The Oscars have evolved in different ways since the Academy made three significant changes.
The first is that they pushed their date up by one month from late March to late February. That turned the race into something much more insular, where the Oscars began to be mostly decided at film festivals and private screenings, and still are, with handpicked selections dropped on the doorsteps of Academy members. There are so many films available and with no time to watch them all, these curated choices maintain a choke hold throughout the shortened season. That final phase used to be different. Before 2003, when Oscar Night was in late March (the last gasp of serenity before the internet age), films had time for a reasonable run with the public and the critics before voters decided which films should win awards. Back then it mattered what the public thought too.
As we know, so much has changed since adults rarely even go to the movies anymore compared to the way they used to. What was the Academy to do in the face of new movie-going habits? Start to reward the sort of films that Hollywood was now churning out? Sequels and superhero movies? Well, look at the Tonys. They have no choice but to award productions that make it to Broadway stages, and its a credit to the vibrant theater community that those shows are nearly all, with few exceptions, original works. The decline of that kind of production in Hollywood led to second major change for the Academy. The Oscars broadened their embrace of viewer evolution to include a different path, and that path has now allowed for a new breed of distribution and exhibition options — like streaming services — to be included in the race.
The bottom line is that a relatively small-scale movie like Moonlight or Spotlight can win Best Picture, when such modest films were rarely even nominated in decades past. Massive box office matters less than critical acclaim. As we have seen with The Hurt Locker. Or No Country for Old Men. But even within the confines of this realigned system, people still complain that the Oscars don’t consider some of the best films, much less award them.
The third thing that changed was the expansion of the Best Picture ballot. In 2009, The Dark Knight was not nominated (speaking of films the public liked). There was such a loud outcry as a result (the Weinstein-driven The Reader got nominated instead) that the Academy decided to go back to the pre-1943 method of deciding Best Picture. If there were too many movies and not enough spots, why not simply increase the number of movies?
First, they tried a preliminary ballot with 10 slots to yield ten Best Picture nominees. But voters didn’t really like that very much. Turns out, in a discouraging discovery, that a lot of Academy members had trouble naming 10 films that they liked. They are used to settling on five, and in fact the way the nominations come down you can see that there are still basically five, sometimes six “best picture” contenders that have any real shot at winning, and then 2 or 3 other fine films that will go down in history as one of the year’s best that aren’t quite as good as the rest. In 2011, to placate those grumbling voters, they reduced the chore of naming ten films back to five, with five nomination slots on the ballots. Then the accountants devised a way to wring more than five Best Picture nominees out of the stacks of ballots.
And that is roughly where we are today, except that this year the season has been even shorter, by about two weeks.
How have these changes impacted outcomes In the era of the preferential ballot? For one thing, Best Screenplay has become more locked in with Best Picture than even Best Director. (Sorry, Sarrisian auteurists!)
The Hurt Locker — Original Screenplay + Director
The King’s Speech — Original Screenplay + Director
The Artist — Director
Argo — Adapted Screenplay
12 Years a Slave — Adapted Screenplay
Birdman — Original Screenplay + Director
Spotlight — Original Screenplay
Moonlight — Adapted Screenplay
The Shape of Water — Director
Green Book — Original Screenplay
The odd thing is that for whatever reason, The Academy has rarely given out Best Director and Screenplay to the same person. This trend mostly holds true in the adapted category, but it’s especially true in original. Most of the time, if a film is written and directed by the same person, that person only wins one of the Oscars — either for Best Director or one of the screenplay awards — not both. This has been true throughout Oscar history but especially true in the era of the preferential ballot.
Even Platoon, which was written and directed by Oliver Stone, did not win Original Screenplay. The only times a writer-director has won Original Screenplay along with Best Director and Best Picture is with a co-writer. And even then it’s extremely rare:
The Apartment — Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond
Annie Hall — Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
Birdman — which won Picture, Director and Screenplay (and PGA/DGA/SAG ensemble)
These are the only recent films that won Best Picture and Screenplay when the screenplay was co-written by the directors:
Spotlight — Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
Moonlight — Barry Jenkins and Tarrell Alvin McCraney
Green Book — Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, and Brian Hayes Currie
Moving on to Adapted Screenplay, there is a little more breathing room. For whatever reason, in the modern era Original Screenplays win Best Picture more than Adapted, which did not used to be the case. (Perhaps because a literary pedigree used to carry more weight in the era of elaborate big-screen productions.)
Here are the only films throughout Oscar history that won Screenplay and Director and Picture from the Adapted category:
The Lost Weekend — Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett
All About Eve — Joseph L. Mankiewicz
The Godfather II — Frances Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo
Kramer vs. Kramer — Robert Benton
Terms of Endearment — James L. Brooks
Return of the King — Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh
No Country for Old Men — The Coens
And the ones that won only Adapted Screenplay with the same writer and director:
The Godfather — Frances Ford Coppola
Moonlight — Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney
And that’s it. In the modern era, when the writer and director are the same person, we usually see them win Best Director or Screenplay, but not both. Only if the film is so popular it sweeps the major guilds is that possible.
This trend favors Parasite and 1917 more than Once Upon a Time and Jojo Rabbit. Because the latter two are from solo writers-directors, statistically speaking they become slightly longer shots to win than if they had a co-writer.
So, if it’s more likely to win Picture and Director without Screenplay, then it’s more likely that Parasite or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or Jojo Rabbit could win Best Picture with Sam Mendes still winning Best Director.
Our range of possible scenarios then begins to look like this:
■ 1917 — Picture and Director, Parasite and Jojo Rabbit — Original Screenplay and Adapted Screenplay, respectively
■ Parasite — Picture, International Feature and Screenplay, 1917 — Director
■ Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — Picture, Supporting Actor, and Original Screenplay, 1917 — Director
Jojo Rabbit — Picture and Adapted Screenplay, 1917 — Director