This is a follow-up to our continuing series, "Predicting the VFX Oscar Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 and Part 4."
I updated the 2007 chart to indicate the winner of the visual effects Oscar, "The Golden Compass."
As you may remember from the previous articles in this series, we determined that critical acclaim (as indicated by the Tomatometer rating) was a fairly good predictor of the winner of the visual effects Academy Award.
"Compass's" win throws our theory for a loop. A huge loop. It garnered the least amount of critical acclaim amongst the three nominated films. In 23 years of charting (1984-2006, Part 2 of the series), in years where there were three nominees for Best Visual Effects, the film with the lowest critical acclaim never won the Oscar. In addition, the film with the least box office return never won the Oscar, as well. Thumbing its nose at the historical statistical data, the 80th Academy Awards gave the visual effects Oscar to "The Golden Compass," the film with both the lowest critical acclaim (by a slim margin) and the lowest box office tally, amongst its fellow nominees.
So what happened here? How did the Academy voters circumvent historical precedent? Usually, as our theory surmises, the film that garners the most critical acclaim can ride that momentum of energy into Oscar season, thus influencing the Oscar vote. The most obvious example of this is 2000's "Gladiator," which rode a wave of acclaim and popularity to win the Oscar for visual effects, even when the general consensus in the visual effects community was that other films deserved Oscar's highest honor for visual effects.
Our assumption is that vast majority of the over-6000 Academy voters, as we pointed out in Part 1, are not as industry-savvy as one might think. They are, as history suggests, quite susceptible to aggressive marketing campaigns (think Miramax in the '90s) and pop culture phenomenons ("Titanic," "Forrest Gump"), especially since, as we all know, they don't actually see all the films for which they are voting.
Industry watchers almost unanimously predicted that "Transformers," directed by Michael Bay, would win the visual effects Oscar for several reasons: its celebrated visual effects, its enormous popularity at the box office, and the fact that the movie was generally entertaining. So exactly how did "Compass" claim Oscar gold over the robots in disguise? Here are a few ideas that I've heard over the past few weeks.
Theory 1: The Academy is biased against ILM. This myth, still repeated among some visual effects fans and professionals alike, proclaims that old Hollywood is still fuming at George Lucas, founder of ILM, for his departure from Hollywood, and his hoarding of "Star Wars" riches. The theory also says that Hollywood is tired of ILM 'bullying' the effects community, and after years and years of success, needed to be brought down a notch (which is what caused a 12 year 'drought' of Academy Award wins for ILM). Therefore, Academy voters shunned the ILM productions, "Transformers" and "Pirates 3" and voted for the non-ILM production, "Compass."
This theory is bunk. The general membership of the Academy is not as savvy as one might think. Certainly, they may understand that ILM is an industry leader in visual effects, and that ILM is owned by George Lucas, but I find it highly unlikely that any one Academy voter could tell you which film ILM worked on. This is not the reason "Transformers" didn't win.
Theory 2: The vote was split between "Pirates 3" and "Transformers," giving "Compass" the win. This theory postulates that the majority of Academy voters actually wished that either "Pirates 3" or "Transformers" take home the Oscar, giving a plurality to "Compass."
How would this work? Let's say that 60% of the Academy voters marked either "Pirates 3" or "Transformers" as having the best visual effects of the year, which isn't entirely unreasonable. Well, if that 60% is split right down the middle, that leaves the 40% earning "Compass" with a plurality, and the Oscar win.
Personally, I think this theory is hard to swallow. Both ILM pictures would have to had to earn no greater than 66% of the total vote, with neither film earning more than 32% of the vote, for this theory to hold water. Those are some slim margins, people, and although ILM loyalists would really like to believe it, I just don't think this is true.
Theory 3: "Compass" is the best family-friendly choice. "Compass," on paper, is the most family friendly of the three nominees, starring cute child actors, the handsome Daniel Craig, the beautiful Nicole Kidman, and-- gasp! -- cute, cuddly, talking animals. In fact, one cannot forget a similar upset from 1995, when "Babe," the G-rated family-friendly film defeated the overwhelming odds-on favorite, "Apollo 13." What did "Babe" have that "Apollo 13" didn't have? Cute, cuddly, talking animals.
Although all three films carried the PG-13 rating, "Transformers" and "Pirates 3" were hard PG-13's, in my opinion, with some serious mean streaks of violence and intensity, while "Compass'" action sequences were less intense.
When presented with a choice of these three films-- three films that the majority of voters probably did not see-- the elder Academy members may have thought to themselves, "Which of these three films could I safely take my kids to?" or even "Which of these three films could I safely take my grandchildren to?"
Their answers probably went something like this: "Well, I don't really want to take them to another long 'Pirates' movie, and that 'Transformers' has a lot of gunplay and violence... I think I'll choose the Nicole Kidman picture." A checkmark goes besides "The Golden Compass" for visual effects.
Theory 4: The Academy doesn't want to reward Michael Bay. The poster child for 'all that is wrong in today's cinema' is Mr. Bay, according to the Hollywood establishment, and the theory states that the Hollywood establishment would go out of its way to avoid rewarding Bay by not voting for the film that bears his name.
Bay's crimes include: legitimizing quick MTV-style editing; making films that celebrate explosions, cars, car chases, and boobs; creating the world's shoutiest movies, where a quiet moment is an anomaly; creating dizzying shaky-cam action sequences with so much frenetic camera movement whose ultimate outcome is confusing and disorienting, leaving the audience wondering 'what the heck is going on?'; creating one-dimensional characters; essentially filming misogynistic, racist, jingoistic, product-placement-dripping, military recruitment movies with only as much integrity and honesty that 13 year old boys can handle... and all along the way, driving home with giant dumptrucks full of cash. Bay's cinematic transgressions have been well-documented; here are a few articles from AVClub that succinctly state cinephiles' attitudes towards Bay: their review of his DVD commentary of "The Island," their review of "Bad Boys II," one, or their review of "Transformers."
Personally, I think it's a combination of Theories 3 and 4.
What do you think? Or, is it insulting to the crew and talent behind "The Golden Compass" to even theorize why its fellow nominees didn't win the Oscar?
And, just to re-restate the previously stated, this entire discussion about "Predicting the Oscar" is framed by our statistical and quantifyable analysis of the Academy Awards nominees and winners over the past three decades. I am not making any kind of subjective statements about which film actually deserved the award for innovation and quality of visual effects.