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A month inside the Oscars hype machine

Barry Hertz tracks this year's wild, up-and-down Academy Awards race from nominations to close of voting, and takes an educated guess at which film will come out on top Sunday night

The Oscar race is a wild, unpredictable, endurance-testing marathon – a multimillion-dollar exercise in vanity, ego and, occasionally, art. From the moment nominations are announced, to the glitzy ceremony itself, the fortunes of nominees can swing up, down and sideways, depending on everything from box-office numbers to shifting cultural and political winds, especially in 2018, the era of #MeToo, #TimesUp and #OscarsSoWhite.

Here, we track the Academy Awards conversation from just before nominations were announced Jan. 23 through the close of voting for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences earlier this week, to offer our best prediction of which film will come out on top Sunday night.

Remember everyone: It's an honour just to be nominated.

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Jan. 18: Even before this year's Oscar nominations were announced, the simmering backlash to Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri boils over thanks to a Wesley Morris-penned essay in The New York Times, which dissects the film's ostensibly progressive themes. "The issues of the day come and go: brutal police, sexual predators, targeted advertising," Morris writes. "It's like a set of postcards from a Martian lured to America by a cable news ticker and by rumors of how easily flattered and provoked we are."

Jan. 20: Although the Producers Guild of America Awards air three days before Oscar nods are announced, the guild is technically the first industry organization to make its voice heard after Academy voters' nomination forms were due Jan. 12. Thus, the PGA's decision to award The Shape of Water its top prize represents a significant window into Oscar thinking, given that the guild and the Academy share members, and that the winner of the PGA Award has matched the eventual best-picture Oscar-winner in 19 of the former's 28 years of existence (or 67 per cent of the time). Still, the PGA's track record hasn't been so hot in recent years, as last year it crowned La La Land, which came up memorably short at the Oscars, and the year before that honoured The Big Short, which lost the Oscar to Spotlight.

Jan. 21: The Screen Actors Guild Awards last year made headlines for the many facial contortions of Winona Ryder as she mentally processed her Stranger Things co-star David Harbour's fiery acceptance speech. This year, there were no such meme-ready moments, unless you count the disbelief on social media over the dominance of Three Billboards. The Martin McDonagh film, as loved as it is loathed, wins SAGs for best actress (Frances McDormand), best supporting actor (Sam Rockwell) and best ensemble, the latter the SAG equivalent of best picture. Notably, the SAG's 100,000-strong membership shares a portion of voters with the Academy – but the odds aren't exactly clear, as only 11 of the guild's best ensemble winners since the awards were established in 1995 (or 47 per cent) have gone on to become best-picture winners at the Oscars.

Jan. 25: In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino says that the film's sequel will tackle the AIDS crisis. The comment could be viewed as a means of addressing a slight criticism of the film – that the 1980s-set same-sex romance completely ignores the AIDS concerns of the era – in the hopes of increasing the movie's long-shot best-picture odds.

Jan. 26: Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, strangely one of the year's lower-key best-picture contenders despite its eight Oscar nominations, triumphs at the American Cinema Editors' Eddie Awards. Nine of the past 13 Eddie winners for best dramatic film (or 67 per cent) have gone on to win best picture at the Oscars – odds that Nolan is no doubt banking on, since his Second World War epic has scored a rash of nominations from various guilds and awards bodies, but few actual statuettes. As they say, though, victory tends to come from the jaws of defeat.

Feb. 1: The Santa Barbara International Film Festival has never been a hot spot for prestige premieres – this year's opening-night selection is Emilio Estevez's The Public, which you will never hear of again – but its early February timing and close physical proximity to Hollywood make it a prime opportunity to gauge the Oscar race. Over the festival's 11 days, nominees Saorise Ronan (Lady Bird), Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project), Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name), Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards) receive various spotlights and SBIFF awards, although with the exception of the near-lock Rockwell, each subject seems a long shot for actual Oscar gold come March 4.

Feb. 2: The Directors Guild of America Awards gives its top award to Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water, virtually confirming the likelihood of him winning the Oscar for best director. In the past 20 years, only three DGA winners failed to repeat the honour at the Academy Awards: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 's Ang Lee, Chicago 's Rob Marshall and Argo 's Ben Affleck, the latter of whom memorably failed to even garner a nomination. Yet, the DGAs also offer a glimpse into the Academy's increasing preference to split the Oscars for best picture and best director: Six filmmakers have won DGA awards for movies that then failed to win the best-picture Oscar, including last year's La La Land.

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Feb. 10: The Writers Guild of America Awards offer some much-needed love for two underappreciated contenders: Get Out, with Jordan Peele winning for best original screenplay, and Call Me By Your Name, with James Ivory winning for best adapted screenplay. But there's a wrinkle: Three Billboards' McDonagh may have well triumphed over Peele, had his film been written under WGA jurisdiction and thus eligible.

Feb. 12: After the WGAs, a clearer standing emerges of the film likely to leave the Oscars empty-handed: Steven Spielberg's The Post. The journalism drama has the fewest nominations among its best-picture competitors, and failed to make a mark at any of the guild awards. Somewhere, the spirit of Richard Nixon is chuckling.

Feb. 14: Matters look similarly dire for Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird, as its sole once-upon-a-time sure-thing bet, best supporting actress Laurie Metcalfe, continues to be overshadowed by I, Tonya's Allison Janney. Also, Lady Bird failed to earn a best editing Oscar nomination – and only two films in the past 38 years have won best picture without also earning an editing nod (the exceptions: Birdman, whose faux-one-take direction was viewed almost as synonymous with its editing, and Ordinary People).

Feb. 17: Three Billboards roars back in the zeitgeist following a deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla. After 17 people are killed by a gunman, activists employ the same tactics used by McDormand's character to decry the lack of firearm legislation in the state, parking three trucks outside of Senator Marco Rubio's office, each boasting a one-sentence message: "Slaughtered in school"; "And still no gun control?"; and "How come, Marco Rubio?" The tactic nabs headlines, but some label the stunt more provocative and insightful than McDonagh's actual film.

Feb. 18: More fuel for the Three Billboards fire, as the film dominates the British Academy Film Awards (known as the BAFTAs). McDonagh's drama wins five trophies, including best film and best British film – quite a feat given it's a drama about America, from an American studio and starring Americans (but written and directed by London-born McDonagh). The BAFTAs might seem an ocean disconnected from the Oscars, but the 7,000-member organization shares about 500 members with the Academy, offering a glimpse into 7 per cent of the latter membership's thinking. Meanwhile, the BAFTAs name Del Toro best director, further confirming The Shape of Water auteur's presumed success at the Oscars.

Feb. 18: Speaking of the BAFTAs, the fact that Dunkirk, Darkest Hour and Phantom Thread – each inarguably more British productions than Three Billboards – leave the BAFTAs near-empty-handed (Dunkirk wins for best sound; Darkest Hour for best actor Gary Oldman and best makeup and hair; Phantom Thread for best costume design) cements those films as being near the bottom of the best-picture heap.

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Feb. 19: Universal makes one last push for Get Out by teaming up with AMC Theatres in the United States to offer free admission to the movie on President's Day in honour of the film's first anniversary.

Feb. 20: As Black Panther continues to dominate the box office, some Academy voters may be tempted to honour that film's cinematographer, Rachel Morrison, for her work on the Oscar-nominated Mudbound (even though it didn't get a nod for best picture). But it's an open question whether support for diversity-forward projects such as Black Panther might also – belatedly and potentially crassly – translate to voter goodwill toward Get Out.

Feb. 20: Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread falls even further down the pole position, as the fifties-set drama, literally about a dressmaker, fails to win the Excellence in Period Film prize at the Costume Designers Guild Awards. (Del Toro's The Shape of Water takes home the top honour.)

Feb. 21: As the final round of Oscar voting begins, the studios behind Lady Bird, Darkest Hour, Phantom Thread and Call Me By Your Name significantly increase their television advertising purchases in Los Angeles and New York to battle the twin Three Billboards-Shape of Water threat.

Feb. 22: Perhaps in a bid to distance Dunkirk from typical studio blockbusters in an era where the Academy leans toward artier, outside-the-system best pictures (see Spotlight and Moonlight), Warner Bros. runs TV ads with producer Emma Thomas saying her Second World War movie "feels like an art film disguised as a studio film."

Feb. 23: When in doubt, look toward the experts: Online betting firm Ladbrokes gives Three Billboards even odds to win best picture, while Darkest Hour and Phantom Thread sit at the bottom, each with 100:1 odds.

Week of Feb. 26: As voting closes Feb. 27, it looks like the best-picture race is Three Billboards' to lose, with Del Toro a lock for best director. But never discount the power of a twist ending.

The 90th Academy Awards air live March 4 at 8 p.m. (ET) on CTV.


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