaking, Weinstein has something to prove. The company is focused heavily on promoting The King's Speech; this alone is a sobering consideration.

If, as expected, a Weinstein company gets its fourth production Oscar, what lessons can we glean for the Academy's recent rule changes?

While the ten-film best picture lineup has brought in a couple of box-office blockbusters into the mix—namely Inception and Toy Story 3—they have been largely out of the discussions. Indeed, if anything the lack of a best director nod to Christopher Nolan has only polarized Inception fans—and it's hard to imagine parents will keep their kids up late in anticipation of a Pixar win.

The Academy itself cares about one thing: Show ratings. They got a boost last year, presumably because of Avatar's inclusion in the race. Were people turned off when a film they'd never heard of, The Hurt Locker, came out on top? Will middling $100 million hits like The King's Speech and The Social Network put keisters in the seats this year? And do James Franco and Anne Hathaway really have the star power to host the Academy Awards? We'll find out Sunday.

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