Wonder Woman was, for many, the film of the year. It was certainly the film of the year for many women who were stunned and thrilled to see the big lie Hollywood has told for so long be so gracefully disproved. Now the truth is certified. Women really can direct movies that make shit-tons of money. Women went to the theater in droves and cried when they saw, for the first time, a female superhero anchoring a movie. Some might have been lulled into thinking that because I, Tonya, Molly’s Game, and Wonder Woman all got Producers Guild nominations, that those movies might then have a shot at Best Picture. Right? Right? So when fans of Wonder Woman saw that it had been left off every Oscar category this morning they were outraged, and rightly so. What has happened to the Oscar race when landmark films that make such an impact are not chosen among the best of the year? It makes no sense. It makes no sense until you realize what kind of voting they do, why they do it, and why things turn out the way they do.
When I first started covering the Oscars, no woman had ever won Best Director. No black actress had ever won for a lead performance. No film by a black director had ever won Best Picture. All of these things changed in the years I’ve been here. I feel proud to have been around to witness that kind of change and to see the Academy adjust itself and adapt to a changing culture and a changing industry.
The Dark Knight
Since the end of WWII through six decades to 2008, there were always five nominees for Best Picture. Five nomination slots on the ballot, five Best Pic nominees to match the five nominees in all the other categories. Beginning in the late 1970s, the industry underwent a financial transformation of banking on epic high-tech big effects movies, many of them in the sci-fi/fantasy and superhero genres. Most of these were thrill rides with little else to recommend them. Then along came The Dark Knight, a genre-busting work of art that was so good and made so much money that no one could believe it when the Oscars shut it out of Best Picture. In its place was The Reader. Why The Reader? Well, Weinstein, for one thing. But really it’s because the nomination process back then rewarded consensus. For The Dark Knight to have been nominated, it would have ultimately needed the consensus support of at least 20% of the entire voting membership. And this was the membership 10 years ago: long before the Academy membership began to more accurately reflect the kind of filmmakers that were providing Hollywood’s bread and butter. It’s the height of absurdity to imagine enough Academy members who joined in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s would ever name as their number one favorite a movie so different from any that they could ever conceive of making.
But the public outcry was enough to motivate the Academy to change their methods if not their members’ minds. They chose to test the theory that if their Best Picture ballot doubled from five to ten slots, then a broader range of films would find a place at the table.
So in 2009 they gave voters ten slots to fill on their nomination ballots in the hope that ten nominees would embrace the evolution in films now being produced. The idea was to give voters the flexibility to choose films they might not ordinarily pick if they were restricted to the usual five choices. Imagine how your own list of the year’s best movies would look like if you could only choose five versus 10. It makes a big difference. With 10 slots, you have the option of saying that you can appreciate superhuman heroes and Churchillian heroes alike. If you only get five, your choices must be winnowed down.
In the two years (2009 and 2010) when the Academy offered ten nomination slots and ten nominees (as the Producers Guild still does) this is how Best Picture looked when set side by side with the PGA:
PGA / Oscar
Both years an animated film made it in, even with an exclusive animated category. Likewise films directed by women got in. Four of them were nominated for Best Picture in that two-year span: in 2009, The Hurt Locker and An Education; in 2010, Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right. Genre films like District 9 and Inception were included from as well. 10 nominations appeared to have at least addressed the problem of including films you wouldn’t ordinarily think the Academy would go for back then.
But then the other shoe dropped. Many of the Academy members complained that they didn’t want to choose 10. They only wanted to choose five. Some were also mortified when it was revealed that more than a few of their fellow film veterans had a soft spot for movies like The Blind Side. The Academy scrambled to come up with a compromise. They decided to go back to five nomination slots for Best Picture, and accountants were asked to devise a formula that would broaden the Best Picture slate from anywhere between five and ten films while finding a way to shut the door on less typical nominees before anything too unusual got in. Since then we’ve only ever had years with eight nominees and other years with nine.
It sounded good, right? People would concentrate their favorites to a handful of a pics, making them more passionate about those they do choose. Many members really only want to name one movie (though that doesn’t work with a preferential ballot — I don’t know if many of the members even understand that). But the immediate effect: no more animated films have made the cut for BP and almost no movies directed by women have either. Genre films are once again uninvited to the party.
The problem was, as far as I can tell (and I’ve been tracking the race since 1999 when there were only five, through the years with 10 and now with the random number) is that when the choices voters are allowed are narrowed down, too many of the voters fall back into default mode, just picking more of the typical kind of movie that they’ve felt comfortable with for 50 years. The current compromise system that’s in place has resulted in homogenized choices and usually fails to bring in a wider variety. While many great films each year are still recognized, the blinders voters wear in the nomination stage is limiting. It’s been especially disastrous for women, as we have seen films starring women at the Oscars dwindle while male-centered dramas continue to dominate. Also, darker and more difficult films have had a harder time getting through (this year was no exception to that).
Now let’s look at how things changed since the new process took effect. This is from 2011—present:
You might look at these and think: so what’s the problem? Amour is better than Skyfall, you might think. But how great would it have been if Bridesmaids and Skyfall had gotten in, along with films like Amour? No skin off their nose, after all, since it’s never more than a difference of one or two titles.
It was especially bothersome in 2014 because Foxcatcher, Nightcrawler, and Gone Girl were all brilliant films, but they had no chance making it with a five nomination slot ballot because most voters didn’t have room for such darkness after filling their ballots with more aspirational or uplifting fare. It’s almost a miracle that Selma made it in, and we’re forever grateful it did.
Ex Machina, Straight Outta Compton, and Sicario are three other worthy nominees, and heck, even Deadpool would have been a nice change from the norm, right? It would certainly start to chip away at stiff traditionalism. And since the Academy stopped nominating animated features, the PGA mostly stopped as well. But this year, a nod for Pixar’s Coco would not have been out of line. Ditto with the highly-received Inside Out.
So far, we’re not seeing much interruption in terms of women — but we really did see it this year:
It could be argued that Phantom Thread is driven by its women, but Wonder Woman is both one of the most popular films of the year and also a film directed by a woman. I, Tonya was produced by its nominated actress who might have made history. But alas, there was effectively no way these films could make it on a five nomination slot ballot.
The response by the Academy to its self-inflicted handicap has been reasonable enough: change the membership and hope that fresh faces can solve the problem. Maybe it will. There are encouraging signs that it has. But why not make the goal also easier to achieve by simply going back to 10 options per voter in the nominations phase and a solid 10 Best Picture nominees? Phantom Thread, Selma, and Winter’s Bone would still be included, along with movies admired by the passionate few. Movies like Wonder Woman, Inside Llewyn Davis, and, dare we dream, Carol.
So when people say “if they had ten nominees Wonder Woman would still not have made it in,” they probably assume you mean if they expanded the lineup to include one more movie. But I believe that is incorrect. Wonder Woman might have made it in if they had 10 slots to nominate and not five. That’s the case I’ve been making for years, and I hope they consider trying it again before I retire.