Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Will “Oppenheimer” Become the Biggest Oscar Winner Since “Slumdog Millionaire?”

A year ago, around this time, the Oscar race was already dominated by eventual Best Picture winner “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” That dominance only increased when it was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, starting the final phase of the Oscar race as an obvious frontrunner in multiple categories. The film snowballed throughout the guild awards, on its way to becoming the most awarded film of all time, and left the ceremony last March with seven golden statuettes in hand- the most since “Gravity” at the 2014 Oscars, nine years earlier. A calendar year since the “Everything Everywhere All At Once” snowball started to gather momentum throughout the winter, we may have an even bigger Oscar threat gaining speed.

Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster “Oppenheimer” led the pack on Oscar nomination morning with a whopping thirteen nominations- the most since “The Shape Of Water” in 2017 and only one shy of tying the all-time record of fourteen (leaving us to further wonder about the omission in Best Visual Effects). While landing the most nominations is no guarantee of eventual success when it comes to winning Oscars (as recent small-haul nomination leaders like “The Power Of The Dog,” “Mank,” “Joker,” and “The Favourite” all remind us), “Oppenheimer” looks exceptionally well positioned to win multiple awards, and will almost certainly be the biggest winner of Oscar night on March 10th.

Let’s take a quick look at where “Oppenheimer” stands at this point in the race. A necessary caveat is the most obvious: the Oscars are a month away, and lots can change in a month (right, “CODA?”). While all major precursor nominations have come out already, many high-impact winners have yet to be announced, especially in the guilds or at the other major televised awards. Anyone familiar with the general outline of an Oscar campaign can tell you just how much even a single win can change a narrative within a race (or many other races!). All that is to say, the outlook at this time of the year can be (and often is) very different from mid-March. Alas, we’re here now, so let’s take a look at where things stand!

At the time of writing, the initial staff consensus at NBP has “Oppenheimer” winning seven Oscars (Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, and Sound). The mathematical Oscars Prediction Model that I have built with my brother, currently making its first live run and having correctly predicted all thirteen of “Oppenheimer’s” nominations, has it winning eight (we have it winning Best Actor for Cillian Murphy). Incredibly, the ceiling for “Oppenheimer’s” eventual Oscar wins doesn’t even cap at eight- it is not hard to imagine at all the film gaining ground and overtaking the top spot in both Best Adapted Screenplay (a tight race across a handful of big Best Picture contenders; a big win at any given precursor could easily break this logjam) and Best Actor (a neck-and-neck race between Cillian Murphy playing the man himself and Paul Giamatti in “The Holdovers“), making nine! It would make history as the first 9-Oscar winner since “The English Patient” at the 1997 Oscars if this were to happen. Other categories, like Best Supporting Actress, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, and Production Design, feel a tad more out of reach at this point in the race.

Everything Everywhere All At Once” really started its tear in the guild awards last year, and “Oppenheimer” looks to be on the exact same trajectory. With its inclusion at the ACE awards, it has received nominations at every single guild that it is competitive in (yes, including for Best Visual Effects!), save for the Writers Guild of America, whose nominations won’t be released until late February (though this should be no obstacle, barring a remarkable snub). It is also not as if the awards mantel for the “Oppenheimer” team is sitting empty, waiting for the potential onslaught; it’s already begun. With five Golden Globes, eight Critics Choice Awards, and other notable wins with other critics groups and early-season precursors, “Oppenheimer” is clearly the current season’s juggernaut before many things have even been awarded.

To quantify this more, our Oscars Model has a couple of behind-the-scenes general “strength” metrics, which all nominations and wins into all-encompassing numbers. In the “nomination strength” score, “Oppenheimer” currently sits at 54.15, the single highest in our model spanning ten years, and will only continue to go up as the season progresses. For some necessary context, mid-40s is truly elite (and fairly reliably earns you double-digit nominations or close to it), and this is already a higher score than awards steamrollers like the aforementioned “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” and the only other films to crack 50, “The Shape Of Water” and “La La Land.” But this score, impressive as it is, is kind of unhelpful at this point; this is just nomination strength, which is irrelevant since we already know its nomination outcome. We have a similar score that shows strength toward wins, and “Oppenheimer” is already impressive there, a month and a half out! Here, a score above 15 is remarkable, and “Oppenheimer” is already one of the eight above that mark, ranked 7th in the last decade already at 15.69- and again, will only go up from here as more awards come in before Oscar night. For those curious, the ones in the top six are lowest-to-highest: “Roma” (16.43), “The Shape Of Water” (16.82), “Dune” (18.27), “Gravity” (19.59), “Everything Everywhere All At Once” (19.78), and “La La Land” (21.08). Notice, too, that many a Best Picture winner from the last decade scored lower than “Oppenheimer” does already.

All of this is to say that you are absolutely correct if you feel like “Oppenheimer” is uniquely poised to dominate this Oscars race. By anecdotal, statistical, and historical metrics, we could be looking at a film about to make history in several ways. While “Everything Everywhere All At Once” ruins the thunder of the seven-win accomplishment by only being a year old, there is a very real chance that “Oppenheimer” can clear the bar one level higher at eight, maybe nine. If it did manage to take home eight Oscars, it would be the sixteenth in Academy history to win at least that many. A film has not broken the ceiling at eight Oscar wins since the 2009 Oscars when Best Picture winner “Slumdog Millionaire” took home eight statuettes across thirteen nominations. Even this is not a truly fair comparison since back in 2009, there were two separate sound categories, with “Slumdog Millionaire” winning Best Sound Mixing but not Best Sound Editing. One would have to think “Oppenheimer,” a film that looks well-positioned to sweep in this year’s Best Sound category, would have a solid chance at winning both categories if they were still split today.

What Christopher Nolan and his team accomplished with this film is really remarkable, artistically and technically, and there is little doubt that the Academy will give it its due recognition when the time comes. This is not at all to diminish the merit of “Oppenheimer,” but one can’t help but wonder what many of these races would look like in a world where “Dune: Part Two” remains a 2023 release. In its absence, the very grounded and veristic “Oppenheimer” is the closest thing we have to a “Gravity,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” or “Dune“-esque technical juggernaut on this year’s slate. I am confident “Oppenheimer” would have held its own in many of these categories in any given year. Some fortunate timing may have cleared the way for it to pick up a historic number of wins.

We’ll have to see how it all shakes out; there’s still lots of race to run. All eyes are on PGA, SAG and BAFTA (Christopher Nolan is widely predicted to win the DGA). From the post-nominations vantage point, though, it sure seems like our nomination leader will clean up Oscar wins fairly strongly for the second year in a row. If “Oppenheimer” does follow in the footsteps of “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” they would be the first consecutive nomination leaders to convert into win leaders since “La La Land” and “The Shape Of Water” in 2017-18. Of course, major guild rulings, televised award surprises, or some “February Surprise” (to alter presidential campaign trail terminology) could change many of these races before Oscar night. Indeed, last year’s “Everything Everywhere All At Once” was a bigger Oscar winner than we had seen in years- that is, until somebody builds a bigger Oscar winner.

How many Oscars do you think “Oppenheimer” will win at the 96th Academy Awards?┬áDo you think there’s anything that could defeat it at this stage in the race?┬áPlease let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account. Also, please check out their latest Oscar winner predictions here and the 2023 precursor awards tally here.

You can follow Cole and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @CurtissOnFilm

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