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In the Most Competitive Oscar Season Ever, Bloggers Are Keeping Score

Tom O’Neil, Gold Derby: “Leo DiCaprio will pounce as the wolf of Oscar night.”

Across the dim expanse of the Musso and Frank Grill, a landmark Hollywood steakhouse frequented by Fitzgerald, Bukowski, Garbo, Clooney, and Pitt, the blogger Tom O’Neil waves from a red leather booth. “I brought show and tell!” he says in a voice of fine gravel. Standing by the bread basket are a Golden Globe inscribed with the typo HOLLYWOOD ­FOREING PRESS (Ben-Hur, 1959) and a wobbly, half-blackened Oscar (Best Set Decoration, Anna and the King of Siam, 1946).

O’Neil, who owns the 14-year-old awards-prediction site Gold Derby, looks like a caricature you’d find on the wall at the Palm: laugh lines, swept-back hair, pug nose, impish squint. “What I love about it,” he says, gesturing to his Oscar, “is that Hollywood is fighting over a merely gold-plated statuette that tarnishes easily. Is it meant to be ironic?” Note that Oscar is plunging a sword into a reel of film. “Is it just to cover up his genitalia,” or is he literally skewering the industry?

“Hi, honey,” yells Sasha Stone, approaching our booth. “White man’s burden, Lloyd, white man’s burden. That’s a quote from The Shining,” she explains—a reference to the ghostly grandeur of Musso and Frank at 4:30 p.m. She has long, feathery hair, a gray blazer, and a wry smile. “Tom and I are like family.”

“We cling to each other,” says O’Neil, “like orphans in the storm.”

Stone, who founded OscarWatch.com in 1999 (it became Awards Daily after the Academy sued), is Eve to O’Neil’s Adam in a strange new world that barely existed ten years ago. Today there are at least a dozen “Oscar bloggers,” writers who make a living gaming out the prospects of awards contenders. Some, like Stone, own their blogs and personally solicit voter-targeted “For Your Consideration” ads for the same movies they evaluate. Others work for larger sites with separate sales offices but might take speaking fees from guilds or studios. All of them thrive on an Oscar industry whose marketing budgets have migrated from the dwindling print trades (Variety scrapped its daily edition last year) to cheaper online venues.

They’re a motley and contentious lot, comprising shameless advocates, stats-­obsessed would-be Nate Silvers, and seasoned journalists sourced up with a few dozen of the 6,000-odd producers, directors, actors, cinematographers, and other professionals who vote in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They might also cover the Emmys or distribution deals or the art darlings of Cannes, but when the aspen leaves start to turn in August on the eve of the Telluride Film Festival, the pack closes in on the big prize a mere six months away.

No film buzz is too preliminary or perfunctory to attract the speculation of the Oscar blogger. Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells predicted glory for Saving Mr. Banks last May on the basis of a leaked script alone; Stone rated Labor Day a “sure bet” for a nod during Telluride, which is also where Deadline Hollywood’s Pete Hammond declared Prisoners an “Instant Oscar Contender.” Some of their predictions bear out, of course, but in the aggregate they serve to hype the importance of the movies and, ultimately, the process itself. The cheeky tag line of Kristopher Tapley’s In Contention blog reads, “No one needs awards coverage this deep.” Maybe so, but the industry wants it—pays for it—and bloggers are happy to oblige.

Every controversy is quickly spun into the 24-hour Oscar cycle. A few short hours after Dylan Farrow renewed her molestation charges, there was Scott Feinberg, The Hollywood Reporter’s tireless columnist (and this year’s most accurate predictor so far): “Dylan Farrow’s Op-Ed Targets Woody Allen But Could Hurt Cate Blanchett More (Analysis).”

Blanchett’s leading role in Allen’s Blue Jasmine was supposed to be the one ­Oscar lock in an exceptionally volatile 2013 race. January’s snub-heavy nominations spoiled major-category predictions across the board—no Inside Llewyn Davis, no Mr. Banks, no Robert Redford or Emma Thompson or Oprah Winfrey. Producer Harvey Weinstein, ruthless king of the Oscar race, had three of his four contenders shut out of Best Picture, including August: Osage County. Weinstein called it “the most competitive season I’ve ever seen.” But then, who the hell had ever heard of Best Song nominee “Alone Yet Not Alone?”

This is all manna for the bloggers, ready with an explanation for every twist. Thompson suffered from the backlash against Mr. Banks for whitewashing Disney; Redford wasn’t available for interviews, while Bruce Dern and Jonah Hill did every meet-and-greet on both coasts; August: Osage County just sucked. Now, in the home stretch known in ad circles as Phase II (extended this year to wait out the Olympics), the narratives proliferate: Best Supporting Actress nominee Lupita Nyong’o, the red-carpet ingénue, may well hold off the momentum of old-hat Oscar fixture Jennifer Lawrence; Dallas Buyers Club’s Jared Leto lost the most weight and wore eyeliner, so he’s a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor; Matthew McConaughey will get Best Actor for his mid-career “McConaughnaissance,” unless Dern wins over Academy geezers; Best Actress is still Blanchett’s to lose (though Amy Adams is coming on strong), and Woody Allen probably won’t lose it for her. As for “Alone Yet Not Alone,” Pete Hammond reported that its composer, a former Academy governor, had lobbied fellow members for it. Thanks in part to his reporting, it was later disqualified—another scandal.

Least predictable of all is Best Picture, where American Hustle, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave have been in a dead heat for much of the season. Sasha Stone started her site to answer the existential Best Picture question: Why did Citizen Kane lose to How Green Was My Valley? She and O’Neil have come to believe a good prognosticator is a cynical one. “Now we know why Citizen Kane lost,” says O’Neil; it was the better movie. “And it would lose all over again this year,” says Stone. She blogged for free for eight years while working as a teacher’s aide and janitor—“literally cleaning shit off the walls in Van Nuys.” Today she makes low six figures, but sometimes thinks, I would put it all back in the bottle, if I could, just to love movies again.

Stone has mostly traded in prediction for impassioned essays, but she still plays the game, and she’s certain that 12 Years a Slave will lose to Gravity on March 2.

“I don’t buy that,” says O’Neil. Most of his 26 “experts” on Gold Derby—largely Oscar bloggers—have 12 Years to win.

“But there’s no historical precedent for it at all,” Stone parries, “and I’ll tell you why. Gladiator-Traffic; Brokeback-Crash. What wins?”

“I think that they want their Best Pictures important,” says O’Neil. “That’s what The King’s Speech was.”

The King’s Speech wasn’t important!”

It goes on like this, O’Neil and Stone each predicting the defeat of their own favorite this year—an argument premised on the triumph of mediocrity, the perennial loss of Citizen Kane.

As Musso and Frank fills up with bearded Jared Leto look-alikes, the cynicism grows to encompass Oscar blogging today—relatively flush, buoyed by outlets ranging from the New York Times to a tabloidized Hollywood Reporter to this very blog. Many younger writers were protégés of the old-timers. Kris Tapley and Scott Feinberg both began as contributors to Awards Daily. Deadline Hollywood’s Hammond, who in 2002 wrote a story for Variety headlined “Awards Sites Mushroom, But Who Reads Them?,” might well be the most widely read awards blogger of them all.

Today’s Oscar bloggers are writing from inside the house. You may not know their names, but most everyone in Hollywood does—loves them, hates them, courts them. At junkets they attend what one of them calls “Oscar Blogger Days.” They’re at every festival and VIP after-party, with a hand on Melissa Leo’s shoulder, a joke for Alfonso Cuarón, or a whisper into the ear of George Clooney’s publicist. When they write something negative or leave an actor out of their predictions, they hear about it, a lot.

“There’s a career now,” says Stone, “a whole industry that wasn’t there when I started, and to a degree I’m still considered a bottom-feeder, an outsider. But somebody like Scott Feinberg, people think of him as a journalist even though he’s an Oscar blogger … But it’s shameful of us to even criticize, because we started this whole monster.”

“I know,” says O’Neil. “If we were decent parents, we’d take responsibility, and drown our evil spawn.”

If Stone and O’Neil were the Adam and Eve of Oscar blogging, frenemies David Poland and Jeffrey Wells were its Cain and Abel. (Which one was Cain depends on whom you ask.) Poland started Movie City News in 2002 and began broadcasting his jaundiced perspective (recently he called the Golden Globes “a bottom-feeder … in a golden fish tank” and skipped Sundance because he couldn’t score an express pass). He also aggregated predictions via “Gurus o’ Gold” and was among the first solo acts to solicit “For Your Consideration” ads.

Two years later, Wells started Hollywood Elsewhere, which is not just a film blog but an idiosyncratic document of the film blogger’s life. Interspersed with raves and pans are broad caricatures (Academy voters are “lazy sheep”) and complaints about junket accommodations. An early post on his recent trip (subsidized by Fox Searchlight) to the Berlinale film festival concluded: “I lost my ticket [to the premiere] due to changing my hotel room inside Berlin’s Grand Wyndham Hotel twice since late last night … I’m now in a nice spacious suite. The squeaky wheel always gets the grease.”

Wells is often derided in Hollywood. Some Oscar campaigners avoid working directly with him, and Disney and Warner Bros. withheld ads for long stretches. But he’s also praised by auteurs like Cuarón, J. J. Abrams, and Guillermo del Toro for being genuinely, helplessly sui generis.

Meeting me at the West Hollywood Le Pain Quotidien, Wells immediately insists we change tables. Occasionally mistaken for Christopher Walken, he wears tinted blue glasses low on his nose, a Zara jacket with an upturned collar, and pointed black suede shoes acquired in Cannes. To “those who are dull and coarse enough to ask my age,” he says “I can easily get away with having been born in 1956.” Fudging it helps professionally, and “with girlfriends, you do better.” When I ask about the lowest point of his career—in 2007, a leaked email revealed that he’d asked director James Mangold for topless stills of the actress Vinessa Shaw—he calls the outrage over it a “complete denial of human nature.” But he regrets the request. He says he may not have done it today—he quit drinking in 2012—but then quickly adds, “maybe I would have.”

“I had father issues,” he says. “I’m a rebellious person. If the internet hadn’t come along, I’d be in a very, very bad place.”

Stone met Wells at a screening in 2006. “The first thing he did was stare at my chest and ask me out,” she says. “So we had a two-week affair, and that ended badly.” But she’s stayed friends, against the advice of colleagues. “He’s disrespectful to women, the disabled, people who are overweight—all of this is true. But all of those guys who condemn him have treated me like shit … All things being equal, I do consider him a friend in a very sleazy, disgusting business full of liars and whores.”

That business changed rapidly after 2005, when the L.A Times, looking to harness “For Your Consideration” ads, started its own Oscar blog, the Envelope. In short order, the paper hired O’Neil, Steve Pond, Pete Hammond, and recent Brandeis graduate Scott Feinberg, helping to turn a hobby into a profession.

But there were too many bloggers doing too little at the L.A. Times, and before long they all left, taking their newfound credibility and access with them. O’Neil turned Gold Derby into a commercial enterprise, Pond went to The Wrap, Feinberg eventually wound up at The Hollywood Reporter, and Hammond was hired by Nikki ­Finke’s Deadline Hollywood.

“[Sources] rush over to him, and they elbow Scott Feinberg out of the way,” says Finke, who—even after her noisy departure from Deadline Hollywood—can’t speak highly enough of Hammond. “Tom O’Neil, who cares? It’s Pete they want to talk to.” The rest of the bunch are “nonentities,” “charging $20” for ads. It was actually Deadline Hollywood’s ad-savvy publisher, Lynne Segall, who recommended Hammond. He was the industry-friendly antidote to Finke’s slash-and-burn style, catnip for Oscar ads. “The studios allocate a certain amount of money to these places,” says Finke. “Once you’re in the circle of money, you’re in like Flynn.”

With his deep Academy connections, encyclopedic awards knowledge, and upbeat perspective, Hammond pleases everyone but the haters. One website ranks him second only to Peter Travers as Hollywood’s biggest “quote whore” due to his overwhelmingly positive reviews.

Hammond’s roots are in television; his writing credits include The Arsenio Hall Show and NBC’s “One to Grow On” PSAs. Corn-fed and business-sensible, he expresses his full personality, his almost aggressive charm, in his voice. His percussive laugh can be disconcerting at close range but projects well from a stage, where he spends a lot of his time. He moderates roughly 75 talks a year, sometimes for nonprofits, often for the Screen Actors Guild, and occasionally at the behest of studios. Asked about the propriety of taking honorariums from the people he covers, he says, “I am the Norma Rae of the Q&A. I believe you should be paid for your work.”

Hammond insists he’s a breed apart from bloggers who finagle their own ads from studios, but on the half-charted internet, everyone sets his own boundaries. Stone admits she might “shut up about a movie I hate” if it’s advertising on her site, but she refuses to join the Broadcast Film Critics Association, which votes on the Oscar-season Critics’ Choice Awards, while Pond and Hammond are members. Feinberg still owns the blog he started after he left the Times—ScottFeinberg.comwhich sells ads and runs links to his Reporter posts. “I have a third party handle it,” he explains, “for me to avoid any conflicts of interest.” Wells hired someone named Sean Jacobs to sell his ads, but that turns out to be a pseudonym for his son, Jett. This year he’s also began selling advertorials at $5,000 a pop, but only for movies he loves.

None of them is getting rich, but what every Oscar blogger ultimately wants is to have a measurable impact on a byzantine system. Occasionally, they do. Javier Bardem chalked up his surprise nomination for Biutiful to Steve Pond’s The Wrap article “Will Somebody Please Nominate Javier Bardem?” Cynthia Nixon thanked Tom O’Neil for picking out the strongest episodes to submit for her Sex and the City Emmy. Every blogger has a juicy anecdote about The Star Who Listened, but good luck finding The Star Who Confirms It.

Still, they aren’t deluded about their influence. “You really sound like an asshole if you think you have something to do with it,” says Wells, an effusive proponent of The Wolf of Wall Street. “It just keeps [the movies] in the ether.” Via podcasts, videos, and vicious Twitter battles, the bloggers work en masse, a school of backbiting fish swimming at cross-purposes but often in tandem. Collectively, they narrate the horse race, the cycle of hype and backlash. They blame 12 Years’ uncertain fate on “best of the year” raves in September. Much better to come in late, like American Hustle (though now it’s flagging, too). Stone admits to underplaying 12 Years’ chances in hopes that it’ll pass Gravity on the last lap.

The publicity consultants to whom studios outsource their campaigns are skeptical even of this aggregate effect. With so much on the line, money to burn, and a welter of cheap sites to patronize, their first principle is Do No Harm: “If you throw them some shekels, they’ll leave you alone,” says one. Others value them for the very thing that annoys them most: their excessive volume. “I do not believe that the bloggers convince voters to vote,” says one campaigner, “but they can make noise, and we just have to get voters to watch the movies.” The goal is for Academy members to see them in a theater, rather than on a DVD screener while doing dishes—which would hardly do Gravity justice.

With their blanket coverage, bloggers also amplify the perception that some actors just want it more. Ben Affleck, Cuarón, Nyong’o, and Dern are all credited with helping their chances by making themselves ubiquitous, and the bloggers chronicle every handshake. (Some still fondly remember an intimate Telluride lunch with George Clooney in 2011.)

In this regard, Melissa Leo belongs in her own category: a darling of the bloggers ever since 2008’s Frozen River. When she first started hearing from them, “those guys were just figuring out how to use the internet” and she was just learning how to use the media. “I thought they knew what they were doing and I was just a fish out of water.” She traveled to Brandeis for a Q&A with Feinberg and sent out thank-you postcards. Her friend Thelma Adams, now a Yahoo blogger, urged Sony to buy Frozen River at Sundance. Leo understands, as the consultants do, that even negative coverage is no big deal. “I’ve always suspected Tom [O’Neil] wrote something not very nice”—about her “diva fits”—“just so people would say, ‘No, she’s really nice!’ ”

When Leo irked her studio by taking out a rogue “For Your Consideration” ad for Best Supporting Actress in The Fighter, the bloggers had her back. “In Defense of My Friend, Melissa Leo,” ran Scott Feinberg’s post on the affair. “They all love to be around us people who act in movies,” she says. “That makes this old actress feel good.”

Late last month at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Stone and Wells ran into Feinberg, a compact bundle of nervous energy, in the lobby of the grand, 2,000-seat Arlington Theater. Wells was quickly distracted by a sleek blonde in a burgundy leather jacket who said she was an Academy member. “She probably thinks he’s Chris Walken,” said Feinberg. Stone would later interview her for Awards Daily, reporting that she hadn’t seen Gravity yet, was moved by 12 Years a Slave, and loved American Hustle best. So there was one out of 6,000 accounted for.

Santa Barbara doesn’t premiere many buzzy films, but its main events are Q&A “tributes” to people who usually turn out to be Oscar nominees—at a time when final ballots are about to go out and in a place where many Academy members live. This year its honorees include David O. Russell, Blanchett, Dern, and Scorsese (as well as Oprah and Redford; Emma Thompson canceled after her snub). Among its rotating cast of celebrity-friendly interviewers, the two perennials are critic Leonard Maltin and blogger Pete Hammond. (Santa Barbara doesn’t pay its moderators.) Feinberg interviewed Daniel Day-Lewis last year but wasn’t slated to moderate this time. He expressed his displeasure. Eventually, he’d pinch-hit for a cancellation on a smaller panel.

Hammond’s quarry this year is Blanchett, the Inevitable One. But just hours before the tribute to Blue Jasmine’s star, Dylan Farrow publishes that notorious open letter, taking direct aim at the Arlington’s marquee guest: “What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett?”

Later in the afternoon, while Feinberg is filing his story on Blanchett’s chances, Wells and Stone hash out the accusations over coffee and fried seafood. When I ask whether they think Hammond will bring it up onstage, laughter erupts. “Never in a million years,” says Stone.

On the red carpet, questions range from “What is your process for staying energized and inspired?” to “What advice would you give me as a blonde?” When Blanchett finally walks onstage, wearing an open-necked construction of shimmering pastel scales, Hammond greets her with a warm hug. He’s accessorized a gray suit and gingham shirt with Ugg shoes. “I never go anywhere without my Uggs,” he says. “I had no idea they were the sponsor! Ugg Australia rules, yeah!”

Montages follow, paparazzi are shooed away, and the conversation flows as a talk-show appearance might, though at greater length and with a touch more jargon. Hammond asks just a few questions about her latest director: “How does Woody Allen write so many great roles for women in particular?” (In a post the next day, he’ll attack “ill-advised entertainment websites” for trafficking in guilt by association, à la “the 1950s blacklist.”) Blanchett praises Allen’s method and jokes about his brusque phone manner. But while accepting the festival’s Outstanding Performer of the Year Award, she neglects to thank Woody.

All the Oscar bloggers in Santa Barbara are invited to the VIP after-party, sponsored by Hennessy, whose cocktails come with hors d’oeuvre of roast duck and Hennessy-infused-chocolate-pecan squares. Several minutes into the party, festival director Roger Durling mounts a small corner stage to toast Blanchett, and a Hennessy rep explains that the cognac shots we hold are Paradis Impérial. A bottle costs $2,700.

“Here’s to Cate Blanchett,” Durling says to shouts of “Salud!” Blanchett steps down into the thin scrum as ersatz Moby begins to play. Wells approaches Blanchett with Feinberg not far behind. Wells tells her he particularly enjoyed The Good German, and she laments that almost no one saw it. Then, committing the evening’s lone act of journalism, he takes out his iPhone and shows her a headline. “Did you happen to see this story about Woody?”

“No, no, Jeff, no,” says festival publicist Carol Marshall, as Blanchett protests, “I don’t have my glasses on.”

“What’s the problem?” Wells asks Marshall. “Why am I not allowed to ask a question?”

“It’s not a subject for this place,” says Marshall.

But Blanchett speaks: “Um, I mean it’s obviously been a long and painful situation, and I hope they find some sort of resolution and peace.”

Feinberg walks away. Later, after Wells tweets Blanchett’s first statement about Dylan Farrow, The Hollywood Reporter will have to run the quote secondhand. So will the New York Times, in a story headlined “Ethical Concerns Hit Oscar Races,” crediting “Hollywood-Elsewhere.com reporter Jeffrey Wells.”

*This article appeared in the February 24, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Photos: Lucas Michael/New York Magazine; Lucas Michael/New York Magazine