MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

20 Weeks To Oscar: The 4 Kinds Of Best Picture Winners

Considering the weird frenzy that writers get into about The Golden Globes, an event we all know is an absurdity made powerful by a successfully-produced network television show, I tried to come up with a structure to the logic of what happens to movies as they move through the machinery of award season.

There are so many angles that people lean on, most of which are either too generous or too demanding, based on how the writer feels about the movie or the possibility of it winning or losing.

Personally, I would think that if I was wildly unsatisfied about where Oscar was clearly headed in January year after year after year, I would buy a mirror instead of trying to rationalize what is wrong with The Academy. But that’s another discussion.

The first thing to consider is that the set of preconceptions that lasted from, roughly, from 1967/68’s In The Heat of the Night win to 1991/92’s Silence of the Lambs win and then somewhat adjusted from 1992/93’s Unforgiven to the 2008/09 year of Slumdog Millionaire, before the expansion to more than 5 nominees, is now irrelevant.

This will be the eight Oscars with the expanded list of BP nominees, and on what you could once count on, you can no longer count.

Some preconceptions were always just wrong. Many Best Picture winners of decades past were what the media now calls “independents.” United Artists, it could be argued, was a major. They were, like other more aesthetically complex distributors (such as Avco Embassy). They distributed a lot of films. But they were independent minded. Disney was, by the MPAA standard, an independent until 1979. So you can slice it up many ways. UA was sold to insurance company Transamerica in 1967. They won Best Picture 5 of 10 years from 1967/68 – 1977/78.

From 1984, independent Orion, created by escapees from UA, started a run of Oscar wins, winning 4 Best Pictures in 8 years. Also in there, Hemdale won two (one split with Orion) and good ol’ United Artists grabbed one in 1988/89 after the MGM merger.

1992/93 – 2001/02 was major studio, as well as DreamWorks and Miramax under the Weinsteins.

In 2002/03, Dependent New Line won for Rings and a couple years later, Lionsgate won one, then Vantage, Searchlight, and two WB wins in there.

Starting with the expanded field in 2009/2010, only one major studio has won Best Picture. And two more wins were for Searchlight, a closely-held division of Fox that got one win for a film that could well have been distributed by big Fox.

The recent history of Oscar didn’t put every Best Picture win into the pocket of one of the Seven Sisters, as many seem to think. For one thing, one-time MPAA members like Orion and Avco Embassy are the kinds of companies that would not have been members in the last couple decades. Legitimate distributors of wide release films like Lionsgate, Open Road and even The Weinstein Company have not joined. MGM (and UA with it) has dropped out. But more to the point, going back 20 years, only four films branded as distributed by an MPAA signatory has won Best Picture.

But many clear changes have come out of the expansion of the Best Picture field. The most overt is fiscal. Going back 20 years before the expansion, there is only oneexample of a Best Picture winner that was not the #1 or #2 grosser on the list of nominees. In the 7 years of the expansion, no winner has been one of the Top 3 grossers in the group. The highest rank was #4, for Argo. La La Land seems destined to break that ceiling this season.

What changed with the expansion was opening up the whole game by opening up a small part of the game. A number of the movies that have won are movies that may not have even been nominated in a field of 5. Lionsgate is looking at its third Best Picture Oscar in 11 years (two via Summit). Amazon, which has respected the model of theatrical releases, is looking at its first nomination in a couple years of trying. A24 is back again. We’re a long way from Harvey Weinstein being the big bad ogre vexing the majors and almost-major DreamWorks SKG.

And with the expanded group of distributors who are making well-funded serious efforts to get into the game, Academy members have embraced variety. There is even room for some big ol’ studio movies.

I believe there are 4 kinds of Best Picture wins.

Big Love.
Big Obligation.
Big Avoidance.
Default.

These come together in various combinations.

La La Land is a Big Love movie.
Spotlight was Default.
Birdman was Big Love and Default.
12 Years A Slave was Big Obligation and Default.
Argo was a mix of Big Love and Default.
The Artist was Big Love.
The King’s Speech was Big Love and Avoidance (of The Social Network).
The Hurt Locker was Big Love and Avoidance (of Avatar).

You see a lot of Default on that list. Default, for lack of a better word, matters.

Avoidance has become less of an issue. And Big Obligation is barely an issue at all.

Don’t take lack of Big Love for lack of appreciation. Last year, Spotlight was enormously respected from the time it launched. But in the end, none of the other picture were able to grab Big Love and many Academy voters just didn’t want it to be The Revenant. Not enough Revenant dislike to qualify for Avoidance, I’d say, but enough to swing the vote to the Default, which will always stand as a well-liked, respectable choice.

12 Years A Slave was profoundly moving and well-loved at its launch. It was also pronounced the winner by many. But the four months between release (five away from the festivals) and final Oscar voting dragged on and there were a bunch of glorious distractions. But in the end, the weight of 12 Years, the artistry of Steve McQueen, and the fact that it was the first frontrunner came together in a win.

In the case of Argo, it was among a very good group of movies, but not big passion films. The passion of the season ended up being not about a movie, but about Ben Affleck not being nominated for Best Director. People really, really enjoyed Argo. There was Big Love in there. But there were others with similar love and the “snub” turned Argo into the Default choice.

What I keep hearing is a lot of talk about how The Academy system makes it impossible for the group to make challenging choices. But I call “bullshit” on that. Birdman, 12 Years A Slave, The Artist and The Hurt Locker were all challenging, not traditionally obvious choices. These are not milquetoast.

What most of the people who can’t seem to stop complaining are really saying is, “My favorite didn’t win” or “I’m bored… do something interesting.”

And there is something “boring” about the Default movie ending up winning. But the Default only tends to win when a Big Love movie doesn’t arrive to change the game.

In 2016/17, we started out with 3 Defaults. Moonlight was not expected to be one, but it quickly took that status. Manchester by the Sea was expected. La La Land took off fast and has never looked back. All three also have Love, through the expanse of that love varies.

Nothing has come along to take the season away from this trio. The only real change since Toronto is Hidden Figures… which had an event at TIFF that suggested strongly to some of us that it would be in the race in December. People really, really like the movie. But it’s not quite up to forcing itself into the top tier as an Obligation, it’s obviously not Default, no one is avoiding the Top 3, so… on we go.

All these months after the start of the season, I would argue that La La Land has the widest Love, therefore the Big Love… and the win next month. It’s that simple.

5 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: The 4 Kinds Of Best Picture Winners”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    Spotlight was tough, too, and hardly an obvious BP candidate.

  2. Daniella Isaacs says:

    Hidden Figures is surging at just the right time. It beat Rogue One on opening weekend (of going wide) despite being in half as many theaters. People are adoring it. I think it might be a sleeper that ends up winning. Probably not, but I’d say it’s in the number two spot and La La Land’s only real competition. I wouldn’t have said this a week ago.

  3. Bradley Laing says:

    —I currently would like four documentaries to be nominated to the “Best Documentary Feature’s” five slots.
    They are “Fire at Sea,” “Zero Days, “Command and Control” and “The Ivory Game.”

    “OJ: made in America” seems likely to win, if you believe articles I have read.

    If so, then what is the likely hood of any of my four favorites getting a nomination?

    And if they (some of them) are nominated, does the public pay attention to the films and watch them?

  4. Steve C. says:

    “Hidden Figures is surging at just the right time. It beat Rogue One on opening weekend (of going wide) despite being in half as many theaters.”

    Forgot about the fun that getting into the box office weeds can be on MCN.

    A movie BARELY (less than $800K) beats off a film that is in its FOURTH weekend and had dropped 55% from the previous weekend is not as impressive as OP thinks.

    There’s an audience out there for this type of film, especially this time of year. LA LA LAND and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA are not general-audience friendly the way HIDDEN FIGURES is.

  5. Daniella Isaacs says:

    It’s all about perception, Steve C. And the *perception* even in LA, is that “‘Hidden Figures’ beat ‘Rogue One'” and “‘Hidden Figures’ is the #1 movie in America!” and “‘Hidden Figures’ exceeded expectations.” Yes, box office weeds, but it’s surprising how many people actually believe “The Force Awakens” is the top grossing film of all time, when, inflation taken into account, it’s “Gone with the Wind,” or probably really “Birth of a Nation” (1915), which came out way before box office was tracked or even, maybe, “Deep Throat,” which made it’s money under the radar. But, perception…

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