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Best Picture – Why the Current System Rewards Broad Likability Rather Than Passionate Love

Regular readers of this site already know what we talk about when we talk about the “preferential ballot.” We have discussed the topic at length early and often. But some folks still don’t really understand how it works. Recently on Twitter the subject came up examining the differences between La La Land and Moonlight and why Moonlight prevailed.

Oscar voters are still on the older and whiter and male side. Even after the influx of new members, the voting body is still probably 75% white and male. The new members can impact nominations and there’s a chance they might influence wins in other categories. Older members are known for skipping a lot of the tech categories, but newer, younger members might not do that. They might actually vote in the tech categories. That might make predicting the Oscars a little tougher. We’ll need more time to figure that out and we’re nowhere near being able to figure out voting patterns, like we have been for much of the almost two decades I’ve been covering the Oscars when the membership demographics changed very little.

For nominations, every category uses – and has always used – the preferential balloting system. That rewards passion because you can’t even be considered unless you’re a number one with a set amount of people. In some categories it has to be a lot, like around 150, and with other categories it might only be about 25 or so number one votes. But the idea is with nominations passionate love is rewarded. When thinking about Best Picture nominees, it’s necessary to look at which films will inspire intense love.

Once the films are nominated and it comes time to pick a winner, passionate love is only half of the story. The Best Picture winner also must be broadly liked, not hated, and have that thing about it that makes people want to do something good for the film by voting for it.

There are two ways a Best Picture contender enters the race: it is either a film that will win everything or it’s a film that will just barely win Best Picture. There are examples of both since the ballot expanded and the new system was put in place, from 2009–now.

How do we know it’s basically going to “win everything”? It takes the three major guild awards from the PGA, DGA, and SAG:

Won everything
2009 – The Hurt Locker won PGA, DGA and was nominated for SAG ensemble. Avatar did not get a SAG ensemble nomination, which indicated a weakness in terms of a potential split between Picture and Director.
2010 – The King’s Speech won PGA, DGA and SAG ensemble.
2011 – The Artist won PGA, DGA, was nominated for SAG ensemble
2012 – Argo won PGA, DGA, SAG ensemble
2014 – Birdman won PGA, DGA, SAG ensemble

Just barely won
2013 – 12 Years a Slave — tied at the PGA with Gravity, but Gravity won DGA. Gravity had no SAG ensemble nomination, 12 Years did.
2015 – Spotlight only won the SAG ensemble but The Big Short won the PGA and The Revenant won the DGA. The three guilds split all over the place, Spotlight ranked higher and thus pulled in a win.
2016 – Moonlight did not win any of the three big guild awards heading into the race but it did at least have a SAG ensemble nomination. La La Land won PGA and DGA but was not nominated for the SAG ensemble.

Moonlight is the first film to win Best Picture without winning a Major Guild (PGA/DGA/SAG Ensemble) Award Since Braveheart

By far, 2016 has been the strangest, most unpredictable year we’ve seen since the ballot expanded. Moonlight is the only film that won Best Picture since 2009 without winning a single major guild award. The last one to do that since all of the guilds were in place was Braveheart, which ironically is also the only film to win without a SAG ensemble nomination. People kept saying La La Land would win, repeating the Braveheart year for the second time in SAG/Oscar history but it turned out to be Moonlight.

So what happened? Well, it turned out to be a year with competition for that number one film. What ended up happening was that La La Land could not win with over 50% of the votes on the first round; thus, it triggered a recount and in the recount, Moonlight benefited because it earned the votes of anyone who did not pick La La Land as their number one. Or rather, more people ranked Moonlight higher on their ballots than La La Land.

The only indication that La La Land would not seal the deal was the lingering doubt of that SAG omission. Many wrote it off as having only two people in the cast, but if they really love the movie that much, enough that it will “win everything,” the number of people in the cast should not matter. They would nominate it anyway because they loved it THAT much. There was a backlash that set in, just as there was with The Revenant. That backlash thing is a problem and it’s hard to stop once it gets rolling but the Academy traditionally has ignored it, as they did with The King’s Speech. If they love a movie, they love a movie and nothing is going to change that fact. La La Land really hit its peak when it won a record number of Golden Globes before many people saw it. It followed that win a week later with a smashing 14 Oscar nods. That sets expectations really really high, perhaps too high. Finally, neither The Revenant, nor La La Land, nor even Gravity would make people feel they had done a good deed by choosing any of them as Best Picture.

So why does that matter? In a year where the vote is close, where voters are going to split their number one vote, and the movies are ranked, the urge to vote for the film that is doing a good deed for humanity, a vote that “feels good” will often rank higher on the ballot than ones that don’t do that. As good as La La Land was, it was hard to have any sort of urgency to vote for it. You were rewarding Damien Chazelle’s brilliance but you weren’t really doing something good for humanity or for the movie. In contrast, a vote for Moonlight or Spotlight or 12 Years a Slave makes you feel like you are doing something good even if these aren’t your number one choices.

I call it the kicking a puppy theory. If criticizing the film feels like watching someone kick a puppy you know you have a good runner for the win in a split up year where the winner is up in the air. Spotlight, Moonlight, 12 Years a Slave, the King’s Speech — these are all movies you can’t criticize without looking like an asshole. What is that movie this year? Well, there are a few candidates.

The Florida Project could be one.
The Shape of Water could be another.
Darkest Hour could be, unless it has a “frontrunner” tag too early.
Call Me By Your Name is most definitely one of those. Who is criticizing it? No one.

Just remember, when you’re looking at nominations, you need PASSIONATE LOVE. When you’re looking for a winner you first have to figure out what kind of year it is: if it’s a “wins everything” year or a “it’s split up” year. If it’s the former, well your job is easy. If a film comes in and wins PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble it’s probably unbeatable. It would take a massive backlash to unseat it. But if something wins PGA and a different movie wins DGA — well, then you have to start thinking about how people are going to rank the movies.