It started in November with the Independent Spirit Award Nominations, and continued with the Gotham Awards and the recent National Board of Review’s annual awards. That’s right, kids, it’s officially Oscar season — a time when directors, producers and stars show up at parties and press junkets to promote movies that much of America hasn’t had a chance to see, vying for that holiest of holies: the Academy Award. Treading water amid the waves of pretension and elitism are the industry unions and critics’ circles, which hand out “pre-Oscar” film awards of relative meaninglessness in an attempt to push the Academy in a certain direction. Here’s a rundown of what these awards really mean for this year’s Oscar bait.

I’ll start by simplifying the mess and grouping our awards into general categories. The first category encompasses national film awards like the American Film Institute Awards and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards. These are completely irrelevant. The AFI awards are an unranked top-10 list of the year’s best films. With such a broad group of honorees and no number-one film to stand behind, past lists have almost always coincided with the Academy’s five Best Picture nominees. But last year, Oscar’s Best Picture nominees were expanded to 10, of which the AFI correctly predicted only five. Fail.

The BAFTAs, on the other hand, are respectfully considered the British equivalent of the Oscars. Unfortunately, they’re unabashedly arthouse, with winners skewing toward smaller features like “The Full Monty,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “The Pianist” over the blockbuster favorites that won Best Picture (“Titanic,” “Braveheart” and “Chicago,” respectively). They weren’t bad decisions — at the risk of truckloads of hate mail, I’ll say I despised “Titanic.” They just weren’t great predictors of who would eventually win.

Then there are awards for independent cinema, chief among them the Independent Spirit Awards. They announce their honorees first because they have to — if your film qualifies as independent (meaning it was made for less than $20 million), almost nobody cares about it. Last year, though “The Hurt Locker” won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, its fellow nominees included six films made for more than the $20-million ceiling. Among these were “Avatar” and “Up,” which were made for more than 10 times the winning film’s miniscule $15 million production budget.

All publicity is good publicity, so being mentioned at these awards is beneficial, particularly if you’re nominated for playing a lead or supporting role. Recently, acting accolades issued by the Independent Spirit Awards have been surprisingly prescient with respect to eventual Oscar nominees. Four out of the past five years have seen two or more Independent Spirit Award nominees pick up Oscar nominations for Best Actor. The films that got them there, however, don’t get quite as much recognition.

Odds are that many of these cheaply made, oft-obscure films will get some form of award from at least one of the nation’s critics circles, particularly the National Society of Film Critics, which often endorses underexposed foreign films and rarely agrees with the Oscars. There are also the New York Film Critics’ Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the other two major critics’ organizations, which endorse a single winner in all Academy categories and almost never get it right. The NYFCC, for example, has predicted the correct Best Picture winner just three times in the past decade. The LAFCA is even worse, predicting the correct winner just once in the same timeframe.

These critics’ awards are all eclipsed in extravagance, celebrity worship and inaccuracy by the Golden Globes, awarded by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The 95-member HFPA is an international coalition of almost-journalists, who do much of their work freelance and cling to their jobs for the parties and the celebrity access. Throw in their lack of professionalism — former HFPA President Phil Berk was forced to apologize for groping Brendan Fraser at an HFPA event — and its surprising they’re even allowed their own televised ceremony. Oh, and they’ve only correctly predicted the winner for Best Picture once in the past six years.

All of these groups I’ve mentioned so far are either sickeningly elitist, too small to matter or just don’t get it right. So who really matters? Look for legitimacy in the industry unions, which include the Screen Actor’s Guild, the Producers Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America. These organizations host low-key ceremonies and present awards in fewer categories, with the exception of SAG, whose Best Ensemble Cast award is seen as a Best Picture analogue. It’s important to note the incredible predicting power that each set of awards has in its specialized industry. The PGA has predicted the Academy’s choice for Best Picture seven years out of the past 10, while the DGA has predicted the Oscar-winner for Best Director 54 times in its 62 year history.

There’s a reason for this. While anybody can buy the right to vote for the Independent Spirit Awards (just $60 for students!) and critics are never inducted into the Academy, guild awards are decided by filmmaking professionals, many of whom are Academy members who vote for the Oscars as well. This year, bet with the guilds’ choices for best everything and odds are you’ll look like a genius come Oscar night.

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