If you look back at this year, you’ll see how we arrived at Best Picture nominees that very much tell you what life was like in the film industry in 2020. There wouldn’t be COVID movies yet, or Trump movies, but there would be enough here to mark the point in history when Hollywood and the Oscars were completely transformed.
We saw an industry brought to its knees. We saw streaming services rise to the occasion. We saw zoom call awards shows and we saw lots and lots of conversations around identity – race, gender, sexuality. The Oscars, and the Globes, and the BAFTAs were meant to rise to the occasion in all ways. Give or take a massive controversy or two, they mostly did.
No matter how surreal it was getting here, now matter how hollowed out everything seems, the Academy still managed to find and nominate really great films, including a bona fide masterpiece in David Fincher’s Mank. It’s always a good thing for the Oscars when they nominate films that good. Usually they don’t win but they stake their claim in history, so when we look back we can remember that – even as weird as things got back then – that movie still got made and somehow earned that many Oscar nominations.
Now we know what movies will define us as we live through this strange era, twenty years past the new millennium. Twenty years ago Gladiator, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Traffic, Erin Brockovich and the Harvey Weinstein get, Chocolat. Gladiator won and then the Oscars spent twenty years changing completely.
Two things changed the Oscars – pushing the date back by one month and expanding the Best Picture ballot. Also changing the Oscars – the democratization of the internet and news. The blogs, then social media have transformed how the Oscars function. Back in 2000 there was barely a working web. It was just past the dotcom bomb and no one though anyone would make any money online. Twenty years later here we are, with Amazon, which only sold books back then, sending us whatever we want, groceries, clothes – and movies. Amazon did well in the Oscar race too, as did Apple, which saw its first nominations this year with Wolfwalkers.
Hulu has a Best Actress contender and Netflix has two Best Picture contenders, along with many nominations in every category. Disney no longer dominates animated films, America no longer dominates Best Picture. Movie stars no longer drive Hollywood. And this year, there was no market to decide status and power at the box office.
And yet, here we still are. Somehow.
The Oscar voters delivered an historic array of diverse contenders, which was their aim, for the most part, with two films directed by women up for the top awards. Twitter didn’t have much to complain about – certainly not enough to throw a full-blown career-ending fit. There did seem to be more than enough diversity and inclusion to go around.
The two strongest films with Black casts that seemed headed for the Best Picture race were Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and One Night in Miami, both films were honored by WGA, PGA, SAG ensemble but missed with DGA and now, with Oscar.
The preferential ballot is a tricky thing to figure out. It’s likely many voters had both films on their ballots but they had them farther down the list, thus the films that landed at number one and two and even three and four would have a better shot at landing a spot at the Oscars. That is the main difference between the current ballot system (2011-present) and the ballot system that will be in place next year (2009, 2010, 2022…).
Here is how Marshall Flores explains the differences between the two kinds of ballots.
Under the current system for determining nominees, there is effectively a maximum of three rounds of voting. Those three rounds can be categorized in this way: 1) there’s an initial count of #1 choices; any film with at least 9.1% of the vote gets nominated 2) If a film has enough #1 support (11%) to trigger the surplus rule, bonus fractional votes are distributed to other films, 3) all films not receiving at least 1% of the vote are eliminated and will have their ballots transferred to the next highest ranked film still in contention; any film with at least 5% of the vote gets nominated. This is in contrast to the preferential system that was used for 2009-2010 where films with the lowest amount of support would be eliminated one at a time and their ballots would be redistributed – a process that continues on a round-by-round basis until there were 10 films left.
Because there are only a few rounds of voting — fewer than the five nomination slots available to voters — in practice it’ll be rare for the bottom rankings on a ballot to actually get tabulated in voting. Therefore, the top rankings, especially #1 votes, are most critical to securing a nomination. A good rule of thumb, determined from the many detailed exercises simulating the process over the years at AwardsDaily performed by myself and Dr. Rob, is that a film needs at least 3-3.5% of the #1 votes in order to be nominated. Not to say that a film coming in lower than that level won’t be nominated, but that film will need significant #2/#3 support to hit 5% by the end of voting in Round 3. As such, passion drives the composition of a Best Picture lineup under this system compared to the more consensus-driven dynamics of the standard preferential process.
Given Nomadland’s strength overall, despite not having a SAG ensemble nomination, it remains the frontrunner. Chloe Zhao will win Best Director and Best Screenplay at least, while Best Picture might go to Nomadland but it might go to something else.
Oscar voting doesn’t even start until a month from now so that gives publicists a lot of time to try to compete to upset in Best Picture. Since they are navigating the newly discovered and very treacherous “Aisle of Woke,” they will have to proceed with caution as any misstep might awaken the Twitter giant to start throwing sacrifices into the public square for the ongoing humiliation ritual. Isn’t this fun?
Whatever wins won’t win by much probably
Gone are the days of the sweeps. With the preferential ballot, Best Picture doesn’t win a whole bunch of Oscars:
Parasite-Picture, Director, Screenplay, International -4
Green Book – Picture, Screenplay, Supporting Actor – 3
The Shape of Water – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Production Design – 4
Moonlight – Picture, Screenplay, Supporting Actor – 3
Spotlight – Picture, Screenplay – 2
Birdman – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography – 4
12 Years a Slave – Picture, Screenplay, Supporting Actress – 3
Argo – Picture, Screenplay, Editing – 3
The Artist – Picture, Director, Actor, Costumes, Score – 5
The King’s Speech – Picture, Director, Actor, Screenplay – 4
The Hurt Locker – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing, Sound, Sound Editing – 6
So 6 was the most in the era of the expanded ballot but the average is less than that.
As opposed to ten years prior:
Slumdog Millionaire – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Song, Sound – 8
No Country for Old Men – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor – 4
The Departed – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing – 4
Crash – Picture, Screenplay, Editing – 3
Million Dollar Baby – Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actor – 4
Return of the King – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing, Production Design, Costume, Makeup, Score, Song, Sound, Visual Effects – 11
Chicago – Picture, Supporting Actress, Production Design, Costume, Editing, Sound -6
2001 – A Beautiful Mind – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actress – 4
2000 – Gladiator – Picture, Actor, Costume, Sound, Visual Effects – 5
We haven’t seen any recent years that match the popular sweeps of Return of the King or Slumdog Millionaire. We’ve seen a lot of the other kinds of winners, like Crash or The Departed. The expanded ballot does not allow for films to win everything. Still, given the fact that Mank has such a big lead, it isn’t hard to see how there could still be a possibility for a sweep even in the era of the expanded ballot.
There is potentially a scenario someday where a Best Picture winner on a preferential ballot could sweep. We know at least one did – 1939’s Gone with the Wind. But it hasn’t happened in the modern era to the degree it used to happen. That’s because voters now tend to prefer to award all the Best Picture contenders with something. If there are only five it’s easier to pick the same movie over and over again. But if there are 8 or 9? Then they want to spread the wealth. While it’s no uncommon for a film to come in with 10 and walk away with no Oscars (True Grit, American Hustle), it is more common for voters to spread the wealth.
That said, the nominations are a little … odd. For instance, the only two movies that have the requisite nominations we usually look for in a Best Picture winner:
are Nomadland and Promising Young Woman.
That means, for the first time ever, one might see it as a competition between two women. But is that the whole story? It might be. But there are other factors to consider. For one thing, neither of them has a SAG ensemble nomination. That is the driving factor for a film to surprise in Best Picture. They don’t have to have won it (Parasite), but just being nominated helps (Moonlight). Not having it means there might not be support from the actors in enough numbers to change the top vote.
Here is how they break down in most unusual fashion:
Mank – Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Costumes, Production Design, Score, Sound, Makeup and Hair – 10
[big gaping space]
Nomadland – Director, Screenplay, Actress, Editing, Cinematography – 6
The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Editing, Cinematography, Song – 6
Judas and the Black Messiah – Screenplay, Supporting Actor X2, Cinematography, Song – 6
Minari – Director, Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actress, Score – 6
Sound of Metal – Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actor, Editing, Sound – 6
The Father – Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actress, Editing, Production Design – 6
Promising Young Woman – Director, Screenplay, Actress, Editing – 5
The way these are distributed is strange. The number of films nominated in any category without a Best Picture nomination would be:
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Actor, Actress, Costumes, Makeup & Hair – 5
News of the World – Production Design, Cinematography, Score, Sound – 4
Soul – Animated Feature, Score, Sound – 3
Borat – Supporting Actress, Screenplay – 2
Tenet – Production Design, Visual Effects – 2
Mulan – Costumes, Visual Effects
Emma – Costumes, Makeup and Hair – 2
Pinocchio – Costumes, Makeup and Hair – 2
Pieces of a Woman – Actress – 1
United States vs. Billie Holiday – Actress – 1
Da 5 Bloods – Score – 1
Midnight Sky – Visual Effects – 1
Greyhound – Sound – 1
The White Tiger – Screenplay – 1
The only Screenplay nomination that isn’t tied to a Best Picture winner is the White Tiger.