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The State of the Race: Climbing the tree and finding Best Picture, branch by branch

In the circle of gal pals we’re playfully calling Oscar’s Angels, I discuss with Anne, Thelma and Susan the Best Picture race.  Eventually, it got to the undeniable truth about the Oscars: they’re won by consensus. How you get to a Best Picture nomination is broad support among the various branches.  If you have a film that is beloved by the writers, the designers, the directors, the executives and especially the actors, your chances for Best Picture rise measurably. You can’t really get in with just one branch standing behind you. Note the one director nomination for David Lynch for Mulholland Drive.

But then Anne and I got into it on Twitter.  On her blog, Thompson on Hollywood, she mentioned having met with Oscar strategist extraordinaire, Cynthia Schwartz, and that she thought The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had a great chance at getting Director, Screenplay and Actress nominations but wouldn’t get picture. We batted i back and forth. I took the position that if you’ve got those three branches behind you along with however many guilds, with a system like this one specifically, it’s more likely than not that you will get a Best Picture nomination.  Even with only five slots, you’re looking at a strong probability for Picture if you’ve already got writing, directing and acting.  That means the clout of the DGA, the WGA and the SAG are already behind you.  But probably the PGA is also in there since they still have ten nominees.

Anne said no, not under the new system that relies on racking up number one votes. I’m thinking if the direction is Oscar caliber, then the film itself will have ardent fans.  Of course, none of us will know until we actually see it.  My point only was that if you concede Director, Screenplay and Actress and add David Fincher in the mix, the man who directed the best film of last year and famously lost the Oscar in a spectacular defeat – you have a recipe for, at the very least, a Best Picture nomination.  Seems like a no-brainer to me.  If you want to be cautious about it you’d say that no nominations are assured until the film can be seen and appraised.  And I’d agree with that.  The same goes for War Horse, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, We Bought a Zoo, etc. But we were having this debate today; not the day after Christmas.

Nonetheless, I wanted to find evidence back up my theory. I’ve been throwing around the “number 1 this and number 1 that” ever since the AMPAS threw a new wrench into the works.  So I decided to look for those numbers Tom Sherak is talking about when he says they “did a study” and came up with a number between 5 and 9 as the Best Picture totals for films in the years between 2001 and 2008 — when The Dark Knight’s exclusion caused such an uproar they changed it to ten nominees.  But after they did that, they felt they’d made a mistake. Maybe 10 nominees allowed too many fringe favorites. This new procedure provides for the possibility that there might be more than five that they absolutely love but if there aren’t (and, as you’ll see below, there often aren’t) they don’t have to fill in all ten blanks just for the sake of it.

Maybe they felt that they lost some of the suspense when they widened the field.  Maybe the race became too predictable (literally, too easy to predict). Maybe some didn’t like that the Academy was honoring “little” movies and not “big movies.”  Either way, after having done the research year by year (which took me all day, I might add), I’m now convinced that this is a great system.  It’s still not quite as dramatic as five nominees for Best Picture.  I’d like that better if the films they chose in a given year were actually great films. Most of the time, they’re not.  In fact, a straight flush of excellence is so rare, when I finally got to 2006 it was like the clouds parted — a magnificent revelation — wall-to-wall cinematic greatness! Finally!

Then came No Country for Old Men. And after that, Slumdog Millionaire.  I stopped before The Hurt Locker because they went to ten and the study Sherak cited only goes to 2008.  With the exception of Return of the King, most of the Best Picture nominees and winners within than span were just so mediocre.  But when The Departed won, and then No Country won — it felt, to me, so unexpected.  So magnificent.

Anyway, check out the research below. It isn’t perfect. Some years I included BAFTA, other years I didn’t. I put in the Globes because they show what’s popular when the race begins.

First, the new rules:


1. A Reminder List of all eligible motion pictures shall be sent with a nominations ballot to all active and life members of the Academy who shall vote in the order of their preference for not more than five pictures.

2. The pictures receiving the highest number of votes shall become the nominations for final voting for the Best Picture award. There may not be more than ten nor fewer than five nominations; however, no picture shall be nominated that receives less than five percent of the total votes cast.

3. The individual(s) who shall be credited for Academy Award purposes must have screen credit of “producer” or “produced by.” Persons with screen credits of executive producer, co-producer, associate producer, line producer, produced in association with or any other credit shall not receive nominations or Academy statuettes. The nominees will be those three or fewer producers who have performed the major portion of the producing functions. The Producers Branch Executive Committee will designate the qualifying producer nominees for each of the nominated pictures. The committee has the right, in what it determines to be a rare and extraordinary circumstance, to name any additional qualified producer as a nominee.

4. Final voting for the Best Picture award shall be restricted to active and life Academy members.

Then, this from a Hollywood Reporter interview with Tom Sherak:

“With the help of PricewaterhouseCoopers, we’ve been looking not just at what happened over the past two years, but at what would have happened if we had been selecting 10 nominees for the past 10 years,” said Academy president Tom Sherak, who noted that it was retiring Academy executive director Bruce Davis who recommended the change first to Sherak and incoming CEO Dawn Hudson and then to the governors.

During the period studied, the average percentage of first-place votes received by the top vote-getting movie was 20.5. After much analysis by Academy officials, it was determined that five percent of first place votes should be the minimum in order to receive a nomination, resulting in a slate of anywhere from five to 10 movies.

“In studying the data, what stood out was that Academy members had regularly shown a strong admiration for more than five movies,” said Davis. “A best picture nomination should be an indication of extraordinary merit. If there are only eight pictures that truly earn that honor in a given year, we shouldn’t feel an obligation to round out the number.”

If this system had been in effect from 2001 to 2008 (before the expansion to a slate of 10), there would have been years that yielded five, six, seven, eight and nine nominees.

The final round of voting for best picture will continue to employ the preferential system, regardless of the number of nominees, to ensure that the winning picture has the endorsement of more than half of the voters

In trying relieve some of my anxiety, I’m going right to the source, into the mouth of the beast, the Academy itself. What a peculiar challenge they have put forth to us. From the years 2001 to 2008, had they opened their arms to more than five, the results would have been, five, six, seven, eight and nine nominees.

But they don’t say which years resulted in which totals.  So I’m going to look back, to investigate starting at 2001.  We’ll wade through the dust, to see if we can deduce which years might have had the most nominees, and which years that might have had the least. The least being five. It helps that I started this site in 1999, so I’ve lived through all of these years and I remember the circumstances inside out. Who could ever forget them. 9/11 seemed to shake things up everywhere, even in the Oscar race.

Let’s go back to Titanic.

Well okay, not literally Titanic, although the methods would be the same.

A Beautiful Mind (4 wins – Picture, Director, Supporting Actress, Screenplay; 4 more nominations – Actor, Editing, Makeup, Score)
Fellowship of the Ring (4 wins – Cinematography, Effects, Makeup, Music; 9 more nominations – Screenplay, Sound, Picture, Music, Editing, Director, Costume, Art Direction, Actor)
Gosford Park(1 win – Screenplay; 6 other nominations – Picture, Director, Art Direction, Costume, 2 Supporting Actress nods)
Moulin Rouge (2 wins – Art Direction, Costume; 6 more nominations – Actress, Cinematography, Editing, Makeup, Picture, Sound)
In the Bedroom (0 wins; 5 nominations – Picture, Screenplay, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress)

Would have been contenders:
Black Hawk Down (DGA, WGA, CAS, Ace-WON, ADG) 2 wins – Sound and Editing; 4 more Oscar nominations -Best Director, Cinematography.
Amelie (ASC, ADG)- 5 Oscar nominations, Screenplay, Sound, Foreign Lang, Cinematography, Art Direction

Other films that sort of seem like maybe — David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (but with only one Oscar nomination for Director, probably not), Memento — only editing and screenplay. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with three techs – Art Direction, Costume, Music.

But I think only two movies might have ultimately pushed through — so my guess for 2001: 7 Best Picture nominees.

Chicago (6 wins – Picture, Supporting Actress, Editing, Costume, Art Direction, Sound; 7 more nominations – Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Director, Song, Screenplay)
Gangs of New York (0 wins; 10 nominations – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing, Actor, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume, Song, Sound)
The Hours (1 Oscar win – Actress; 8 more nominations – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Editing, Costume, Score)
LOTR: Two Towers (2 wins – Sound Editing, Effects; 4 more nominations – Picture, Editing, Sound, Art Direction)
The Pianist (3 wins – Director, Screenplay, Actor; 4 more nominations – Picture, Editing, Cinematography, Costume)

Could have been contenders:
Road to Perdition (PGA/CDG/ASC) 1 Oscar win – Cinematography; 5 more nominations -Actor, Art Direction, Score, Sound, Sound Editing)
Adaptation (PGA/SAG ensemble/WGA/ACE) 1 Oscar win – Chris Cooper; 3 more nominations – Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay
About Schmidt (Globes/WGA/ACE/CDG) 2 Oscar nominations – Actor, Supporting Actress
Far From Heaven (ASC/SAG(2)/WGA) – 4 Oscar nominations – Actress, Screenplay, Cinematography, Score

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (PGA/WGA/ACE nominee)

Since there was never ten, this seems to be a good candidate for the year of 9. I’ll guess either Greek Wedding or Far From Heaven failed to make the cut.

My guess for 2002: 9 nominees for Best Picture

Return of the King – (Globes/PGA/DGA/WGA/ACE/CDG/ASC/ADG) 11 wins – clean sweep – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing, Visual Effects, Sound, Score, Song, Makeup, Costume, Art Direction
Lost in Translation (DGA/ACE/ADG) 1 win – Screenplay; 3 more nominations – Picture, Director, Actor
Seabiscuit – (Globes/PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble/WGA/ACE/ADG) 0 wins; 7 nominations – Picture, Screenplay, Editing, Sound, Costume, Cinematography, Art Direction
Master and Commander (Globes/PGA/ACE/ASC) 2 wins – Cinematography, Sound Editing; 8 more nominations – Picture, Director, Editing, Art Direction, Costume, Makeup, Sound, Visual Effects
Mystic River – (Globes/PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble/WGA/ACE/ADG) 2 wins – Actor, Supporting Actor; 4 more nominations – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actress

Could Have Been Contenders:
Cold Mountain (Globes/PGA/WGA/ACE/CDG/ASC/ADG) 1 win – Supporting Actress; 6 more nominations – Actor Editing, Song, Score, Song, Cinematography
City of God 4 nominations – Director, Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography

Last Samurai (PGA/ASC/ADG) – 4 nominations – Supporting Actor, Art Direction, Costume, Sound

My guess is that City of God, Cold Mountain and maybe Last Samurai would squeezed in and that for 2003 there would have been 6 Best Picture nominees.

Million Dollar Baby (Globes/PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble/WGA/ACE/ADG) 4 wins – Picture, Actress, Supporting Actor, Director; 3 more nominations – Screenplay, Actor, Editing
The Aviator (Globes/PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble/WGA/ACE/CDG/ASC/ADG) – 5 Oscar wins – Supporting Actress, Editing, Costume, Cinematography, Art Direction; 6 more nominations – Picture, Screenplay, Directing, Supporting Actor, Actor, Sound
Finding Neverland (Globes/PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble/ACE/ADG) 1 win – Score; 6 more nominations – Picture, Actor, Screenplay, Editing, Costume, Art Direction
Ray (Globes/DGA/SAG ensemble/ACE/CDG/ASC) 2 wins – Actor, Sound; 4 more nominations – Picture, Directing, Editing, Costume
Sideways (Globes/PGA/DGA/SAG/ACE) 1 win – Screenplay; 4 more nominations – Picture, Director, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor

Eternal Sunshine (Globes/WGA/ACE/CDG/ADG) – 1 win – Screenplay; 1 more nomination – Actress
Vera Drake – 3 nominations – Director, Actress, Screenplay
Hotel Rwanda (Globes/SAG ensemble/WGA/CDG/ADG) – 3 nominations – Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay

So I’m going to guess that all three of these would have made it – and so for 2004 I say 8

Crash (PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble/WGA/ACE/ADG) 3 wins – Picture, Screenplay, Editing; 3 more nominations – Directing, Song, Supporting Actor.
Brokeback Mountain (Globes/PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble/WGA/ACE/ASC) 3 wins – Director, Screenplay, Score; 5 more nominations – Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography
Capote (PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble/WGA/CDG) 1 win – Actor; 4 more nominations – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actress
Good Night, and Good Luck (Globes/PGA/DGA/SAG/WGA/ACE/CDG/ASC/ADG)
Munich (DGA/ACE) 5 nominations – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing, Score

Walk the Line (Globes/PGA/ACE/CDG/ADG)1 win – Actress; 4 more nominations – Actor, Editing, Sound, Costume
The Constant Gardener (Globes/WGA/ADG) 1 win – Supporting Actress; 3 more nominations – Screenplay, Editing, Score
Memoirs of a Geisha (ASC/ADG) 3 wins – Cinematography, Costume, Art Direction; 3 more nominations – Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Score

I don’t think, in the end, Geisha would have made it. It’s possible. But the pattern that emerges is that the heart of the Academy is Directing, Screenplay, Editing. We already knew that. But I do think that Walk the Line and The Constant Gardener could have.

So my guess for 2005 is 7 Best Picture nominees

The Departed (Globes/PGA/WGA/DGA/SAG ensemble/BAFTA/ACE/ADG) 4 wins – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing; 1 more nomination – Supporting Actor
Babel (Globes/PGA/DGA/WGA/Sag ensemble?BAFTA/ACE/CDG/ADG/CAS) 1 win – score; 6 more nominations – Directing, Editing, Screenplay, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actress, Score
Letters from Iwo Jima (Globes) 1 win – Sound Editing; 3 more nominations – Picture, Directing, Screenplay
Little Miss Sunshine (Globes/PGA/DGA/WGA/SAG ensemble/BAFTA/ACE/CDG) – 2 wins – Supporting Actor, Screenplay – 2 more nominations – Picture, Supporting Actress
The Queen (Globes/PGA/DGA/WGA/BAFTA/Eddie/CDG/ADG)

Dreamgirls (Globes/PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble/ACE/CDG/ADG/CAS) 2 wins – Supporting Actress, Sound; 6 more nominations – Supporting Actor, Song, Song, Song, Costume, Art Direction
Pan’s Labyrinth (CDG) 3 wins – Art Direction, Cinematography, Makeup; 3 more nominations Screenplay, Foreign Film, Score

I’m fairly certain that Dreamgirls would have made the cut. Going to throw in Pan’s Labyrinth because clearly they loved that movie. So for 2006 my guess is also 7 Best Picture nominees.

No Country for Old Men (Globes/PGA/DGA/SAG enemble/WGA/ASC/ADG/BAFTA/CAS/) 4 wins – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor; 4 more nominations – Sound, Sound Editing, Editing, Cinematography
Michael Clayton (Globes/PGA/DGA/WGA/SAGx3/ACE/ADG/1 win – Supporting Actress; 6 more nominations – Picture, Director, Screenplay Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Score
There Will Be Blood (Globes/PGA/DGA/SAG+1/WGA/ACE/ADG/BAFTA/2 wins – Actor, Cinematography; 6 more nominations – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing, Sound Editing, Art Direction
Atonement (Globes/BAFTA/ADG/CDG) 1 win – Score; 6 more nominations – Picture, Actress, Screenplay, Costume, Cinematography, Art Direction
Juno (Globes/PGA/SAG+1/ACE/) 1 win – Screenplay; 3 more nominations – Picture, Actress, Directing

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Globes/PGA/DGA/WGA/ASC/ADG/CDG) 4 nominations – Directing, Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography
Ratatouille (ACE/ADG)- 1 win, 4 more nominations – Screenplay, Sound, Sound Editing, Score

This is a tough call. It’s possible Ratatouille could have made the cut. But I’m more sure Diving Bell would be in there. So I’m going to guess that for 2007 there would have been 6 Best Picture nominees.

Slumdog Millionaire (Globes/PGA/DGA/WGA/SAG Ensemble/ACE/ADG/BAFTA/CDG/CAS 8 wins – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing, Sound, Score, Cinematography, Song; 2 more nominations – Song, Sound Editing
Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Globes/PGA/DGA/WGA/SAG Ensemble/ACE/ASC/ADG/BAFTA/CDG/2 wins – Visual Effects, Makeup, Art Direction; 10 more nominations – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actress, Editing, Sound, Score,Costume, Cinematography
Frost/Nixon (Globes/DGA/WGA/PGA/SAG ensemble/ACE/ADG/BAFTA) 5 nominations – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Editing
Milk (Globes/DGA/WGA/SAG ensemble/ACE/ADG/BAFTA/CDG/2 wins – Actor, Screenplay; 6 more nominations – Picture Director, Supporting Actor, Editing, Score, Costume Design
The Reader (Globes/SAG+1/ASC) 1 win – Actress; 4 more nominations – Picture, Directing, Screenplay, Cinematography

The Dark Knight (DGA/WGA/SAG+1/ACE/ASC/ADG/BAFTA/CDG/CAS/2 wins – Supporting Actor, Sound Editing; 6 more nominations – Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Makeup, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects
Wall-E (ACE/ADG/1 win – Animated Feature; 5 more nominations – Screenplay, Sound Editing, Sound mixing, Song, Score

Wall-E is a tempting choice. You could probably get seven out of that. You could maybe add Doubt. But I feel like The Dark Knight was really and truly pushing through, like Dreamgirls. This is why I think 2008 would have had 6 Best Picture nominees.

What I noticed going back in time was that there were very specific movies that stood out as films that I know beyond a shred of doubt would have pushed through – Dreamgirls and The Dark Knight.  There is only one year where 9 seemed like a worthy lineup, but most of the time, the natural number seemed to be rest around 6 or 7.  8 if it was an exceptional year.

I looked at the various films’ placement in the Globes, and the guild awards first.  I then looked at how many nominations they got for the Oscars. Of course, as these things go, if a film is getting heavy placement in the guild awards it’s possible that their own choices could be impacted.   Also, this is the first year they are relying on the number one votes.  When they had five nominees they did not do that.

5% of the total vote is the minimum a film needs to make it to the second round as a nominee.   The first thing they do is put them into piles of #1 votes (thanks to you commenters for clarifying this).  1% is needed, I suppose, to make it to the second round. Anything under 1% is tossed.  Then they go through and they find those with a minimum of 5% of the total vote.  There is some kind of explanation about the surplus rule.  Let me quote a commenter DFP:

My understanding is after Round Two you need 5% of total ballots to be a potential BP nominee. If no more than ten movies are left in the running, those movies are the nominees. if there are more than ten, my guess is the ten highest vote getters are in. But based on what the academy reveals about past analysis that would not have happened, as after Round Two there were never more than nine movies left.

Which means Round One is the round that determines the movies over 5% or between 1-5%. The latter ones then depend on #2 and #3 etc. ballots to help push them over the edge into over 5% territory. If you survive Round One with over 1% you are still in the running.

However it is true that you are much more likely to survive into Round Two if you have 3% or 4% of number 1 votes. A movie with only 1.5% of Number 1 votes will need to be the #2 choice of many many more people to make it through.

But what I keep trying to make clear is 5% isn’t the hurdle for Round One. 1% is.
5% is the hurdle for Round Two after just one round of redistribution of ballots.
Redistributed ballots come from the under 1%, as well as (in fractions) from the big vote getters (somewhere over 10%, maybe 12%, can’t remember which).
According to the accountant’s analysis, that is all it would have ever taken to get 5-10 nominees with no leftovers.

Here is the breakdown of the branches.So what is 5% of the total vote? If there are roughly 6,000 voting members, a fair estimate of ballots returned might be, say, 5,000?  In that case, 5% of that is around 250.  A film would need at least that many number one votes to make it in.  If fewer members turn in their ballots, obviously the number goes down.  If more people turn in their ballots, that number goes up.  But it might be a safe way to look at it to think of the magic number as somewhere between 200 and 350.

Actors Branch
Chair: Annette Bening
Members: 1,183
Art Directors Branch
Chair: Rosemary Brandenburg
Members: 364

Cinematographers Branch
Chair: Caleb Deschanel
Members: 202

Directors Branch
Chair: Kathryn Bigelow
Members: 367

Documentary Branch
Chair: Rob Epstein
Members: 157

Executives Branch
Chair: Robert Rehme
Members: 442

Film Editors Branch
Chair: Michael Tronick
Members: 220

Makeup Artists & Hairstylists Branch
Chair: Leonard Engelman
Members: 118

Music Branch
Chair: Bruce Broughton
Members: 236

Producers Branch
Chair: Mark Johnson
Members: 446

Public Relations Branch
Chair: Marvin Levy
Members: 366

Short Films and Feature Animation Branch
Jon Bloom
Members: 343

Sound Branch
Chair: Kevin O’Connell
Members: 407

Visual Effects Branch
Chair: Bill Taylor
Members: 289

Writers Branch
Chair: Frank Pierson
Members: 375