There is something very wrong with the system the Academy has now put in place to choose Best Picture. Relying on Oscar voters to pick their five favorites of the year should result in five genuinely Best Picture nominees. But what they are saying, more and more, is that these are the five films already chosen for us by studios and their publicists, and from that pre-selected collection these are the ones we like best. In other words, these are the movies specifically made to cater to our tastes that we like best. The overall range of excellence is nowhere near the selections the voters used to give us when their best picture lineup better represented what most people would think of as the best films of the year.
The Academy voters are so isolated, insular and protected that they’ve mostly lost touch with what’s happening in everyday America – both in terms of culture and in terms of cinema. If they were asked to choose ten films, rather than five, perhaps they would then they would be forced to expand their ideas about what defines “best.”
An Academy voter wrote me recently to tell me that I had no business telling them that ten slots were better than five. “It would just invite more mediocrity,” said this voter, a costume designer who has been an Academy member for many decades. He told me that he doesn’t pay any attention to the news, the trades, the ads, the critics, the public – nothing. He looks at the movies put in front of him and he chooses the best among them. He claims that he and people like him are the only ones qualified to make that choice. He said, in so many words, he knows a good movie when he sees one because he is in the business of making movies.
I wrote back to tell him that regardless of how much power he thinks he has, his choices are shaped by the studios and the publicists who choose for him long before those films ever get to his doorstep. In fact, the Oscar race is predictable because the Oscar voters are predictable. They are part of a massive consensus whose particular tastes are specifically pandered to every year. The bloggers who write and predict the Oscars must continually soften the sharper edges of film selections, remove any extra spice or flair, in order to stay true to what they know “they” will like. Think of it as if you’re inviting that one guest to the party who will only eat a certain kind of food – they only like mashed potatoes on their plate. They have a sensitive stomach; that’s all they can digest. No matter what else you try to serve them it will go uneaten. But those mashed potatoes? They’ll gobble them up.
The only two viable options the Academy has at this point is to go back to five or expand to ten. Five would keep them snuggled up all nicely in their beds with nothing to really disrupt their tradition. It would guarantee that they marginalize themselves from the rest of the industry, the culture and the world as everything else evolves around them. At least then the five movies could be celebrated properly, with sweeps and no Ralph Naders to mess things up too much. Five is how they got themselves into this mess in the first place, though, when they couldn’t make room for the Dark Knight and went with The Reader instead. Would the Dark Knight have made it in with ten? Maybe. Would TDK have been a Best Picture nominee when voters were asked to chose 10 titles? Very likely. Would it have made it in with the way they vote and tabulate ballots now? Not a chance in hell.
Though I think it’s better for the Academy and better for the industry if they go back to ten – that would allow for films directed by women, genre movies and animated films — five would be better than the overly-manipulated system they have in place now. It is a failure on every level.
If the Best Picture race was down to five this year, the likely nominees would be Birdman, Boyhood, the Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game and American Sniper. The sixth would have likely been The Theory of Everything because it also had the SAG ensemble nomination. Whiplash might have come close. Without the preferential ballot, Selma would probably not have had a chance. The preferential ballot offered voters the opportunity to put Selma at the top of their ballot in order to get it in the running. But with only a song nomination it has no chance to win. Shouldn’t the other nominees have a chance to win?
The other good thing about five, as opposed to an expanded race, is the way it gives more power to the director. Without the dual unification of director and picture nominations there is less of a focus on the director and more of a focus on the producer where Best Picture is concerned. I guess this is good and bad, depending on your perspective.
If they aren’t going to expand their thinking to include different types of films what is the point of expanding at all? More of what they like doesn’t solve their problem of exclusion. It merely echoes their tastes over and over and over. Twice as much of the same old same old. When they were required to stretch and name ten films each year, they were forced to think outside the box, something they would never have otherwise done, and have rarely been known to do.
It’s not often that I get a direct message from an Academy member who’s angry about something I wrote. But this member’s letter was very telling. Perhaps he only represents a small percentage of that kind of voter but his email is definitely a good reminder of how stuck in the past some of the voters still are, how they seem to have no clue about how the Oscar race works or about their place in the growing, global film community.
In a year like last year, when so many rules were broken and with so many good films to choose from, the results of the process did not seem so bad. Other than Inside Llewyn Davis being left off the Best Picture list, the other nine were great films. It isn’t that the Academy on the whole has terrible taste collectively. It’s that their taste is so limited to one kind of film and that kind of film hardly gets made anymore.
The Oscar Movie is its own genre now. It’s always great when that definition can expand its embrace to includes films like The Grand Budapest Hotel, Boyhood and Birdman. But if I were an employee in the business of films now I would wonder why the “Oscar Movie” is such a shrinking pile and what the future might look like if that pile keeps shrinking.
As we head out of the final phase of this year’s Oscar race, it has felt more like a whimper than a bang, with some of the year’s most exciting films selected out, like Nightcrawler, Foxcatcher, Gone Girl, A Most Violent Year — and the ones that were chosen, like Selma or Whiplash appear in the race as lame duck contenders, with fragile down-ballot support that severely cripples any shot at winning Best Picture. That has to mean, ultimately, that if they aren’t going to go back to ten that they should go back to the way it was done for sixty years and limit their blinkered vision to five Oscar Movies once again.