The cliché about Oscar voters is that they like sweeping epics (e.g., Out of Africa, Forrest Gump, Schindler’s List, Braveheart, The English Patient) and they like WWII movies.
They are thought to be mostly boomers, or the Greatest Generation, whose lives were shaped by World War II, who came of age in the 60s and came into man/womanhood in the 70s (and helped shape the still-greatest decade for Best Picture winners). It was thought that this mindset had a lock on the Oscars. Many people really still believe this is true because they don’t pay that close of an attention to the Oscars. But really, epics don’t win that often. Not anymore.
Whether it was A Beautiful Mind beating Fellowship of the Ring when many people thought that was impossible, or The Hurt Locker beating Avatar when people thought THAT was impossible, or Moonlight beating La La Land, or Spotlight beating The Revenant, or even 12 Years a Slave beating Gravity, the Oscars have (over the past 20 years that I’ve been covering them) become smaller, have become more intimate, and have become more insular.
While it’s always been true that “nuts and bolts” filmmaking — movies you can sit anyone down in front of and they will get it if not love it — is how you generally define a film that can win Best Picture, it has become intensified in the era of the preferential ballot. Why is that? Well, it’s because the nature of the preferential ballot runs counter to what Best Picture has always meant.
The idea of a plurality voting for something is how “best” is usually defined. But the preferential ballot discourages that. “Best” also usually means that a film lands at number one, but if it isn’t number one, chances are it’s much further down the ballot. I call this phenom “Big Moves” movies. Movies that make BIG MOVES like Gravity or La La Land or The Revenant or Mad Max: Fury Road. They explode outward as big gasps. That usually means their director will win but it won’t win Best Picture.
If it comes in at number one then it’s not really a relevant factor. Birdman was a “Big Move,” movie but it had no problem coming in at number one. Why? Because it won in quick succession PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble and then went on to win the Oscar. Birdman was an exception — a purely “Hollywood” phenom that swept an industry that had a passionate anti-superhero movie stance. That didn’t translate across the pond, where Boyhood won the BAFTA. So why didn’t Boyhood win the Oscar? Well, by the time Oscar season was underway, remarkably Boyhood was considered the big bad frontrunner and Birdman the scrappy underdog. Industry voters were PASSIONATE about Birdman because Birdman said: my life is becoming nothing but superhero movies and all I want to do is create art. That resonated hard over here, whereas the pure artistry of Boyhood resonated everywhere else.
It was easy to stab a fork in Boyhood’s eye by calling it (or spreading a whisper campaign about it) a “gimmick” and nothing more. By the end, Boyhood is the one that would have had a harder time on the preferential ballot than Birdman. But that wasn’t a split year. When one movie wins all of the major guilds, you can bet it is going to win Best Picture in the era of the expanded ballot. Even without SAG it CAN be true:
2009: The Hurt Locker — PGA/DGA/Oscar
2010: The King’s Speech — PGA/DGA/SAG/Oscar
2011: The Artist — PGA/DGA/Oscar
2012: Argo — PGA/DGA/SAG/Oscar (in theory a split because no Affleck director nom — but in practice, not a split as Argo swept the precursors)
2014: Birdman — PGA/DGA/SAG/Oscar
2017: The Shape of Water — PGA/DGA/Oscar
2013: 12 Years a Slave — PGA/Oscar; Gravity — PGA/DGA
2015: Spotlight — SAG/Oscar; The Revenant — DGA; The Big Short — PGA
2016: Moonlight — WGA/Oscar; La La Land — DGA/PGA
2018: Green Book — PGA/Oscar; Roma — DGA
Now we have:
1917 — PGA/DGA
We do not know if this will be a split year or not. Will it be La La Land or The Shape of Water? Will the BAFTA clear it up? Don’t count on it. They didn’t pick The Shape of Water but DID pick La La Land, The Revenant, and Roma.
But here’s the thing to know about right now. If 1917 wins Best Picture, it is going to blow up recent Oscar history. Not only will it be the first war film to win since The Hurt Locker, it will be the first EPIC to win since The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.
What the Oscars used to be good for, when there were five nominees for Best Picture, was a big sweep. They were never really designed to be an “everybody gets a certificate” kind of ceremony. They were at their best when one movie swept the awards. That lent prestige to the whole thing. They liked it enough that threw all of their awards at it.
As we know now, sweeps simply don’t/can’t happen. Most of us covering the race have always wondered if a sweep can ever/will ever occur anymore under the preferential ballot. Oscar winners usually collect three, maybe four, at the most six or seven Oscars in a night. That’s because there are so many movies in the race and they like to spread the wealth.
But this year, many of the same five or six films are in most of the categories. That really makes this a five or six film race. These are the movies and a chart for the films without acting factored in and with acting factored in. Weirdly, acting doesn’t seem to make THAT much of a difference? What’s odd about this year is that there isn’t one acting juggernaut as there usually is. Later I might build similar charts for previous winners to see how it lays out, but I can bet you a couple of things without even doing the research: I can bet you that we’re a long way from “the film with the most nominations win Best Picture.” Remember when that was kind of a rule? It’s never been completely hard and fast, but it has been a common enough rule, and one the preferential ballot has busted wide open.
But it is weird to have so many movies in the race with so many nominations.
Epics don’t win anymore because the preferential ballot mostly disallows that kind of passionate vote with so many films, especially in a competitive year. Is that changing? If 1917 wins, it breaks with tradition both in how Oscar contenders are made and how they win. No acting nominations, no editing (understandable), but look at how popular it is otherwise. 1917 and Joker appear to be the most popular, along with Once Upon a Time and The Irishman, across the board.
Will the actors make the difference? They might. The films that seem to benefit from that would be Jojo Rabbit and Parasite if you go by previous guild wins. Jojo beat Once Upon a Time at both the Eddies and the Costume Designers Guild. Parasite beat Joker and Irishman at the ACE and Once Upon a Time and Irishman AND Jojo Rabbit at SAG ensemble. But with so few nominations across the board, it’s hard to see Parasite pulling it out.
Let’s just briefly look at the split years, the number of nominations, and what won (in non-split years it doesn’t matter because if this is a non-split year, 1917 will simply win both categories).
Most people who don’t know much about the Oscar race still think that they do. They used to. Best Picture used to be quite the grand affair. Think: Ben Hur. Think: Titanic. War films used to routinely win too, like Platoon, like Patton, like The Deer Hunter, like The Bridge on the River Kwai.
In general, what we know for sure is this:
— Acting matters, screenplay matters. They just do. They are not everything, but they do matter when it comes to a preferential ballot. In fact, no film has won Best Picture in this era of the preferential ballot without at least one acting nomination.
— Both 1917 and Parasite winning would be stat busters. The heat is in original screenplay once again, but if, say, Jojo Rabbit wins the WGA this weekend? That would make me a little bit curious about Best Picture. If Parasite wins — well, then we’re still in stalemate. Once Upon a Time CAN’T win the WGA because Quentin Tarantino is not a WGA member.
In conclusion, what I know is this: two things have already happened that have not happened in the era of the preferential ballot and not for a very long time, or never at all:
1) 1917 is a late breaker and no film has won the PGA or the DGA without having been seen October or earlier.
2) No foreign language film has won the SAG or the Eddie until Parasite.
These are the things I am thinking about. But if 1917 should prevail, one thing we can say for sure is that it will be the first epic in the modern era of the expanded ballot to beat the smaller, more intimate film. So far, it looks like it has a pretty good shot of doing just that, and I can think of three really good reasons:
1) Oscar voters might be yearning for a BIG win again, and especially with an epic that is both emotionally moving and technologically impressive.
2) The time frame is so fast there isn’t a lot of time for counter narratives to form. It can happen, but time is needed. La La Land likely would have won had there been less time.
3) Sam Mendes won exactly 20 years ago for American Beauty — so there’s that kind of magic thing, for a film he made to honor his grandfather could drive this in ways it might not ordinarily drive it (also coincidentally, nearly 100 years ago at the 3rd Academy Awards, Universal won its very first Best Picture Oscar for another emotionally moving, technically impressive WWI film, All Quiet on the Western Front — a film that continues to exude cinematic power to this day).