As big budget genre films continue to defy expectations, the question always arises year after year: why can’t they get Best Picture nominations? Why can’t Wonder Woman or War for the Planet of the Apes be in the Best Picture race? What will Blade Runner 2049’s fate be? Why can’t the best animated film of the year land a Best Picture nomination? Why can’t a documentary? Why can’t a foreign language film?
The reason is pretty simple: Academy voters have only five slots for Best Picture nominations, not ten. After they count the ballots, the Best Picture lineup can be more than five (usually eight or nine) but voters only get five choices. If you’re choosing the five best movies of the year, you’re probably not going to pick a genre movie unless you’re a teenager. Most of the time you’re going to pick films that either deeply embedded themselves in your heart or films you deem “worthy” of the award for “best” — in other words, films that are “important,” films that move the cultural needle, films that make history. While there was once a time when the Academy chose films because they made a lot of money — Towering Inferno, Fatal Attraction, Jaws, Ghost — nowadays money is not seen as a significant motivator, maybe because so many movies make so much money now and it doesn’t even seem difficult: just stick to the formula, sell it again and again.
The only way that the Academy will expand Best Picture to honor films that don’t fit in the traditional box of “drama” is to give voters options. If they can put down five of the very best, they can also put down ten which represent the very best in other areas of the industry that are growing. For instance, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a film that will likely not be considered for Best Picture because there is just no way enough members are going to consider it their number one favorite film of the year. That spot will be taken up by a film they think of as better representing the traditional art form — nuts and bolts filmmaking that doesn’t rely on computers. Actors are also likely not to choose performance capture over movies with live actors, and the same goes for animated characters.
Despite that both Beauty and the Beast and Wonder Woman are going to likely top the year at the box office (showing what kinds of films audiences are excited by), but neither will be considered for Best Picture because they won’t even be considered in the realm of older white males.
Readers of Awards Daily will already know the answer to this, but for those who don’t know, let’s do a quick history. Here is a timeline of changes to the Best Picture ballot:
- Beginning of the Oscars to 1936 – a variable number of nominees based on how many films were released in a given year – preferential ballot
- 1936-1944 – ten nominees for Best Picture, ten nomination slots – preferential ballot
- 1944-2009 – five nominees for Best Picture, five nomination slots – plurality ballot
- 2009-2010 – ten nominees for Best Picture, ten nomination slots – preferential ballot
- 2011-present – a variable number of nominees, five nomination slots – preferential ballot
The reason they expanded in 2009 was because of the outcry when The Dark Knight was excluded from Best Picture. The critically-acclaimed Christopher Nolan superhero movie had made so much money that it was second only to Titanic at the time. That record has since been broken, but back then it was a really big deal. Also beloved Health Ledger had died, which seemed to only amplify the anger for the snub. Still, the resistance to superhero movies remains. One of the reasons Birdman won Best Picture was because it was seen as the “anti-superhero” movie and thus reminding us that stigma exists.
The Academy changed back to five nomination slots in 2011 because members complained that they couldn’t name ten films, and preferred five. Since then, Best Picture has been mostly about dramas that revolve around central male figures, with exceptions here and there.
What is plainly clear from the years when voters had ten nomination choices was that they were far more daring with the kinds of films they chose as Best Picture nominees. In both 2009 and 2010 an animated film was nominated. District 9 was nominated. Inception was nominated. Films directed by women were nominated. But once 2011 came around things changed dramatically.
So far, the Academy has yet to make this decision, probably because Academy members already said they did not like having to name ten, but preferred five. When you think about one person you can imagine them saying that five suits them better. But when you look at the bigger picture, it becomes clear that it’s a potential solution to both preserve the integrity of the Academy while also expanding their reach.
Another potential way to include some of these films would be to create a new category like they did for animated films. “Best Effects Driven Motion Picture,” or something along those lines. But you get into tricky territory with movies that did crack the list even with five slots, like Life of Pi, Gravity, and Arrival. If the effects are equal to the acting and the story the Academy can roll with it.
Wonder Woman has the rare distinction of being a massive blockbuster directed by a woman. War for the Planet of the Apes has the distinction of being part of a trilogy that far exceeded expectations and upped the game for performance capture.
Because Mad Max: Fury Road did so unexpectedly well, many are using that as an example as to why Blade Runner 2049 might be an Oscar movie. It’s certainly possible. Fury Road was written off early because many believed the Academy wouldn’t go for it since it was a ‘reboot.’ But it was a great movie. The directing was brilliant and George Miller deserved to win Best Director for that. Will Blade Runner be that good? It might. Hard to say. We’ll soon see.
Hopefully this clears up the questions as to why some wildly popular and widely admired films aren’t being considered for Best Picture.