What Oscar(s) do these contenders need to win in order to take the best picture prize?

A kaleidoscopic illustration of Oscar statues
What will win the best picture Oscar on March 12? A lot depends on the awards handed out earlier in the evening.
(Photo illustration by Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times; Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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In olden times, part of the fun in watching the Oscars via this medium we used to call “TV” was parsing the early awards given during the show and imagining how they were creating a narrative and, perhaps, forecasting which movie would win the ceremony’s last prize.

Nowadays, it’s a battle just to get all the awards to be presented on air, and many viewers pay closer attention to the body language and forced smiles of the attendees than to the awards themselves. If it was guaranteed that Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck would reprise their Grammys audience act at the Oscars, ratings would skyrocket. Could the film academy brass make this happen by offering them a lifetime supply of Dunkin’ donuts? Perhaps ... though let’s be real: J. Lo probably hasn’t eaten an apple fritter in decades. (Hey ... more for Ben!)

But the Oscar clues are still there for those who care enough to pay attention. What prizes do the leading best picture contenders need to take to score that top award? Grab a cruller and let’s take a look!


A woman with black hair and a googly eye on her forehead strikes a fighting stance
Michelle Yeoh stars in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
(David Bornfriend / A24)


Optimal Oscars evening: Ke Huy Quan completes his supporting actor awards season sweep, and filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert prevail for directing and original screenplay. And to be extra greedy, perhaps a film editing win, upsetting “Top Gun: Maverick.”

Oscar it needs: Daniels earned three nominations — picture, director and original screenplay. To clear the way to the podium for the grand prize, it’d be helpful if they win one of these Oscars, and it really doesn’t matter which one. (The duo won the Directors Guild honor Saturday.) A Quan win combined with Daniels taking screenplay would put the movie on the same best picture path that “CODA” traveled last year. If only Quan wins before the final envelope, the filmmakers might feel like they’re on the precipice of entering that Everything Bagel — an abyss, but one that can, as we know from the movie, be overcome.

A man walks on a hilly Irish road with his donkey in "The Banshees of Inisherin"
Colin Farrell stars in “The Banshees of Inisherin.”
(Jonathan Hession / Searchlight Pictures)



Optimal Oscars evening: Writer-director Martin McDonagh bests Daniels for original screenplay. Colin Farrell and Kerry Condon prevail in their acting races. Brendan Gleeson breaks out a fiddle in the middle of the ceremony and Barry Keoghan dances a jig in the aisle.

Oscar it needs: Supporting actress is typically presented early. A Condon victory would be a fine sign for the movie. A screenplay prize might be even better, as that would mean it topped “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” I’d hesitate though to read too much into that scenario if that happened, as voters could well be signaling that they’d like to honor “Banshees” — it did earn nine nominations — and this is the spot to do it. But ... if Condon wins, then McDonagh for screenplay ... and then Farrell? Well, that would be grand, wouldn’t it and would likely lead to a final celebration.

A man and woman flank a young boy at the movie theater in a scene from "The Fabelmans."
(Paul Dano and Michelle Williams star with young Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord in “The Fabelmans.”
(Merie Weismiller Wallace / Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment)



Optimal Oscar evening: Steven Spielberg wins his third Oscar for directing, his first since “Schindler’s List” in 1994. John Williams wins his sixth Oscar for the score, his first since “Schindler’s List.” It’s been a while for these legends, hasn’t it?

Oscar it needs: Williams is 91, and the lovely, piano-based themes he composed for “The Fabelmans” offer the opportunity for voters to give him a touching — and well-deserved — tribute. If he wins, it would indicate that Spielberg’s drama resonated with academy members. (Did you not cry?) Still ... Spielberg probably needs to win for directing for the film to have a shot. And he lost at the Directors Guild Awards to the Daniels, so it’s not looking good.

A man in a white T-shirt leans into a vehicle in a scene from "Top Gun: Maverick."
Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in “Top Gun: Maverick.”
(Scott Garfield / Paramount Pictures)


Optimal Oscar evening: The blockbuster wins, as expected, the Oscars for editing and sound, and then bides its time until the moment that the academy salutes it as the movie that, as Spielberg articulately expressed at the Oscars luncheon last week, “saved Hollywood’s ass.”


Oscar it needs: Let’s be clear: “Top Gun: Maverick” doesn’t need anything, including best picture. It could simply bask in gratitude for bringing people — older, reluctant, Marvel Cinematic Universe-unadjacent people — back to movie theaters, paving the way for “Elvis” to enjoy a measure of commercial success and things to kind of return to normal, provided you consider “normal” to be a situation in which, thanks to the dearth of theatrical offerings, “Top Gun: Maverick” held the No. 1 spot at the box office in its 15th week of release.

But ... it could win best picture with just those sound and editing Oscars. If it somehow takes visual effects over James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water,” then you’d have to think voters are ranking it high for best picture. And in a preferential voting system, that’s all you need — to be liked, a lot. And outside of a few “weirdos” who take exception to, you know, jingoism and the idea of giving best picture to a sequel that mirrors the original movie in many ways, who doesn’t like “Top Gun: Maverick”?

A woman sits at a piano and writes on sheet music in a scene from "Tár."
Cate Blanchett stars in “Tár.”
(Focus Features )


Optimal Oscar evening: As has been written since the beginning of time (awards season really does last that long), Cate Blanchett takes lead actress. And then ... would you look at this: Todd Field wins for writing and directing the movie, paving a way for a best picture win and him running out of hands to hold all his Oscars.

Oscar it needs: Pundits probably aren’t underestimating the best picture chances of ‘Tár,” but, in addition to four nominations already mentioned, it did pick up nods for cinematography and editing. That’s support in five different branches. Maybe Field will win original screenplay instead of McDonagh and Daniels. Maybe Field will add to all his critics group prizes and take director too. But his loss at the DGA makes that unlikely. And maybe Lydia Tár will take Gustavo Dudamel up on his offer and become the next music director at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.


For the moment, anything remains within the realm of possibility.