EW talks with awards expert and Gold Derby founder Tom O'Neil in the run-up to the Academy Awards

This Oscar season, EW is bringing together some of the sharpest minds in the awards conversation to gauge the position of the horses in the race. From esteemed bloggers to venerable pundits, these experts have their finger on the pulse of what’s happening in Hollywood. This week, Gold Derby founder Tom O’Neil kick us off with his views on Netflix’s bid for its first above-the-line nomination, why campaigning matters, who to watch for at this early stage of the 2017-18 Oscar season, and why it’s still too early to treat AMPAS’ rapidly diversifying voter base as an entirely new organization free from the constraints of tradition.

Credit: Roland Neveu/Netflix; Kerry Hayes/Fox; Sony Pictures Classics

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Netflix is pushing several titles this year. Why have industry voters been hesitant to embrace them as a distributor?
Netflix is a scary threat to the established media for both TV and film because it straddles both. It’s trying to find its way in the awards race while trying to establish itself as something more than just a delivery vehicle and producer… more than anything, Netflix wants the approval of its peers as a player on all fronts. The success so far of Netflix on the Oscar scene has been in the documentary race. It now needs to break into the top tiers. So, it’s taking programming that might normally just stream online and putting it in theaters to qualify for the Oscars. Some people say that’s cheating, but it’s such a confusing media landscape, so as long as it meets the basic qualifications, let it compete. But the stakes for Netflix are far greater than just an award here or there: it’s validation.

Deadline posted an article about the Academy reviewing standards for theatrical releases, as Netflix typically debuts its films in a small number of theaters solely to qualify for awards. Why is there such specific skepticism for Netflix in particular?
It’s a double standard based on fear. They see Netflix as a perceived threat.

Is releasing these movies in 10 theaters the same day as streaming enough to satisfy traditionalists, or does Netflix need to go the Amazon route and embrace the theatrical model?
Theater distribution has proven to be surprisingly unimportant, because there’s a clear parallel between movies nominated for the Oscars and those sent to Academy members on DVD. Oscar voters are lazy. They’re not going to go see movies in a theater… [they want] to watch it at home. The fact that a movie is or isn’t in theaters, I don’t think even crosses their mind for the most part.

Given that Angelina Jolie is a past winner, a humanitarian, a box office draw — the ideal academy member, in many ways — do you think her status in the industry has potential to change Netflix’s standing with voters? Will they embrace First They Killed My Father?
The verdict is still out on the film for most of the industry, so we don’t know the answer. It depends on her ability to campaign, because there’s a parallel to who’s campaigning and who’s winning… Surprisingly, what matters less is box office success. Moonlight and The Hurt Locker lost money. So that doesn’t matter much anymore. But it does matter that you get these films in the faces of voters. Angelina has proven to be a real trooper. She’s out there pumping hands, slapping backs, and kissing babies, and the Q&A audiences I’ve heard from so far are impressed with her presence, enthusiasm, and accessibility.

These days, is there such a thing as a successful Oscar movie that exists without a campaign?
It’s not all about the campaign, but no film has been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars without a campaign for more than 40 years; the last one was American Graffiti, and it was the No. 1 box office hit of its year, so it was hard to ignore… but the campaign is important. Look at Meryl Streep, who finally won her third Oscar when she got the word out that she had 10 billion nominations, but only two Oscars, while Katharine Hepburn had four. That helped her. The flipside is Mo’Nique, who didn’t campaign for anything and still won. Most of the time, you have to ask for it to get it, especially in Hollywood. They want to see you want them.

The best example of someone who won because he had the best campaign is Eddie Redmayne. Michael Keaton, by all logic, should have won the Oscar in 2015, but Redmayne beat him on the ground, and it was impressive. That’s a classic example of someone who ran the charm offensive and the ground game brilliantly.

Melissa Leo, too! Who can forget her self-funded campaign with all those fabulous furs. She could do it again this year for Novitiate.
Yes! [Laughs] I forgot about that, sure!

Festivals are also important, but reading them is difficult this year. The Shape of Water seemed to take hold firmly out of Venice, but didn’t place among TIFF’s People’s Choice runners-up. And Three Billboards feels like it could be the first People’s Choice winner in six years to break the statistic of winners going on to generate Best Picture heat.
The TIFF result was a shock. But the reason it won was because of the methodology… in the case of Billboards, its win was based on a percentage size of the audience voting, and it played in a smaller venue. So that makes sense. Pundits need to be skeptical [and not assume] that it means the same thing as when Slumdog Millionaire or Room won in recent years.

There’s no clear-cut frontrunner at the moment for Best Picture. Last year, La La Land had already taken hold of the conversation, but isn’t that typically a bad thing for movies because then they get a target on their back?
No, I don’t buy that theory at all. The evidence shows overwhelmingly that if you get out early, it can pay off. The Artist, 12 Years a Slave, American Beauty, these movies were way out front early on, and they just ran the derby. What happened last year… is evidence of the preferential ballot tripping up pundits. La La Land probably had the most No. 1 votes, but Moonlight probably had the most first, second, and third-place rankings. Ditto for Spotlight… historically, yes, somebody could say Zero Dark Thirty was out front, but that tumbled off the radar because of the scandal and controversy surrounding its depiction of torture. So no, once you’re out front, you don’t always stay there, as The Revenant learned, but on the other hand, there was a time when Argo was out front in October of 2012, but then it fell behind Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, and Les Misérables, and pulled back in front at the end of the race.

After people started ignoring Ben Affleck!
Yeah! It was a real race, though. People forget that AMPAS isn’t really judging the best movie of the year; this is Hollywood voting on itself, who they love, who matters, and who’s in and out of their club. They love welcoming newcomers and crowning emerging ingénues like Jennifer Lawrence. That’s a priority for them, so the results give us a fascinating window into the minds of Hollywood insiders.

What are some of those performances and films we should be on the lookout for now?
Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, The Shape of Water, and Call Me By Your Name: those seem like locks. The others still have to prove themselves in the race, including Three Billboards, Lady Bird, and even Blade Runner 2049. That has potential to be this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Another big question mark is Get Out. Could we see a comedic horror film in the mix? There’s a passionate group of support for that movie. The Paul Thomas Anderson movie is still unseen. The Post? Steven Spielberg runs hot and cold at the Oscars, but just when you underestimate him, he comes back with a Bridge of Spies. So you can’t count him out. The Post looks like a made-for-Oscar favorite.

A lot of new members recently told me they’re pulling for Wonder Woman and Patty Jenkins, too.
Yes, I agree! There’s a real hunger to welcome women into the Best Director race.

Even with 1,779 new members invited in the last three years, are we really ready to call this a “new” Academy, or are we still largely dealing with the same Academy who crowned Crash over Brokeback Mountain?
Yes and no… the Academy loves to surprise us. In the past few years, the Academy has turned around remarkably. The fact that two movies since 2012 have won Best Picture with African-American casts is impressive. This year, we have so many films told from a female perspective, like The Shape of Water and Lady Bird, competing for top awards. That’s terrific. There’s less racial diversity at this point in the race among the pundits sizing up the contest, but that doesn’t mean the ponies won’t shift dramatically in the next few months. The verdict is still out, but the early signs are very encouraging.

Finally, what are your current picks in the big six categories?
Best Picture: The Post
Best Actor: Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour
Best Actress: Sally Hawkins – The Shape of Water
Best Director: Guillermo del Toro – The Shape of Water
Best Supporting Actor: Armie Hammer – Call Me By Your Name
Best Supporting Actress: Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird

Call Me by Your Name
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