11 Lessons from the Oscars Flubs, Snubs and Legos

The Academy Awards offered insight into what it takes to win — and what to avoid in putting on a show

The 87th Academy Awards may have gone largely as expected, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t learn some lessons on Sunday night. For instance:

1. Oscar voters really loved a Sundance movie … just not the one we thought they loved.
Going into the show, the conventional wisdom had “Birdman” in a tight race with Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” for Best Picture, and that Linklater had a real shot at Best Director, Patricia Arquette“>Patricia Arquette had sewn up Best Supporting Actress and Sandra Adair was a shoo-in for Best Film Editing.

Arquette won, all right, but Linklater lost to Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the editing Oscar went to “Whiplash,” and “Boyhood” also came up short in the Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor races.

As for Editing and Supporting Actor, winner Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” also won Sound Editing to claim three awards on the night. “Whiplash” and “Boyhood” had both premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014, and while the film that spent months as an Oscar frontrunner had to settle for a single award, the Sundance movie that was expected to win just one (for J.K. Simmons) turned into one of the biggest winners of the night.

2. The guilds really matter.
All season long, many of us Oscar watchers figured the Academy’s preferential system of best-picture vote counting would help “Boyhood” and hurt “Birdman,” making it a close race even though the latter film was winning most of the guild awards.

But here’s the bottom line: If you win awards from the Producers Guild, Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild, the American Society of Cinematographers, the Art Directors Guild, the Cinema Audio Society, the Costume Designers Guild, the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild and the Motion Picture Sound Editors, that pretty much demonstrates across-the-board support (and, crucially, the below-the-line support) needed to win Best Picture.

3. Even when voters spread the wealth, they don’t spread it far.

For the first time ever in a Best Picture field of more than five nominees, every film nominated for the top award went home with an Oscar. And spreading things out even more, no film won more than four awards, and only three — “Birdman,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Whiplash” — won more than two.

But still, if you exclude the documentary, animated-feature and foreign-language categories, only 10 of the 33 nominated features went home with awards. That’s much better than last year, when only seven out of 40 movies were awarded — but it still means that more than two-thirds of all nominated films went home empty-handed.

Of the movies that weren’t nominated for Best Picture, only two won awards: “Interstellar” for visual effects and “Still Alice” for lead actress.

In other words: If you wanted to win, you better have been nominated for Best Picture.

4. Come back, Disney, all is forgiven.

Back in the days before the Academy created the Best Animated Feature category, Disney and Pixar routinely won awards for Best Animated Short. But once the bigger category was inaugurated in 2002, their victories stopped abruptly: The smaller group of voters who watched all the nominated shorts and voted in the category clearly decided that Disney/Pixar belonged in the big leagues and the bigger category, and consistently gave the shorts prize to smaller movies.

But three years ago, the rules were changed. Voters no longer had to attend special screenings to vote for animated shorts; instead, every Academy member was sent a screener of the nominees, and everyone was eligible to vote. As in the other categories, the Academy simply used the honor system, asking voters to please watch the nominees before voting.

And with a much larger voting base, the anti-Disney bias seems to have disappeared. In the last three years, Disney has won twice: with “Paperman” two years ago and “Feast” this year.

Suddenly, being the most-seen nominee because you’re attached to a big Disney or Pixar feature (“Feast” was shown before “Big Hero 6”) was a boon, not a liability.

5. But sorry, DreamWorks Animation, we’ve still got issues with you.
While Disney has gained more acceptance in one animated category, DWA is now mired in a losing streak in another. After winning the first Best Animated Feature Oscar for “Shrek” in 2002, the company has lost in the category nine times — including Sunday, when its “How to Train Your Dragon 2” was the prohibitive frontrunner courtesy of its Golden Globe win and its sweep of the Annie Awards.

Instead, Disney’s “Big Hero 6” took the top prize — and DWA, despite waging an aggressive and no doubt expensive campaign, is wondering what it has to do to win another Oscar.

6. A host with the right skill set doesn’t matter as much as winners with something to say.
What are we going to remember from Sunday’s Oscar ceremony? I’m guessing it’ll be Patricia Arquette’s call for wage equality for women (and Meryl Streep leaping to her feet in support), Graham Moore’s admission that he attempted suicide at age 16 because he felt he didn’t belong, Common and John Legend’s eloquent words about civil rights, even Pawel Pawlikowski’s stubborn refusal to let the orchestra play him off after he won for the foreign-language film “Ida.”

Compared to those moments, host Neil Patrick Harris’ relatively flat punchlines barely registered. You can argue that the host has what it takes to be a better emcee than he was on Sunday (he’s certainly shown as much on other awards shows), but in the end, an Oscar show needs good winners as much as it needs a good host.

Sunday’s show, at least, had the latter.

7. The Oscar show is not a musical.
When does the sight of Lady Gaga nailing a medley from “The Sound of Music” feel as if it’s a waste of time? When it comes in the fourth hour of an awards show and has nothing to do with the purpose of the evening, which is to honor the films of 2014, not look back at the ones of 1965.

Yes, she sang the songs really well. Yes, Julie Andrews’ appearance at the end of Gaga’s performance was an emotional high point. But as the eighth musical performance of the night, after Harris’ opening, the five nominated songs and Jennifer Hudson’s performance of a spectacularly nondescript song following the In Memoriam sequence (not during it, which would have made more sense), many viewers had reached the point of “enough, already.”

8. Best Picture clips may have outlived their usefulness.
Back in the old days, clips of the Best Picture nominees were an integral part of the Oscar show, and a way to give viewers a glimpse of movies they might not have seen. But at one point they were ditched from the show because the plethora of entertainment shows means that everybody has seen most of these clips numerous times already, so what’s the point?

But the clips were there on Sunday — and worse, they were sandwiched into awkward groupings. (“American Sniper” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel?”)

It may be time to recognize that just because something has appeared on past Oscar shows, it doesn’t need to appear on future ones.

9. Delaying a payoff for three and a half hours puts too much pressure on the gag.
Harris’ running bit about how his predictions were in a sealed box onstage was stretched out over the course of the show, to the point where I lost count of the number of Twitter users who wrote, in effect, “This better have a great payoff.”

And truth be told, Harris is a pretty good magician — the stunt was a typical magician’s trick, and he pulled off the switch it involves quite deftly. But you know what? Nobody cared at that point in the show. We didn’t want to admire Neil’s sleight of hand — we wanted to know who was going to win Best Picture.

10. You probably shouldn’t play favorites in musical presentations.
Here’s a rule of thumb: When you’re planning an Oscars show, it’s best to treat all nominees as equal. Which means that if the performers of four of the nominated songs are asked to cut them down to two minutes, you should probably do the same for the fifth song.

And if that fifth song happens to be “Glory,” and you want to do a full-length production number that will bring the house down — well, in that case it’s probably best to let the other songs go full-length too, unless you want to be viewed as playing favorites.

I mean, the other four songwriters had to lose to “Glory” anyway — it’s just rubbing salt in the wound to make them sit there and watch all 3:40 of that song after cutting their own songs in half.

(For the record: “Lost Stars” and “Grateful” were actually cut in half from their original versions, while “Everything In Awesome” and “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” were trimmed by about 30 seconds each. And “Glory” was shortened by about 50 seconds from its original 4:30 length.)

11. “The Lego Movie” may have been snubbed, but it provided the night’s best giveaway.
During the “Everything Is Awesome” production number, a handful of luminaries in the audience were spotted with Oscars made out of Lego bricks. They were great props for the number — but it turned out that they were more than that, because Felicity Jones and Emma Stone were still toting their Lego Oscars at the Governors Ball afterwards.

It might not have been as nifty an accessory as a real Oscar, but it was definitely the next most awesome thing.

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