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The State of the Race – How Many Oscars Can One Film Win?

On Twitter last night, Variety’s Kris Tapley predicted that La La Land would win the most Oscars since Slumdog Millionaire in 2008. That means he believes it could win at least bube, maybe 10 Oscars. The thing is, it’s tricky to win a lot of Oscars now. It’s tricky because Oscar sweeps are rare now.

Only once in all of the history of the preferential ballot and Oscar has the Best Picture winner swept in a shock and awe kind of way and that was in 1939 with Gone with the Wind. I don’t know this to be true but I suspect that the reason they stopped using the preferential ballot was because the more Oscars a film won, the more likely it was to make a lot of money after winning the Oscars. I could be wrong but that is a possible theory as to why in 1944 the Academy switched to five nominees for Best Picture and the film with the most votes won.

A brief history of the preferential ballot. When the Oscars first began they picked as many films as they thought they should in a given year, depending on product. For a few years they had a random number of Best Picture nominees.

1932 – Grand Hotel, 8 nominees for Best Picture, won 1/1 Oscar.
1933 – Cavalcade, with 10 nominees for Best Picture, won 3/4 Oscars.
1934 – It Happened One Night, 12 nominees for Best Picture, won all 5/5 Oscars.
1935 – Mutiny on the Bounty, 12 nominees for Best Picture, won 1/8 Oscars.
1936 – The Great Ziegfeld, 10 nominees for Best Picture, won 3/7 Oscars.
1937 – The Life of Emile Zola, 10 nominees for Best Picture, won 3/10 Oscars.
1938 – You Can’t Take it With You, 10 nominees for Best Picture, won 3/7 Oscars.
1939 – Gone with the Wind, 10 nominees for Best Picture, won 8/13 (plus achievement Oscars). 
1940 – Rebecca, 10 nominees for Best Picture, won 2/10 Oscars.
1941 – How Green was My Valley, 10 nominees for Best Picture, won 5/10 Oscars.
1942 – Mrs. Miniver, 10 nominees for Best Picture, won 6/12 Oscars.
1943 – Casablanca, 10 nominees for Best Picture, 3/8 Oscars.

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Then we move up to the modern age of the preferential ballot, to see how that went down.

2009 – The Hurt Locker, 10 nomination slots, 10 nominees for Best Picture, won 6/9 Oscars.
2010 – The King’s Speech, 10 nomination slots, 10 nominees for Best Picture, won 4/12 Oscars.
2011 – The Artist, 5-10 nomination slots, 9 nominees for Best Picture, won 5/10 Oscars.
2012 – Argo, 5-10 nomination slots, 9 nominees for Best Picture, won 3/7 Oscars.
2013 – 12 Years a Slave, 5-10 nomination slots, 9 nominees for Best Picture, 3/9 Oscars.
2014 – Birdman, 5-10 nomination slots, 8 nominees for Best Picture, won 4/9 Oscars.
2015 – Spotlight, 5-10 nomination slots, 8 nominees for Best Picture, won 2/6 Oscars.

How things work now is that every other category members vote on is judged the old fashioned way, the one with the most votes wins. But the prize for Best Picture is judged in an entirely different way. That one gets the preferential ballot and that means that a film that comes in second can often win Best Picture because it has more number 2 votes than the number 1 film. This is likely what happened with The Revenant and Spotlight last year. The Revenant probably came in with the most number 1s. Spotlight came in with a decent number of numbers 1s but it was almost always a number 2 or a number 3. It was never lower than that because no one hated it. On a five nominee ballot, The Revenant would have likely won Best Picture since it won Director and Actor.

Let’s now look at films that have won the most Oscars, or more than 8.

Titanic – 11/14
Ben-Hur – 11/12
Return of the King – 11/11
West Side Story – 10/11
The English Patient – 9/12
Gigi – 9/9
The Last Emperor – 9/9
Gone with the Wind – 8/13
From Here to Eternity – 8/13
On the Waterfront – 8/12
My Fair Lady – 8/12
Gandhi – 8/11
Amadeus – 8/11
Slumdog Millionaire – 8/10

Gone with the Wind remains, inexplicably, the odd duck in terms of winning the most Oscars with a preferential ballot. By far, it won the most Oscars any film could ever win, as we just saw by looking at the history.

Slumdog Millionaire was the last film to win without the preferential ballot, and I’m guessing that’s the reason — not that it was so beloved — that it won so many.

One of the reasons is simply a logical one — with more Best Picture nominees, it is much more likely that each one of those nominees comes with a group of people who really like that movie, hence no movie can really shine or stand out amid so many options.

What we do know is that with the expanded list, the winners in each category tend to be, at the very least, Best Picture nominees. We will go through that process at a later time.

For a film to win more than eight Oscars, or even more than 6 Oscars that would have to be a movie that took the world by storm as Gone with the Wind did — on a scale that truly blew everyone else out of the water. Gone with the Wind broke the mold, if you will, in terms of its crafts, acting, story. Gone with the Wind is still, when you adjust for inflation, the highest grossing film of all time.

This is certainly not to downplay La La Land’s chances. There is also the possibility that this year there won’t be nine nominees, there won’t be eight, there won’t even be seven. This might be a year that we have five nominees only. Sooner or later one is going to come along. If that happened this year, it’s possible and likely that La La Land could do as Tapley suggests.

But looking at recent history and throughout Oscar history, I think that The Artist is probably your model for wins here and that movie went home with five. The thing with The Artist is that it was competing against Hugo for the crafts awards and Hugo also won five Oscars, tying with The Artist for wins.

In fact, it’s more likely that movies that don’t win Best Picture will win more Oscars than the films that do because those wins are not constrained by the preferential ballot. Life of Pi won five Oscars to Argo’s three, for instance. And Gravity won seven Oscars (the most so far in the new preferential ballot era) compared to 12 Years a Slave’s three.

Let’s assume as we have since Telluride that La La Land has this thing way in the bag. What films might give it some competition?

Best Picture – It has no competition for the win because of the preferential ballot. Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea are La La Land’s biggest challengers at the moment. However, any movie that might challenge it will be somewhat divisive, and divisive films, of any degree, can’t beat non-divisive films now. Ask yourself whether Moonlight and/or Manchester are at all divisive?  To me they aren’t.

When we had Birdman, Boyhood and The Imitation Game it was a tough call. Neither of the three were particularly divisive. Somehow, though, Boyhood ended up getting a divisive wrap during the campaign phase when someone came up with “it’s just a gimmick” and/or it’s not from a major studio. That suddenly made a non-divisive film divisive. Birdman, then, without a target on its back, slid home to a win.

To me, this year, La La Land feels like the Birdman. We won’t really know until we see all of these films voted on by the thousands in the guild awards.

But we think it might go something like this:

SAG Ensemble
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
Hidden Figures or Hell or High Water or 20th Century Women or Loving is my guess

David MacKenzie or Denis Villeneuve or Denzel Washington is my best guess

PGA (the easiest call)
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
Hell or High Water
Hacksaw Ridge

The bottom line is that you can’t really get a last minute surge and win on a preferential ballot. Not possible. There has to be generally agreed upon like and love, but no hate.

I think La La Land can win the following:
Director (with competition from Barry Jenkins)
Actress (with competition from Isabelle Huppert and Annette Bening)
Costume Design (with competition from Jackie)
Score (with competition from Arrival and Jackie)
Sound (with competition from Hacksaw Ridge, Silence)
Song (with competition from Moana)

So seven Oscars is a lot for a film under the current system. I personally don’t think it will win seven. I think it will win five or six

I think the other categories it could win — but might not:
Cinematography – Silence probably wins this, Moonlight also might.
Editing – Hell or High Water could get this, but La La Land might.
Original Screenplay – Moonlight or Manchester likely wins here.
Production Design – possible but how do you compete with Silence?

As far as nominations go, that’s a little easier:

Actor (possible)
Production Design

We could be looking at 12 nominations, which is a lot. But when it comes to wins, it starts to get really competitive, especially in a year where there are really three frontrunners and not one clear one.