After watching Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, and having now seen both No Time to Die and Dune, I think we are set up for a decent chance that we might be witnessing a return to the Big Oscar Movie. It’s been a while since we had those. Smaller, independent movies have dominated the race for the past little while. But no country makes Big Oscar Movies like this one (China is coming close). Big American movies — expansive, massive, expensive, with big stars and big themes that draw big crowds — are what the Oscar business used to be about. And that is why the Oscars used to be something everyone watched as opposed to almost no one.
It is easy to keep the Oscar race tightly controlled, to raise “hothouse flowers” to be sold to a specific, niche audience uniquely crafted to their specific tastes. We’ve been doing that for a while now, with blogs like mine and even major sites like the New York Times and Vanity Fair playing along. We have been serving up the ideal circumstances to be able to claim success in terms of more women and more BIPOC filmmakers included in the race. That is about to be a contractual requirement to play along with the Oscars. We have also helped deliver somber dramas of good people doing good things, voted on by good people doing good things, to send the message that they are and care about good people doing good things.
It’s been this way for so long that we often forget that it didn’t used to be this way, and doesn’t have to be. I think I nearly gave up hope the year that the Academy opted out of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Foxcatcher, and Nightcrawler in the same year, as readers of this site will recall. They opted out of nominating hits like Bridesmaids, Straight Outta Compton, Sicario, Deadpool, A Quiet Place, The Big Sick, First Man, Deadpool, etc. I don’t know if the Oscars would have been more popular if they’d nominated those movies or not. But I think that if you are going to have an expanded list at all, the movies included might want to consider the actual ticket buyers.
But movies like Gone Girl, Dragon Tattoo, Nightcrawler — these movies are generally remembered far more than many of the films that were nominated in their stead. But that’s because they were too dark to receive any support on a top-five list. When you expand that out to an even 10, they have a shot.
One way to look at how the Best Picture race might have gone is through the Producers Guild, who offer a road map. In general, the Producers Guild gets pretty close to the ultimate Best Picture lineup, and that has to do with both groups having around 8,000-9,000 members and both using a preferential ballot. There are big differences, though.
Actors dominate the Academy and not necessarily the Producers Guild, although more actors are producing so perhaps that will start to change. Movies like The Blind Side, Winter’s Bone, Room, and Phantom Thread got into the Oscars but not with the Producers Guild. That’s because they were all anchored by strong performances. That gives movies like Spencer, Eyes of Tammy Faye, maybe even Mass or The Humans a much better chance of getting a Best Picture nod at the Oscars.
Sometimes movies really do just come out of nowhere, like The Blind Side. But occasionally, other forces can trump the PGA, like admiration for a director. That has pushed movies like Tree of Life, A Serious Man, and Amour into the Best Picture race, but these movies were also popular with actors.
The other big factor is the Hollywood Foreign Press. Either their member’s tastes can sometimes match that of Academy voters, or else their influence raise awareness of films that ultimately get in. But sometimes they are the first place a movie shows up when it doesn’t anywhere else, specifically with the critics groups that announce their awards before the Globes do.
The BAFTAs can sometimes be a decent indicator as to the sudden appearance of a movie, as it was with The Father last year. Even if their acting and directing categories are partly committee-selected (at least starting with the past year), their Best Picture and Best British Film categories are still nominated by the entire membership.
But the exciting thing about this year is how many Big Oscar Movies are in play. I expect that will put the focus more on the Producers Guild, as it has in the past, and off of the critics and, obviously, the Globes.
We may not be able to measure box office as well as we could pre-pandemic, since we only have a handful of films that have even made $100 million. But we can kind of imagine that some of these movies would land in that zone.
Some of the films that might land on the Producers Guild list, depending on how things go:
The Power of the Dog
West Side Story
The Last Duel
House of Gucci
No Time to Die
Don’t Look Up
A Journal for Jordan
Either way, if they include a few of the big movies, that should go a long way to reviving the code blue Oscar ceremony. Here’s hoping.
Needless to say, the Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild both have influence. We can focus on them in a separate piece. But today is about the PGA. Let’s take a look back at their history: