Ladbrokes, the English bookmaker, will give you 200/1 odds that Bridge of Spies wins best picture at this year's Academy Awards. The more conservative wager may be The Revenant, which enjoys an optimistic 1/2. But there's a better way to make money predicting the Oscars – a way with higher stakes and more favourable odds. You needn't bother with the bookmakers. You need to go all in with a blog.
Sasha Stone started writing about the Oscars online in 1994. She was an early raconteur of the Internet, prattling avidly on Usenet and AOL chat rooms, where the movie buffs tended to gather. "I spent about five years completely immersed in it," she recalls. They would exchange opinions, pen reviews, furiously debate. And they would predict the Oscars. "I remember the Titanic year. I was so sure Titanic was going to win best picture. Everyone else said no, it's going to be L.A. Confidential." Stone was right, of course. This victory inspired in her the confidence of expertise.
Stone soon parlayed it into a legitimate platform: Oscarwatch, the website she founded in 1999. She didn't know anything about running a website – at the time hardly anybody did. "I taught myself HTML," she says. "I put together little stories. I manually built the jump page. There were no comments. There still weren't bloggers." She credits her success to the rise of reality television: If "suddenly anyone could be a star," maybe anyone could be an authority, too. "And who am I? I'm just a single mom with a baby and a modem."
Today, the baby is an 18-year-old, and Awards Daily, as Oscarwatch is now called, is a flourishing enterprise. Its purview might strike the ordinary moviegoer as trivial: It covers all things awards-related virtually year-round, from early spring festivals to the late-winter arrival of the Oscar ceremony itself. No matter how frivolous a news item may seem – "Official Photo From The 2016 Academy Luncheon" was a recent headline on the site's front page – Awards Daily will run it. And the Oscar-insatiable will read it.
Scrutinizing the minutiae of the awards race is no longer a hobby for Stone. It's a vocation. And she is among an elite group whose job it inexplicably is to write about the Academy Awards full-time. They're known as Oscar bloggers. Few people in show business are quite so attentively followed – or so vehemently loathed.
"There's a certain trainwreck entertainment value in reading Oscar pundits like Stone and [Jeffrey] Wells," says Glenn Kenny, a film critic for The New York Times. (Kenny lambastes Wells on Twitter regularly, and describes him as "like William F. Buckley crossed with Daffy Duck.") "There is no doubt that they coarsen the discourse. It is a little sad."
It isn't difficult to understand the source of the animosity. It derives from the nature of the job, which seems to combine the qualities of several distinctly odious fields: tabloid journalism, pseudoscience, punditry. More to the point, they make a comfortable living – a Vulture profile from 2014 described Stone's annual salary as in the "low six figures" – obsessing every day over an event most people think about only one night a year. The bitterness is a byproduct of the question everybody wants to ask: How is this a job?
"I work 12– to 14-hour days," says Wells, a colleague of Stone's and, in the field of Oscar blogging, a notorious object of public loathing. (In recent years he's been taken to task for misogyny, body shaming and even cruelty toward the disabled.) "Everybody's always checking their phone, right? Well I'm constantly doing it, because there might be something that's happening that I want to jump into." Wells, a former columnist for People magazine and contributor to Entertainment Weekly, runs Hollywood Elsewhere – a repository, he says, of "commentary, opinions and a smart-ass attitude."
Hollywood Elsewhere began in 2004, after Wells was let go from Movie Poop Shoot, the entertainment portal founded by filmmaker Kevin Smith. At the time investors told Wells he'd have "more luck raising money for a Palestinian terrorist site than another movie site." But he persevered – and it quickly paid off. "I was able to sell advertising, based on my popularity, pretty early on," he says. "My first ad was from Fox Searchlight. It started to get comfortable and I've been doing reasonably well ever since. Best I have in my life, really."
Visit any Oscar blogger's homepage – including Tom O'Neil's Gold Derby, Pete Hammond's column on Deadline Hollywood, and the awards-focused "verticals" of Variety, Indiewire and the Hollywood Reporter – and you'll find yourself beleaguered by ads. They're not directed at you or me: These "For Your Consideration" banners, garishly exhorting us to vote for this or that film, are meant for any readers who happen to be members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (or, in a pinch, other awards guilds). The ads are the source of the Oscar blogger's ample income. But their presence suggests a shadow intrigue: Are the studios only buying space, or is the loyalty of the blogger similarly for sale?
"It can be corrupt," Stone admits. "It's a sort of dance you have to do. At the same time, it's kind of unfair to think that bloggers are being bribed by the big studios. We really can't be. That's one of the problems with the whole scene for the studios: They can't control the message. They can give Jeff Wells a whole bunch of money and he's still gonna trash the movie." The Hollywood Elsewhere homepage seems to shore up this view. Amid a cataract of ads for The Big Short reads a proclamation by Wells: The Big Short is dead in the water. There are no doubt better ways to keep an advertiser pleased.
"I just don't think I'm going to be worth anything if I soft-pedal it," Wells says. "There are some in this racket who just try to kiss everybody's ass. Their opinions are meaningless. You have to be somebody." And who is Wells? "I have an identity as a person who is pretty blunt and pretty straight about things, though I have whored myself out from time to time. "
Wells, if nothing else, is passionate about his duty. "What I love about this job," he says, "is that it's not just about the Oscars. It's about the whole season. Where would we be without an awards season? We'd be seeing shit movies for 12 months of the year and there wouldn't be any quality aspect to theatrical cinema. It would all be on cable."
Stone seems somewhat less enamoured of her position. "I hate it, actually," she confesses. "But this is how I ended up making money. For me it's pretty much a seven-day-a-week job. It's exhausting." Nor do the Academy Awards themselves do much for her any more. "The fun has long since gone out of it. I'm never happy with how it all turns out. But what you have to remember is that it's a good thing not to agree with a large consensus. It means you're an original thinker."