LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - The 87th Academy Awards are over, and the campaign season (which was equally brutal, mean and fascinating) provides several lessons.
1. Festivals are a big deal.
This year it was unanimous: All eight best-pic contenders had debuted at a festival. For the past five years, it was 60 percent-80 percent of the top contenders. But in the decade since the Oscar ceremony shifted its date a month earlier, festival platforms are increasingly valuable. "Boyhood" and "Whiplash" bowed at the January 2014 Sundance; the other best-pic contenders bowed at various fests (Cannes, New York, etc.) culminating in the Nov. 11 launches of "American Sniper" and "Selma" at the AFI Fest (an increasingly important strategic option). Fests offer a high-profile launch in terms of global press and, crucially, can start the want-to-see buzz among industry voters.
2. Campaigning: The X Factor.
Every year there are more meet-the-filmmakers receptions and post-screening Q&As. And the results: a mixed message. Patricia Arquette, J.K. Simmons and Eddie Redmayne were everywhere. On the other hand, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was busy working and was not on the circuit. Yet all of them won. Richard Linklater and Michael Keaton were tireless campaigners, but went home empty-handed. No one will ever know whether the handshaking and personal contact helped gain even a few crucial votes. But when there are ties (as happened most recently in 2012 sound editing), strategists are reminded that a single vote can make the difference. So nobody wants to lose out on even one vote.
3. Rules were made to be broken.
A lot of online pundits predicted "Birdman" couldn't win, because it lacked a nomination for editing: Every best-picture winner since 1980's "Ordinary People" had boasted at least a nomination in the important editing category. Similarly, many predicted Alexandre Desplat would split the vote, since he had two noms in one category. And others predicted that the popularity of "Birdman" and "Boyhood" meant that one would win for picture, the other for director. This leads us to point 4:
4. Oscar pundits are full of hot air.
On Feb. 23, the day after the Academy Awards, there was a lot of talk about "Birdman" having "turned the tide" with its PGA-SAG wins, after "Boyhood" had won so many critics prizes. But critics and guild members are completely different voters. For all we know, members of the PGA might have been in "Birdman's" corner for months, but didn't have the chance to voice their opinion until January. So Oscar punditry is thoughtful, but often based on nothing but hunch. And that means every Oscar pundit -- including us.