Oscars: How Important is Best Picture?
How meaningful is a Best Picture Oscar in the grand scheme of things? Well, obviously that’s going to depend on the point of view of each individual person considering the question. For the purposes of this article we’re going to assume that it’s a pretty big deal within the context of the awards themselves, but we’re going to have a look at the history of voting patterns in relation to other Oscars given out each year, its importance within the film business, and how these relate to long term relevance.
Let’s see how much I can find to say on this subject, shall we?
First, a little history.
The Academy Awards, which became colloquially and then officially known as “The Oscars” were first presented in May of 1929 as a way of both highlighting the best of the film business and to promote movies to the public. Another purpose of the awards ceremony’s founder, Louis B. Mayer, was to unite the film community and to improve the industry’s image with regular working people. He made no bones about the fact that he was trying to influence the kind of movies the studios were making and the actors, directors, producers, technicians, and writers wanted to participate in, saying “I found that the best way to handle (them) was to hang medals all over them … If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill them (selves) to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created”. In other words, it was part of an effort to head off Hollywood unionization at the pass.
While the voting panel was relatively small in the early days, the Academy membership has generally expanded to a very large group indeed. Just this past year, the Academy invited a record-breaking 774 new members, with a huge increase in the number of minority and female invitees over the past two years. At the same time, older members will be culled from the voting ranks each year if they haven’t been active in the industry within the previous ten years (unless they are an actual previous Oscar nominee). This pattern will likely influence awards voting results for years to come, so we’re in the middle of what could be significant change in the topic I’ve undertaken here.
Another big change in the intervening years since the first Oscars were given out is in exactly who is being handed a golden statuette when the winner for Best Picture is announced. Until 1950, the award was given to a representative of the production company responsible for making the movie, but since then the Oscars have been handed out to the individual producers involved in organizing the productions. This shift occurred just three years after the traditional studio system was challenged under anti-trust laws and led to an end in the Oscars being quite the point of competition between the studios they had been. If you’re interested in the final numbers, MGM came out on top with five Best Picture winners to their name in twenty-three years. To highlight the difference, in the sixty-six years since 1951 the most Best Picture Oscars to go to an individual producer is just three (a tie between Sam Spiegel and Saul Zaentz). Still, a Best Picture nomination or win is considered a big feather in the cap of any company involved.
While Best Picture nominees routinely see a boost in their box office take after the nominations are announced, the eventual winners then see significantly more butts in seats than those which were merely nominated. For example, Best Picture winners between 2008 and 2012 earned roughly $13.8 million more on average after winning than the other nominees. If you love great film and you’re wondering why you should care which movie takes home the big prize, this might be one reason. Bigger box office means more companies willing to make similar films, and it means that more people end up actually seeing the winning film. This model has expanded over the past decade as the biggest film companies have focused on appealing to popcorn audiences with enormous budget flicks to the exclusion of prestige pictures while some smaller productions have targeted the more modest financial rewards of awards notoriety with lower-cost films (not too different from the Michael Eisner approach at Disney of “singles and doubles” that helped boost the company early in his tenure there). In a world that is mostly dominated by brainless action movies and pre-established series with umpteen sequels, the thought of a few more people seeing films whose primary considerations are artistic rather than financial seems like a good thing to me.
Other changes have occurred over the years, some smaller and others pretty substantial. At the initial 1929 awards ceremony (the only one not broadcast by radio or television), there were actually two awards given to overall productions. Wings is widely known as the first winner of the Best Picture category (known at the time as “Outstanding Picture”), but that year Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans won a category called “Best Unique and Artistic Picture.” Just the following year this category was eliminated, and the Outstanding Picture award was formally identified as the top one of the year. The name of the award would change three more times before settling in as Best Picture back in 1962.
The number of films that could be nominated in the category has fluctuated over the years too, with as many as twelve (count ’em, twelve!) movies nominated for “Outstanding Production” for the 1934 and 1935 awards. In 1944 a rule was put in place to limit nominees to just five and that number stayed in place until just about a decade ago when the category was expanded to ten, with a further massaging of the rule a couple of years later making that number a maximum but not required. For each of the last seven years there have been either eight or nine nominees in the Best Picture category, and the more crowd-pleasing movies that had been the supposed target of the initial expansion have since seen decreased representation again.
The approach to counting votes in the Best Picture category was altered as well, with the implementation of a ‘preferential’ ballot as they do during the nomination process. In previous years, a ‘winner-take-all’ approach was used, with each voter choosing only their favorite nominated film and the one with the most votes declared the winner. The new process asks each voter to rank their top five favorite nominated films and gradually eliminates nominees that don’t get enough votes, with remaining nominees then being assigned votes based on a voter’s next favorite choice. This strategy is intended to reward films with wide overall support. It is easy to imagine that a divisive film with an early lead in the process could lose that lead as ballots with less popular choices are forced to contribute their vote to their second or third choice.
Let me give you a fictional example. Let’s pretend that I was an Oscars voter back in 2010 and I was filling out my choices for Best Picture. My top five from the nominated films would have been something like this:
2. Inglorious Basterds
3. Up In the Air
4. An Education
5. A Serious Man
Despite Up being very popular both with the general public and with the members of the Academy (it did win two Oscars, after all), I’m guessing that it didn’t get a lot of first place votes because it had its own Best Animated Feature Film category to win, most likely leading many voters to place it low on their preferential ballot for Best Picture. After the first round of ballot counting, Up was probably eliminated, but my second choice, Inglorious Basterds might not have been. After all, Quentin Tarantino was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, Christoph Waltz won Best Supporting Actor, and the film was nominated for Editing, Cinematography, and in both of the sound categories. It stands to reason that it would have survived the first round of ballot counting, getting just enough first place votes from younger Academy members to make the next round. My ballot would now look like this:
2. Inglorious Basterds
3. Up In the Air
4. An Education
5. A Serious Man
Despite my arguments in favor of Inglorious Basterds, I don’t imagine that there were enough of those younger voters to let it stick around past the second round of ballot counting. On the other hand, Jason Reitman’s comic drama starring George Clooney was aimed more solidly at the kind of people who make up the Academy’s membership. Reitman was nominated for Best Director and Adapted Screenplay, and the movie had three acting nominations, including for its lead. It is very possible that Up In The Air could have survived into another round of ballot counting and my ballot would have looked like this now:
2. Inglorious Basterds
3. Up In the Air
4. An Education
5. A Serious Man
Up In The Air would now have been assigned my vote instead of the previously eliminated Up or Inglorious Basterds. None of this, of course, would have stopped The Hurt Locker from eventually winning because, you know, I’m just one vote, right? And anyway, the point here was to demonstrate how this preferential vote works. I must admit that I had previously thought it was done with gradually reduced scores the lower a film was on your ballot, but that’s not how it’s counted up at all. Once one of the films has enough votes to guarantee it a mathematically insurmountable lead based on the remaining ballots available, that movie becomes the Best Picture winner.
It is this last preferential ballot process that led me to undertake this examination of the Best Picture category’s history, along with a separate related pattern I noticed when I looked over the history of Best Picture winners and how they correlated with overall wins in the other categories. Consider just the past five years of Oscar winners.
Best Picture- Moonlight
(Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay)
Most Wins- La La Land
(Director, Actress, Production Design, Cinematography, Score, Original Song)
In an example like last year, the preferential ballot appears to have done its job as designed. The season-long favorite, La La Land was clearly well-loved by the Academy at large based on its wide range of nominations and wins. But it was also a divisive movie with plenty of detractors who may have left it out of their top five ballot altogether, helping to lead to the upset by the more evenly admired Moonlight which may have picked up more votes along the way as other films got eliminated.
Best Picture- Spotlight
Most Wins- Mad Max: Fury Road
(Editing, Costumes, Makeup and Hairstyling, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing)
Looking back at 2015 based on what I’m discussing here, I’m not exactly sure what happened to allow Spotlight the win. Going into the night of the awards, most pundits thought it might be a little behind The Revenant and losing too many votes to The Big Short. I have to surmise that The Big Short was actually the one coming in just behind Spotlight on lots of ballots and that The Revenant wasn’t lurking behind many of the films getting eliminated from round to round. Mad Max: Fury Road was likely on lots of ballots behind The Revenant, dooming its chances.
Best Picture- Birdman
(Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography)
I’m guessing that in 2014 Boyhood picked up fewer second or third place votes than some of the other films, and that The Grand Budapest Hotel, while well-liked, dropped out early without enough initial first place votes. Birdman, on the other hand, most likely was strong enough in every round of ballot counting to eventually grab the win. Obviously, this is all conjecture.
Best Picture- 12 Years a Slave
(Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay)
Most Wins- Gravity
(Director, Score, Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Cinematography, Visual Effects)
This really wasn’t very surprising, even with the Director win for Alfonso Cuaron. 12 Years a Slave was both excellent and important; exactly the kind of movie the Academy loves to honor, while Gravity was more of an entertaining technical marvel.
Best Picture- Argo
(Adapted Screenplay, Editing)
Most Wins- Life of Pi
(Director, Score, Cinematography, Visual Effects)
2012 looks like a situation in which votes were scattered widely amongst several favorites, including Life of Pi, Lincoln, and Silver Linings Playbook, with Argo grabbing lots of second and third place votes along the way.
In four of those years, the winner of the Best Director category did not align with the Best Picture winner. In the big picture this is notable, with only four Best Picture winners in the eighty-nine year history of the awards not at least receiving a Best Director nomination.
Even more eye-opening is that in each of these same recent years, not only did the Best Picture winner not win Best Director, but also did not have the most overall wins on the evening, something that had only happened twelve times total prior to the rules changes. This might seem like a statistical blip when I say it like that, but consider that in the twenty-six years between 1977 and 2004 it didn’t happen at all. That’s right. Between Annie Hall‘s victory over Star Wars and Million Dollar Baby‘s win over The Aviator not a single Best Picture winner failed to also rack up the most category wins overall…and then it didn’t happen again for another eight years.
Obviously this appears to be saying more about the voting process than it does about the quality of the competing films. Of the four splits between Best Picture and most wins above, I personally think the Academy got it right two times. Clearly your mileage will vary on that, but on first glance it looks to me like what the voters are doing, intentionally or not, is spreading the wealth out a bit, something they steadfastly failed to do for most of thirty-five years prior to the rules changes. It could be argued either way whether this is a good or a bad thing. When you’ve got a Best Picture winner also piling up wins in lots of other categories it looks like the Academy as a whole is on the same page about the quality of the movie they’re anointing. On the other hand, a film garnering lots of ‘below the line’ wins in categories like Best sound Editing, Best sound Mixing, and Best Makeup and Hairstyling doesn’t necessarily make it a good choice for Best Picture overall.
If you look back at this stuff like I do, it appears that most years the Academy presented a single movie as the one to see, while in recent years we’re getting a more nuanced reflection of the year in film. Are Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Spotlight, and Moonlight truly the best films of their year? Maybe they are and maybe they’re not. An individual such as myself might think they didn’t even nominate the best film of the year sometimes. Based on a bunch of non-Best Picture wins, it looks like you’re being told, “Hey, you might also want to check out Life of Pi, Gravity, Mad Max: Fury Road, or La La Land. Those are really good too!” At the same time, I understand that some people will look at the split and identify the Best Picture winner as the more “important” film and the movie with more overall wins as a typically more crowd-pleasing flick, like i noted above with 12 Years a Slave and Gravity.
While it’s a little early in the game to consider how relevant most of these films will be twenty or thirty years from now, but I’m guessing that the crowd-pleasers will get more eyeballs on home video – which isn’t necessarily the same thing. We can look at some of the other examples for longer term context, however.
Best Picture- Annie Hall
(Director, Actress, Original Screenplay)
Most Wins- Star Wars
(Original Score, Visual Effects, Editing, Art Direction, Costumes, Sound)
This is perhaps the most famous example of an enormously popular film losing out in the Best Picture category, but I’m not sure even with hindsight that I would vote any differently. Annie Hall was still widely admired deep into the 1990s, and it only appears to have faded in the public’s estimation in more recent years. If you’re capable of separating Woody Allen the guy from this really funny and clever film in which his leading lady is age-appropriate, its win appears pretty legitimate. Besides, the version of Star Wars that might have won Best Picture isn’t even available to most of us anymore.
Best Picture- Rocky
Most Wins- Network
(Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay)
All the President’s Men
(Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Sound, Art Direction)
While Rocky‘s legacy has been damaged a bit by some pretty awful sequels, Network looks pretty darned prescient even today.
Best Picture- The Godfather
(Actor, Adapted Screenplay)
Most Wins- Cabaret
(Director, Actress, Supporting Actor, Score, Sound, Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing)
The actual upset here is that Francis Ford Coppola didn’t win Best Director for The Godfather, which obviously has a more substantial legacy and is better thought of by film buffs today than Cabaret. If you took another vote on this today, a few of these awards would switch hands.
Best Picture- Midnight Cowboy
(Director, Adapted Screenplay)
Most Wins- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
(Original Screenplay, Original Score, Cinematography, Original Song)
I’m not sure there’s a big gap in the current perception of these films today. The editing and cinematography of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid might have aged a little less gracefully that it has for Midnight Cowboy.
Best Picture- Casablanca
Most Wins- Song of Bernadette
(Actress, Score, Art direction, Cinematography)
Most cinephiles will say this was a good call by the Academy. Casablanca is one of those movies people tend to count as among their favorites of all time, while Song of Bernadette is largely forgotten. The surprise is that Ingrid Bergman was nominated for For Whom the Bell Tolls rather than for what is probably the best loved performance of her career.
There are other examples, but I don’t imagine many of us would have a strong opinion about most of the films involved. That’s what happens with time. Even pretty well-regarded pieces of artwork tend to fade, leaving the true greats to rise to the top as iconic examples of the form. Sometimes it’s a surprise how that all shakes out. Nobody knew who Vincent van Gogh was while he was alive, but now he’s a giant.
So…does the Oscar for Best Picture matter? Sure it does. It makes money for people, it helps make careers, and it’s a superlative that will always draw just a little bit of attention to the winning film and add to its legacy. Does it literally mean that film was actually the best of its year? Of course not, but sometimes the film is that anyway. In most cases, it’s a pretty decent recommendation of a film to say it won the Best Picture prize, even if lots of folks think something else should have won. Of course then there’s something like this…
Posted on February 10, 2018, in Analysis, Awards, Movies, Oscars, personal musings and tagged 12 Years a Slave, Argo, Best Picture, Birdman, Gravity, La La Land, Life Of Pi, Louis B Mayer, Mad Max Fury Road, Moonlight, Network, preferential ballot, Spotlight, Star Wars, Wings. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.