My anthem recently has been Bradley Cooper in A Star Is Born singing that maybe it’s time to let the old ways die, yet here I am, driving over the Ben Franklin Bridge on a Sunday, just like I used to when I wanted a bottle of wine and the State Stores were closed.
These days, Pennsylvania sells wine on Sunday, and the gas prices have equalized, but I’m headed to Cherry Hill because you must physically be in New Jersey to do what I’m doing now — betting on the Oscars, which is legal this year for the first (and possibly last) time.
I open the software app that I downloaded for this very purpose, double-check the Oscar odds, and place $35 on Black Panther to win, because experts have explained to me that it’s inefficient to bet on a heavy favorite like Roma, or a prohibitive long shot like Vice, but there is potential value in picking a well-positioned longer-odds candidate like Black Panther.
I’ve learned a lot of about betting on the Oscars in the last few days, but I have questions: Why did this betting service just tell me I couldn’t wager more than $35 to win?
More important, can I expense this?
And also, since it’s Sunday, and I’m gambling and buying alcohol (it seems rude to travel the length of the Admiral Wilson Boulevard without patronizing its establishments), how certain is it that am I going to hell?
Well, anything for a good story, and history is being made this Oscar season.
In May, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law essentially limiting state-level sports betting to Nevada. Sports books immediately opened in New Jersey, which petitioned the state’s Division of Gaming Enforcement to allow something that Nevada ad never sanctioned — waging on the Academy Awards (it’s long been legal in the U.K.)
The division agreed Feb. 1, releasing a statement that after reviewing “integrity issues," the state could allow Oscar wagering “for this year only.”
And only in New Jersey. Out-of-staters must go to New Jersey to place bets. According to GeoComply, the company that makes sure bettors are in New Jersey while wagering whether Rami Malek is going to win best actor for Bohemian Rhapsody, approximately 80 percent of the state’s total betting traffic falls within 10 miles of the border, and approximately 44 percent is within two miles.
Putting Jersey on the map as a gambling destination, and drawing new kinds of customers, is part of the hook behind Oscar wagering. It’s not a major source of revenue, but it’s a way for online sports books to get their name out there, said Nick Bogdanovich of sports book William Hill.
“It’s a way to stir up conversation and get that person who may not be a regular bettor to take a look at [online betting],” he said.
He’s a seen a slow but steady increase in interest, and early indications are that movie fans are betting their rooting interests — he notes a lot of action in New Jersey on Lady Gaga for best actress for A Star Is Born.
So fans are betting their hearts, and not their wallets — sorry Gaga fans, she’s likely going to lose to Glenn Close, who is the favorite with her performance in The Wife.
One reason we know that: Voters are free to talk about their picks and often do so to reporters. A New York Times survey of 20 voters revealed unanimous support for Bohemian Rhapsody’s Rami Malek, and though that’s a small sample size in a voting body of several thousand, it’s sobering information for bettors looking to pick an upset in that category. The Hollywood Reporter interviewed a voter who said everyone he knows is voting for Close in the best actress category.
Although that hasn’t seemed to deter some bettors. Fanduel is taking a lot of action on Gaga, and also on Bradley Cooper, who accounts for most of the activity in the best actor category.
“Its mostly $20 and $40 bets,” Bogdanovich said. “Last week, we had sold 82 tickets, and today we have close to 400, so it’s picking up steam.”
That’s not Super Bowl-level activity or money, but it’s bringing a different kind of customer into the process — as is the ease of mobile-phone wagering.
“Online has allowed the gambling industry to expand into areas that allow them to reach people who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in gambling. There are only so many people who want to go to a casino and sit at a table. So online, mobile-phone gaming brings in a whole different demographic, particularly with something like the Oscars, which up until now has been a fun, recreational activity for most people,” said Lia Nower, director of the Rutgers Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University New Brunswick.
Sports books are keeping per-bet limits low (often less than $100, rarely more than $500). At those levels, hardcore gamblers won’t be interested, and novices won’t get burned too bad, but Nower noted that losing $500 is a month’s rent or car payment for many people.
Sports books are also keeping bet amounts low because the metrics of the Oscar betting pool are new to all parties, and they don’t want to get stuck making large payouts.
When I tried to place a $100 on Black Panther, for instance, the sports book app I downloaded informed me I’d be limited to $35 (those numbers change constantly based on action). As of last Sunday — the odds are constantly in flux — my theoretical $100 bet on Black Panther would have meant a payout of roughly three grand. At $35, it’s a more manageable $1,000.
William Hill has established a limit of $500 on best picture and the other top categories (director and the four acting categories). Most sports books are also capping categories and amounts.
Most bettors, though, are making smaller bets, indicating they’re in it just for fun.
“A player can win a nice amount for a small investment. The picture with the longest odds is expected to pay $100 on a $1 bet,” said Mattias Stetz, chief operating officer at Rush Street Interactive, affiliated with PlaySugarHouse.com.
Limit restrictions are designed to keep the wagering honest. When New Jersey opened to Oscar betting, the activity was temporarily suspended a few days later while the state addressed unspecified issues of “integrity.” Those have since been resolved, wagering was reinstated, and it has continued ever since.
Regulators didn’t elaborate on the “integrity” issues, but industry watchers said the state likely wanted to impose limits on bets and categories offered — a way of preventing somebody with deep pockets and inside knowledge (particularly in obscure categories, like, say, documentary short) from gaining an unfair advantage, said Jessica Welman of PlayUSA, a website that tracks the gambling industry.
Welman is uniquely positioned to understand this new Oscar wagering market. She’s a film major who spent nine months in the film development end of Hollywood before quitting to pursue something she liked better — poker. She played, wrote about it, and ultimately ended up at PlayUSA.
Welman flew to Philly and drove to Voorhees a few weeks ago to make her own Oscar wagers (she wouldn’t spill all her secrets, but she says she’s “been shouting from the rooftops about Black Panther”). At PlayUSA, she offers advice to prospective bettors. For instance: You don’t want to bet the heavy favorites — because you’d have to wager a lot of money to win a little. Lady Gaga won’t win best actress, so you’re wasting your money there, and though she will win best song for “Shallow,” which she’ll perform on the telecast with Cooper, you’re betting a lot to win very little.
What you look for, she said, are categories where an upset is more likely.
Best picture, Welman said, is one of them. Roma is a heavy favorite, but it’s facing some historical headwinds — it’s a foreign-language film, and no foreign-language film has ever won best picture (The Artist, which won best picture at the 2012 Academy Awards is technically not a foreign-language film, even though it was produced in France, because it was silent). It’s distributed by Netflix, a streaming service that Hollywood regards as a threat to its business model, and no movie produced by a streaming service has won best picture.
She also thinks Roma could be hurt by the way Oscar voting works. Voters rank all eight nominees in order of preference, a process that favors movies most voters like and penalizes movies that are divisive. Welman couldn’t finish watching Roma, and she has a hunch that it’s less popular with voters than the odds indicate, and that there’s a subset of voters who actively don’t like it.
“I think there’s got to be some people putting Roma out there at number eight,” she said.
Other value picks she likes — Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman) for best director over Roma’s Alfonso Cuaron, who’s already won (for Gravity), leaving the oft-overlooked Lee looming as a sentimental choice.
Welman also likes longish-shot Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born) for best supporting actor over favorite Mahershala Ali (Green Book), who won the Golden Globe. A $10 wager on Elliott would net more than $100, and Welman believes there will be sentimental support among voters for a veteran like him.
Something else a wager on Black Panther could buy you — a reason to stay engaged during a ceremony that seems to get longer every year. There were efforts this year to make the show shorter and peppier — cutting performances of three of the best song nominees and awarding four non-glamorous categories during commercial breaks — but academy voter backlash undid those changes.
So now the show will again be 57 hours long, and you’ll have to hear all five songs, plus Adam Lambert and the surviving septuagenarian members of Queen doing a Bohemian Rhapsody medley.
No matter. I have more than coffee to keep me awake.
I have $35 on Black Panther to win.
The year’s wide-open Oscar races make watching more interesting but predicting highly difficult. Among the top categories, upsets loom, and spotting them is nearly impossible. But here goes nothin':
Best Picture. I think voters are going to look for ways to spread the awards around. I think they’ll want Roma to win something, and this is the most likely slot. That means Spike Lee could win …
Best Director. Roma director Alfonso Cuaron already won this award for Gravity, leaving the academy an opportunity to honor Lee for his career and his work on BlacKkKlansman, even though the picture and director awards are rarely split. So I’m picking Lee.
Best Actor. Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) has won everything heading into the ceremony, and he looks like the evening’s closest thing to a sure thing.
Best Supporting Actress. Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) has won some preliminary awards, but she wasn’t even nominated by the Screen Actors Guild (or the BAFTAs), and that’s a tough obstacle to overcome. Oft-nominated Amy Adams will likely win here, giving voters a way to reward Vice.
Best Supporting Actor. Mahershala Ali, by virtue of the fact that he was the best thing about Green Book, and also he had 50 percent more screen time than any other nominee.
Best Original Screenplay. Here’s where I think voters will honor The Favourite.
Best Adapted Screenplay. Can You Ever Forgive Me? scored a surprise win at the Writers Guild Awards, but it’s not a surprise to anyone who watched it. I’ll second the guild’s choice.
Best Cinematography. Cold War could pull an upset here, but Roma’s most distinctive attribute is the unusual way Cuaron chose to shoot it, so I’m picking Roma.
Best Costume Design. The Favourite is the favorite, but I’ll pick Black Panther.
Best Film Editing. Vice.
Best Make-up and Hair Styling. Vice, for Christian Bale’s Cheney face.
Best Production Design. The Favourite.
Best Score. BlacKkKlansman.
Best Song. “Shallow.”
Best Sound Editing. First Man.
Best Sound Mixing. Bohemian Rhapsody.
Best Visual Effects. Avengers: Infinity War.
Best Animated Feature. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Best Documentary Feature: Free Solo.
Best Foreign-Language Film: Cold War.
Best Animated Short. “Bao.”
Best Documentary Short. “Black Sheep.”
Best Live-action Short. “Marguerite.”