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Top Six Factors That Prompted Evolution in the Best Picture Race and the Hard Choices the Academy, and Those Who Cover Them, Must Make

The first thing to know is that it’s not all bad. In fact, there is much to celebrate about the dramatic changes the Academy has made to accommodate changing times. One was to diversify its membership by inviting hundreds of talented young filmmakers, many of whom have few film credits to their name, knowing that this “new blood” could shake things up. They did it because it was the right thing to do. The Oscars dedicated their entire show last year to the Me Too and Times Up movements, giving a broad worldwide platform to voices that needed to be heard. They have tried to make their members happy by making changes to the Best Picture race while at the same time keeping an eye toward the changing culture of Hollywood. These are honorable efforts that have already borne fruit and deserve more credit than they’ve been getting in the past week.

The second thing to know is that what’s happening is really not that complicated. In the old days — from 1930 to 2003 — one of the reasons Best Picture winners were always at the top or near the top of the box-office chart was that people had the opportunity to see those movies before Oscar Night. Whereas now when we have a community of bloggers dispatched to film festivals reviewing a movie long before it ever hits theaters — IF it ever hits theaters — we lose a crucial part of the feedback loop that might help make it more of a communal experience. It has become an exclusive experience, with bloggers like me getting to see La La Land way before anyone else. So in some cases, that can work — with films the general public wants to see for whatever reason. But lately, the Oscar race has mostly become like the high fashion industry: an elite party a few people get invited to that eventually influence the kind of clothing people fish out of bargain bins at Casual Corner.

What the Oscars have now become is reversed from their beginnings. Decades ago, Best Picture nominees reflected the kind of movies widely admired by voters and audiences alike. Over time, the Academy would honor films that were at least seen by a wider audience and every so often honor films that people didn’t see but were of such high quality they could not be ignored. A film like Marty, for instance, which wasn’t exactly a box office hit, won because it was rightly regarded as important by Oscar voters. Now, every so often a big movie gets in, like The Martian or Arrival or Avatar, and maybe one day one of those movies will again win Best Picture. But for the past several years most of the Best Picture winners have been more akin to the Martys. Not the Casablancas. Not the Lawrence of Arabias. Not the Sound of Musics. The movies that win recently appeal very specifically to the types of people who vote on these awards and they are almost always about: good people doing good things. That isn’t bad — it really isn’t — but there’s no doubt that the Oscars exist in a bubble onto themselves. I know because I am part of it.

The exclusivity of the Oscar race DOES have broader influence over the industry at large. The ongoing conversation about the need for awards to be inclusive has led Hollywood to make some big bold changes — like putting a woman at the head of the Star Wars franchise. Increased awareness about diversity has led not only to Black Panther and Wonder Woman, but opened doors to movies like Fences, Lady Bird, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight, as well. But even a movie as widely beloved as Lady Bird only sold 5 million tickets in America. Moonlight, 3 million. Great films, seen by no more than 1% of the country. The new wave of first-rate films that do become massive cultural events are never able circle back and make it into the Best Picture race. Critically acclaimed and praised as milestones, by definition it’s theoretically possible that there should be place for Patty Jenkins and Ryan Coogler and Edgar Wright at the table. Instead, even the very best work by brilliant directors like these are branded as “franchise crap” or “popcorn movies.”

I’m going to go through the primary forces that I see have led us to where we are today, and to suggest, to the Academy, how they might think about using their provocative new category.

  1. The Date Change – Nothing has influenced the direction of the Oscars more than their seemingly harmless decision to push their date back from late March to late February. They did this, presumably, to take advantage of February sweeps. In so doing, every aspect of the fast-growing awards race was also pushed itself back. All of the guild awards, all of the critics awards, the BAFTA, everything was squeezed into an abbreviated timeframe. The Oscars, for nearly 80 years up to that point had waited until all of the films were seen by the public. This eventually made December the season to release Oscar movies. Most people are conditioned, even now, to look for Oscar movies around Christmas. But since they moved the date back, many of those prestige movies that open on Christmas Day would never have a shot to win because they have come out too late to get traction. Since they changed the date, no movie has won Best Picture that was released after October, but most of the time at or earlier than Telluride:2017 – The Shape of Water – Venice/Telluride
    2016 – Moonlight – Telluride
    2015 – Spotlight – Telluride
    2014 – Birdman – Venice/Telluride
    2013 -12 Years a Slave – Telluride
    2012 – Argo – Telluride
    2011 – The Artist – Cannes
    2010 – The King’s Speech – Telluride
    2009 – The Hurt Locker (Toronto the year before)
    2008 – Slumdog Millionaire – Telluride
    2007 – No Country for Old Men – Cannes
    2006 – The Departed – October release
    2005 – Crash – (Toronto, the year before)
    2004 – Million Dollar Baby – December, 2014 <—the last late breaker to win, a year after they moved the date.

    Can a movie be a late-breaker now and win? Sure. Stats are meant to be broken but in general, Million Dollar Baby – maybe The Departed – were the last movies to really need the support of the critics AND the general public to drive their popularity.

  2. The Preferential Ballot – The reason that the Academy expanded their ballot in 2009 was because the shut out of The Dark Knight caused such an uproar among movie-lovers that they felt they had to do something to address the rise of high-quality blockbusters. So they expanded their ballot to an even ten nominees. Voters would, theoretically name their top ten favorite movies of the year, which meant they could put down the ones they believed were the most critically acclaimed or most cinematic ally significant and thus make room for movies that might not make their usual top five – animated films, for instance, foreign language films, genre films. movies directed by and about women and of course, blockbusters. In 2009 and 2010 blockbusters did get into the race, so did films directed by women and animated films. But many voters complained that choosing ten was pointless and too hard. Many of the older voter especially wanted to choose no more than five because that is what they’d been doing forever. So in 2011, the Academy made another compromise. They would limit the nominee slots on the ballot to five per member but they would let the accountants determine how many films past five could be included in the category — a mathematical way to expand the race to hopefully get a spill-over that would offer more diversity. Well, with five slots that meant less chance for films by and about women, less chance for blockbusters, etc. It let voters stick close to tradition. The preferential ballot tabulation also rewards films that are “generally well liked” and not hated — movies loved passionately but not by enough voters were the first to be cut. But most voters do not have their number one film counted anyway. unless that film is so overwhelmingly popular it wins on the first round of vote counting (say, a movie like Argo). More likely, their number vote is tossed aside, maybe even their number 2 vote, sometimes even their number 3 vote – so that whatever film is highest on their ballot is counted finally for Best Picture. That has meant a strange kind of way to choose Best Picture since it really doesn’t seem to reflect the majority – rather, it rewards the common denominator while punishing any sort of divisiveness. This is still how the Academy counts its Best Picture race.The preferential ballot excludes any kind of divisiveness, which is why the darkest film that has won since was Birdman, which was broadly liked across the industry (and broadly disregarded by moviegoers.)
  3.  Efforts to be more inclusive – One of the biggest changes in the Academy that I’ve been a part of is the push for films directed by women to be nominated and win, the first films by black directors  to be nominated and win. Both of those things have at long last happened. For The Hurt Locker, the Academy rewarded a film that made just $12 million. Virtually no one saw it. (Before it was nominated for 9 Oscars, it had sold only 1.5 million tickets.) I remember being at dinner parties that year and everyone was certain Avatar would win. But Avatar could never have won on a preferential ballot. They awarded Bigelow and the Hurt Locker because it was the right thing to do for Academy integrity AND it was the movie they preferred by Academy standards. In trying to be inclusive, in trying not to offend, the Academy voters are sometime a bit gun-shy when it comes to voting for movies they “like” rather than movies they know they “should” vote for. All of the bloggers I know pointed to Get Out as a good counter-example to the Academy’s decision to honor “popular” movies. Yes, but Get Out would never have gotten in without the ongoing conversation about inclusivity — in fact, almost every blogger out there thought it would at most, win Best Screenplay. Many point to Get Out getting in for Best Picture and Best Director as a good reason not to try to change things – if a popular movie like THAT couldn’t bring in ratings, which movies possibly could? That’s a good question. No one knows if  nominating and awarding popular movies WOULD, in fact, increase ratings. (Although, the highest rated Oscar broadcasts of the past 20 years were the years that Titantic and Lord of the Rings swept.) It is a gamble that has pissed off the group who are cozy inside the bubble — as well as for those who never cared about the Oscars before.  Inclusivity has been GOOD for the Oscars and they did it without needing a separate category.  I can’t imagine what the ratings might have been if Get Out hadn’t been nominated. Still, it was the exception, not the rule.
  4. The corporatization of the film industry – One of the reasons folks are freaking out is that they strangely assume the popular film category will only be for “superhero franchise crap.” Nothing has driven the divide between Academy movies and popular movies like the evolution towards tent poles that appeal broadly to international audiences. The dependence on branded entertainment — comic books, sequels, remakes and the desire to have $200 million openings — has become so profitable for Hollywood that they really don’t even need the Oscars to make money anymore. Even if they did, the Oscars happen inside a bubble and have virtually zero impact on the kinds of people who pay to see movies that sit at the top of the box office. As my 20-year-old daughter put it, “movies are expensive. When you pay to go see them you aren’t going to pay to see something that you can see on streaming later – you pay to go see the ones that you know have to be seen in a theater.” And she’s right. Inside the bubble we don’t pay to see movies. We are given that exclusivity in exchange for our voting for or writing about movies. We see them not only for free but often in reserved seating. We could see any movie we wanted, from Indies to “franchise crap.” We do not have the burden of our finances. Every so often I pay to see movies — I prefer to anyway — and I am always shocked at the sticker price, even for matinées. It’s a hefty chunk of change and when it’s between that and filling up your gas tank or buying groceries, which are going to choose?At the same time, the state of movies now has become dire for those who still value the art of movies. It has become dire because it’s become, in many respects, like fast food — limited choices, sameness, with expectations met. How to honor that kind of movie when one can barely sit through some of them? In a perfect world, the new category would push studios to take bigger risks with big budget movies — to allow for more artful takes on high concept entertainment. We saw that with the Planet of the Apes series, which was ignored. We saw it with Looper — again, ignored. Even Straight Outta Compton which was made for audiences, not critics, was ignored. Somewhere there is a happy place between films that are complete junk food and films that are actually good embedded in the familiar marketing of junk food. And those are the movies the Academy should target. Honor the films within the genres that are excellent without writing them off  immediately because they reside inside an unacceptable genre.
  5. The rise of independent films – As studios branched off to make grotesque amounts of cash by sticking to a formula they know succeeds (they branded viewers from the time they were babies to be consumers of brands) many of the studios also invested in the independent scene where the movies Oscar voters like really do thrive. A famous director once told me that studios no longer care about the Oscars because they don’t make them money. They participate because it’s like McDonald’s serving salads: it makes them look like they still care about movies. There are more independent films now than there ever have been. The awards race is the one way careers can be built and those directors are often snatched up and plugged into the bigger monster of franchise Hollywood. There are so many good ones, in fact, that there is no need to dip into the franchises for Best Picture. They (we) have plenty to choose from. Trouble is, we’re all seeing them at festivals and on screeners. Most people have zero access to them until long after the awards happen. Movie theaters like playing movies that fill seats. Still, the Oscar race now is mostly like the Spirit Awards. There is very little difference in the kinds of films each chooses, though the Academy will sometimes include a big studio movie.
  6. TV is often better now. Adults, even teenagers, rarely go to the movies because they have flat screens at home and an abundance of choices in the golden age of television to watch — television, which ensures everyone can see everything and talk about everything simultaneously, instantly. There is no exclusivity bubble. Everyone sees everything and thus, they all talk about it. Millennials are not devoted to “seeing movies in theaters” like my generation is (or was). They don’t care. They’ll watch them on their iPhones — unless it’s a movie they HAVE to see big and tall, and that ain’t gonna be Spotlight. There is more risk-taking on television, more investment – there is no Rotten Tomatoes creating a wall of opinion that is sometimes hard to overcome. Netflix has the luxury of making feature films AND creating content for television and yet, people like Steven Spielberg complain about “Netflix movies.” But let’s face it, most people are jazzed about Black Mirror and Stranger Things and The Handmaid’s Tale — there are so many more interesting ways writers and directors and actors can flourish when there isn’t the pressure of opening weekend breathing down their necks. 

The bottom line is this: movies and moviegoing have to become exciting again. The Oscars have to become exciting again to THE PEOPLE OUT THERE, not just those of us “in here,” who are lucky enough to have movies hand-delivered to our doorsteps.

The Academy’s choice to add a category isn’t a bad one. It doesn’t have to be, if the parameters are properly curated. It can be a force used for good, to honor what Best Picture is has always meant to honor: highest achievement in cinema. How do we measure that? Well, partly by critics, partly by how the industry votes — but also by what the people WHO ACTUALLY BUY TICKETS TO SEE MOVIES also think. Save movies by saving movie theaters by bringing back movies that play in movie theaters to the Oscar race.

The films that resonate with the public, the ones they are talking about matter. They matter in every kind of way a film should matter. Films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, the Planet of the Apes series, Super 8, Bridesmaids, Wonder Woman — all popular movies, all ignored. If they were in a separate category for “popular movie” would that be an insult or not? Mark Harris joked that the only way a popular movie should accept an award is if there were three people waiting under the stage to pour a bucket of pig’s blood on its head. It’s a cute analogy and one that backfires on him: Carrie was the one who deserved to win. Carrie was the one the rest of those assholes teased and excluded. I would much rather see a Carrie get up on stage any day of the week than the people who poured pig’s blood on her. Also ironic, since Carrie is one of the “popular” movies the Oscars ignored, so was Rear Window, so was Psycho. So was the greatest film of all time, Vertigo. Leaning popular is not always a bad thing. Time, not the Academy, tells us which movies sustain and which don’t.

Popular can mean anything they want it to mean. It doesn’t have to mean $100 million or higher. It could mean horror films like Let the Right One In or Looper. It could mean documentaries like March of the Penguins.

Perhaps it will help reinvigorate what has become a much too purified lagoon, shut off from the churning sea where everyone else must swim.