How to Win a Best Picture Oscar

noms_announcedDuring the late fall and early winter a reaction unique to that period of the year is almost inevitably triggered in me when I watch the trailers for movies about to appear in a theatre near me. Rather than thinking whether or not I might like to see whatever is on offer when it’s released, a quiet little voice in the back of my head starts to giggle as if trying to keep in an embarrassing secret, and whispers, “here fishy, fishy, fishy.”

I just can’t resist stretching an analogy.

Oscar bait is one of those delightfully contentious, indefinable, “I know it when I see it” terms that gets tossed about a lot in film criticism, especially during awards season. Generally speaking, the term refers to a film that seems designed solely for the purpose of winning Academy Awards and is released in the late fall or early winter to ensure it remains fresh in the minds of those who vote for those awards. It’s most often used as short-hand for what’s wrong with American film production and how it’s honoured by an Academy that seems to have a predilection for a very specific type of film when it comes to deciding the year’s best. Predilections that encourage compromise, mediocrity, the appearance of prestige, if not the substance of it, and that valorize films that are easy to like and alluring.

I very nearly made a joke about lures there. I did warn you that I like to stretch analogies.

My little voice doesn’t act out of cynicism. I’m fully aware that an Oscar isn’t just a congratulatory gesture from a trade union to its members, but is also an effective means of stretching the financial gains of a release. It is enough for some that a movie has been nominated for Best Picture to warrant buying a ticket, and the use of nominations and wins as a marketing strategy is not a new phenomenon. I taunt the metaphorical water dwellers because I’m fascinated by formulas, by why certain stories are told the way they’re told, by the categories we draw up for the types of narratives that result, by genres, by character archetypes, and by how all these things are stretched, pulled at, and redefined by new films, or by how we talk about them.

Like most genres or types when one actually attempts to concretely define them, what constitutes Oscar bait is tricky to pin down. In 2014 two UCLA professors attempted to define mathematically what they re-termed “Oscar appeal” to avoid the original term’s “pejorative connotations.” Taking a sample of over 3000 films released over a 24 year period, Gabriel Rossman and Oliver Schilke examined a number of factors, including release date, which studio distributed the film, and genre designations and keywords gleaned from the IMDb. The result was an algorithm that churned out Come See the Paradise (1990) as the most appealing film to Oscar voters, a film which failed to either garner any nominations or do well at the box office.

The idea that a mathematical formula could be devised to account for something that is both subjective and, as a result, somewhat variable, is already a problematic notion in general, and more particularly in this case because one of the study’s key metrics was genre designations from the IMDb, a website which tends to list multiple, user-generated labels, some of which could be contested. But what took me aback is that Rossman and Schilke’s algorithm touted The Return of the King as the film with the second highest Oscar appeal rating. While the film has certain commonalities with past winners, it is also a bit of an aberration when it comes to Best Picture honourees, as something of an FX-heavy blockbuster fantasy sequel, attributes not typically cited when listing the qualities of an example of Oscar bait.

Whether or not they were intentionally designed to win awards, I decided to draw up a list of characteristics of past Best Picture winners to see if I could pinpoint what type of film actually wins the award more firmly. I took a much smaller sample, winners over the last 20 years, to keep my list manageable and within the parameters of current Oscar voters’ tastes, and because I have actually seen the majority of the films in question (all but 2) and can therefore go a little bit beyond keywords. The result is as scientifically unsound as befits any study of what constitutes quality in film, and is in no way meant to serve as a predictive tool, but it does cast a slightly less wide net (last fishing reference, promise) than simply describing something as bait for the Academy.

The Films

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Based on…
Only four of the twenty winners were original concepts not adapted from previously published material, with some minor caveats. The script for American Beauty was a modified version of a play screenwriter Alan Ball had previously begun but never finished. Gladiator was based on an original pitch by scriptwriter David Franzoni, but his early drafts were revised by two other scribes after director Ridley Scott was brought on to the project, and then revised again by Franzoni. Crash and The Artist, while inspired by real events – writer/director Paul Haggis’s experience of crime in L.A. and the history of Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound cinema respectively – are original concepts.

Nearly half of the films were drawn from true events to some degree, either with an eye toward retelling a historical narrative, or simply setting an otherwise invented story against a significant event. Four of these films were centered on historical conflicts: Braveheart on the First War of Scottish Independence in the 13th Century; The Hurt Locker on the Iraq War; The King’s Speech on WWII; and Argo on the Iran hostage crisis. Braveheart was also primarily concerned with a single, central historical figure (William Wallace), as were The King’s Speech (King George VI), Shakespeare in Love, A Beautiful Mind (John Nash) and 12 Years a Slave (Solomon Northup). While Titanic includes historical figures, its main characters are fictional creations. Similarly, The Hurt Locker’s protagonist does not seem to be based on any one real soldier, but on the collective experience of bomb disposal units as observed by scriptwriter Mark Boal, who was embedded with such a unit as a freelance journalist.

The others were based on novels, save for Chicago which was adapted from the musical of the same name, which was in turn adapted from a play of the same name, Million Dollar Baby which was based on a series of short stories, and The Departed, which was based on Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s 2002 Hong-Kong thriller Infernal Affairs and is the only remake in the group.

Heroes and Heroines
Almost all of the winners have male protagonists. Only Chicago and Million Dollar Baby center on women, while The English Patient, Titanic, and Shakespeare in Love split their focus between romantic partners.

As a network narrative – a film composed of the stories of a series of different characters that interact or are thematically linked – Crash can be said to have no central figure at all.

These heroes are also almost exclusively white, with the exception of the protagonists of Slumdog Millionaire and 12 Years a Slave.

Generic classifications are a tricky way of distinguishing between the winners. While we all have a sense of what we mean when we evoke terms like “thriller” or “romantic comedy,” most genres have indeterminable borders, making it difficult to define them concretely. Most films are also generic hybrids, able to be placed within multiple categories, rather than pure examples of a single type.

There are, however, some broad commonalities between the winners that can be drawn without falling too deeply into the debates surrounding the definitions of specific genres.

Very generally speaking, all of the twenty winners could be classified as dramas. Some are more unremittingly serious than others. For example, Shakespeare in Love, is largely a comedy for its first half, more specifically a romantic comedy focusing on the formation of a couple and the obstacles placed in their way, until those obstacles become insurmountable and the film concomitantly turns towards the dramatic, mirroring the structure of Romeo and Juliet, the play whose creation the film dramatizes.

Twelve of the films are also period pieces, taking place predominantly in the 20th century, save for Gladiator, which sets its story in ancient Rome, Braveheart, which focuses on events in the 13th century, Shakespeare in Love, on London in the 16th, and 12 Years a Slave, on a narrative of 19th century America.

Despite the perception that bio-pics (films focusing on the life of a historical figure) are the epitome of Oscar bait, only four of the twenty films (Braveheart, A Beautiful Mind, The King’s Speech, and 12 Years a Slave) could be labelled with that generic classification. (You could make the argument for Shakespeare in Love, but I would have to take the opposite opinion against you).

Chicago and The Return of the King are the generic outliers. While both films share some generic markers with the other winners – Chicago is a period drama, and one could argue for a similar designation for ROTK, since it emulates a period aesthetic despite taking place in an invented world; like Braveheart, The Hurt Locker, and Gladiator, ROTK centers on armed conflict; Chicago focuses on crime like The Departed and No Country for Old Men – they are the only musical and the only fantasy film on the list, ROTK being the only fantasy film to ever win Best Picture.

Box Office (all data is from BoxOfficeMojo)
Most of the winners made approximately $100 million domestically. The lowest grossing film is The Hurt Locker at $17 million, but it had the most limited release of all the films, having been shown on only 535 screens at its peak, compared to ROTK’s 3,703 screens at its widest release.

Titanic and ROTK occupy the other extreme, with over $600 and almost $400 million respectively, and sitting at 2nd and 23rd in the all-time highest grossing film rankings. At 33rd Forrest Gump is the only other film in the top 50.

Budget (all data is from BoxOfficeMojo).
The estimated budgets of the films run from $6.5 million (Crash) to $200 million (Titanic), with an average of $49 million.

All of the films made up their production budgets, with Slumdog Millionaire gaining the best returns (942%) and Braveheart the worst (105%).

All the films were rated either R or PG-13, with the Rs outnumbering the PG-13s by a score of 13 to 7.

At the Helm
All but one of the winners were directed by men, with Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker the only film on the list helmed by a female director. Bigelow also received the Best Director honour that year and remains the only woman to have won the prize.

The directors of eight of the films (Ridley Scott, Robert Zemeckis, Ron Howard, Peter Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers, and Ben Affleck) had previous Oscar nominations or wins, with Scorsese having received the most nominations at 7 (5 for directing and 2 for writing) but taking home none of those awards. Zemeckis’s nomination was for writing Back to the Future. Ben Affleck won for writing Good Will Hunting. Clint Eastwood had won or been nominated in the widest range of categories, as a director, actor, and producer, as well as receiving the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1995. The Coen brothers were similarly nominated in multiple categories, for directing, writing, and editing.

Ten of the directors had less than 5 feature direction credits to their names before the production in question won Best Picture: Mel Gibson and Paul Haggis had 1 each; Ben Affleck and Steve McQueen had 2 each; Anthony Minghella had 3; John Madden and Tom Hooper had predominantly worked in television; Michel Hazanavicius had predominantly worked in French television; American Beauty was Sam Mendes’s feature debut, as was Chicago for Rob Marshall.

Double Duty
Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), James Cameron (Titanic), Peter Jackson (ROTK), Paul Haggis, (Crash), the Coens (No Country for Old Men), and Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) also wrote their winning films.

Eleven different studios were responsible for producing/distributing the 20 films : ParamountForrest Gump, Braveheart (with Fox), Titanic (with Fox), and No Country for Old Men (with Miramax) – MiramaxThe English Patient, Shakespeare in Love (with Universal), Chicago, and No Country for Old Men (with Paramount) – and Warner Brothers – Million Dollar Baby, The Departed, Slumdog Millionaire (with Fox Searchlight), and Argo – have the most nominated films to their names with 4; DreamWorksAmerican Beauty (with Universal), Gladiator (with Universal), A Beautiful Mind (with Universal) – and UniversalShakespeare in Love (with Paramount), Gladiator (with DreamWorks), A Beautiful Mind (with DreamWorks) – have 3 winners each; 20th Century FoxBraveheart (with Paramount) and Titanic (with Paramount)— Fox Searchlight – 12 Years a Slave and Slumdog Millionaire (with Warner Brothers) – and the Weinstein CompanyThe King’s Speech and The Artist– can claim 2; and New LineROTKLionsGateCrash – and Summit EntertainmentThe Hurt Locker – each have 1 winner.

So, how do you reel in a Best Picture Oscar?
What have we learned other than that satisfying my curiosity leads to an appalling amount of research? If you want to win a Best Picture Oscar base your film on true events or a previously published novel. Focus on a white male protagonist, preferably one that lived in a time period other than our own. Your film should probably be an adults only affair. Get your money from Paramount if you want an established studio, or the Weinsteins or Fox Searchlight if you’re independently minded but want a more current juggernaut behind you. And get about $50 million. Get a male director, established or not. Make about $100 million domestically. And stay away from comedy.

Oh, I guess I lied about there being no more fishing references. Sorry.


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