MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: The Known Unknown

Every season feels like a weird season lately.

What is driving that feeling is the expansion of Best Picture to 10 (then 5-10) Best Picture nominees. The expansion, which was not as simple as an expansion to try to get massive hits like The Dark Knight Best Picture nominations, is now in its ninth season and trends are now apparent.

I have written about the most obvious stat before. In the 20 years before The Expansion, every movie but one that won Best Picture was either the #1 or #2 grosser. The exception was American Beauty, which was #3, with over $100 million in domestic gross before Oscar night.

Since The Expansion, no movie amongst the Top 3 grossers of any season has won.

There have been 72 Best Picture nominees in these last 8 years…

Twenty-eight nominees have grossed over $100 million. All 28 were over $100 million before Oscar night. Only two of these nominees grossed $100 million domestic between Oscar nominations and the show.

Two Best Picture nominees in The Expansion Era grossed over $100 million and won: Argo (2012) and The King’s Speech (2010).

Since Argo, we have seen four straight winners grossing under $50 million domestic before the Oscar show.

Some argue that The Academy is changing its overall preferences for Best Picture winners because of the changes to membership in the last three years. I would argue that the change started with the “same old Academy” before #OscarsSoWhite  became a meme.

In the last nine years, The Old White Man Academy voted for thrrr Best Picture winners led by and about people of color. Does this excuse baked-in racism over decades at the Academy? No. But there seems to be an effort to claim these as flukes or guilt votes.

To be fair (and honest), the Old White Man Academy is as responsible for a pretty decent record in Best Picture as what is seen as a bad record with actors. Here are the stats over the last decade, regarding black actors (including African Americans and black non-Americans)…

Supporting Actress – 9 of 50, 18%
Supporting Actor – 2 of 50, 4%
Lead Actor – 4 of 50, 8%
Lead Actress – 4 of 50, 8%

There were only seven people of color other than black in the four categories in the past decade (3.5%).

Overall, The Academy has nominated 13% non-white actors in the last decade.

Back to Best Picture, even with a 30% record of films about/led by non-whites winning, the nomination rate is only 12% (10 of 84).

What do these stats mean?

I read it as I have read it. There is some real, if not overtly pronounced, racial bias in The Academy, as there is in every group dominated by white people over 60. It has been overstated in the last couple of years and wildly exaggerated if compared to the average American white populace over 60. Again… this is not a declaration claiming there is no issue. There is. But the industry not only makes the movies it makes, but it makes marketing choices about the award season that The Academy cannot (and should not) control. I am pleased that The Academy is working to be more inclusive, though I wish they would be more transparent, as it would be more effective at helping the people it says it is trying to help

The Expansion has opened up the Oscar season significantly and as we see more films that fit the expanding Academy idea of what an Oscar movie is, we will see percentages improve.

The limited embrace of films by and about women is as big, if not a bigger issue. In the last decade, there have been about 25 Best Picture nominees with female leads or that focus on women. That’s 30%. And women are the majority in this country.

While we celebrate Kathryn Bigelow’s win as Best Director, hers is the only nomination in the category in the last decade. Two percent.

In Screenplay, there have been eight films with female writers nominated in Original (10%) and 10 in Adapted (12%).

The question is, will the slowly changing demographics change the nomination outcomes?

I say, “a little.”

And by that, I mean a nomination here and a nomination there. Can even a significant change in the number of women voting at the Academy change everything? Not likely. But could it help Greta Gerwig become the second woman nominated for Best Director this decade? Yeah. Could a younger, broader thinking group of voters make the difference for a movie like Get Out ahead of a more traditional nominee? Yeah. Could a new block of international voters make a difference for a film like First They Killed My Father? Yeah.

I could also say that Bigelow was nominated for The Hurt Locker, a film that did little business, District 9 was as unexpected as Get Out would be, and that yhe Old Academy nominated Amour and Letters From Iwo Jima, all without new blood “changing the game.”

There is also, by the way, the complication of the majority of the new membership being overseas, with the marketers who drive award season unable to secure e-mails, much less addresses. Perhaps it is good news that they will vote without distraction. But they are also more likely not to see the films in play, as many of them won’t get screeners.

Still, there are a lot of jump balls in this season.

The only easy calls for Best Picture nominees are Dunkirk and Darkest Hour. After that, there is a lot of love. but not a lot of firm ground. The Florida Project, Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird are in the young, smart, indie group. I, Tonya doesn’t feel like part of that group, even though it is all of those things… maybe because it never is about finding the moral to the story. The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri feel like high production value arthouse, adult movies. The Post and Phantom Thread are the Unseen Masters group. Blade Runner 2049 and Detroit need to reassert themselves somehow. Victoria & Abdul is the kind of classic old-people cinema that The Media never takes seriously until it gets five nominations. Get Out is genre with a message… which traditionally never gets nominated, but could this year. The Big Sick is the logical August entry (even though it opened in June). And Downsizing is the complicated festival movie that could shock everyone by finding its way into serious contention… or just fade away.

That’s 16 movies for what will likely be 8 or 9 slots… and there are other films that could surprise and become nominees.

I see no rhyme or reason to hang onto trying to figure out which of this group will be The Ones. I think I can guess six with assurance. But others would intensely disagree. It gets more complicated because many people will get excited about more than 10 of these titles. And there aren’t enough slots.

What makes a chunk of voters go Call Me By Your Name over Lady Bird or vice versa? Does The Post get a natural boost because it will be mainstream and loaded with beloved actors? Is there a vote for big, studio beauty done by an artist, even if many think Blade Runner 2049 is too long and too slow. (I disagree strongly, btw.) Do voters remember what they love or do the marketing dollars overwhelm their choices? And, of course, is Netflix even in the movie business?

I can tell you what I feel: Darkest Hour and Three Billboards duke it out for the win. But I could be many shades of wrong here. Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf could fight it out for the win… or one could go without a nomination. Same with Rockwell and Dafoe (though I am more confident that both will get nods). Will Nolan finally get nominated? Will Deakins finally win? Does pushback from Harvey get Jeremy Renner a Best Actor nod for Wind River?

It’s almost November and these questions all feel like they are a lightyear from being answered.

Will the mood of the nation matter? Will voters push away from the serious stuff? Will anyone care about The Oscars with all the men who abuse women taking up so much of our emotional space?

I’ve never been quite this unsure.

But I do know there are some wonderful films to see. And that is the real issue. Love of movies. Movies worth loving. No?

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9 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: The Known Unknown”

  1. poet67 says:

    ITs not the expansion that’s changed things, but the preferential ballot. The Best Picture contest for the past few years has been completely disconnected from the rest of the awards. And it isn’t just the constant Best Picture/Best Director split. Add up the total number of Oscars won by this decade’s Best Pictures and compare it to any other decade.

  2. lockedcut says:

    in the last 80 years, 0 women have been nominated for cinematography. 0%

  3. lockedcut says:

    There is one more category to consider.

    “fucking good blockbusters”

    I know oscar pundits never bother with following whether or not blockbusters will get nominated, mostly because there is no publicist shilling for the nominations, so no momentum ever builds. So you have outliers like Avatar (out of nowhere, everyone expected a flop), but never the Dark Knight nominations that the academy wanted.

    considering so many voters use google to either look up the handicapping of the end of year movies (leading them here or elsewhere) or log into their guild websites to find screenings (which if the studios are not running frequent screenings of blockbusters voters take the hint that the movies are not really considered for awards), the fact that pundits never bother to include blockbusters in their aggregated lists is a further hit keeping the blockbusters down.

    So publicists ignore them, pundits follow their lead, and studios don’t screen them, and screeners are rarely sent. All creates a snowball effect that is monumentally hard for any blockbuster to overcome. if there had been 10 nominations the year of Dark Knight, perhaps it would have missed because of all those factors.

    Fundamentally, the why the movies enter and stay in awards season never changed, even though the academy expanded the roster, the increased roster size did nothing to alter the system. Thus we have not gotten the inclusion of blockbusters in the best picture race, they remain segregated outside of the system by the forces that almost always keep them out.

    This year is particularly frustrating as the year has multiple blockbusters that are also great films, yet the inexorable forces of segregation will maintain that they be excluded from the best picture race, same as always. I remain hopeful that given what this year has been that the women in the academy will manage to get Wonder Woman and Jenkins nominated, but there is so much resistance to change by establishment institutions like the Gurus, (or gold derby et al), or the publicists that even with an organized effort within the system, it seems unlikely that even with great candidates, blockbusters will not gather the needed momentum to enter or stay in the race.

  4. lockedcut says:

    Note that DP does nothing to _BE_ the change he seems to be calling for.

    The hardest thing is to alter one’s own behavior.

    How is every awards race for the last ten years different if there had always been in place the following requirement from pundits to submit a list to the gurus of gold:

    all best picture nomination predictions must always include at least one picture that was not directed by a white male.

    DP is perfectly capable of changing the system. Of being the change. He chooses not to, because of how he benefits from the status quo.

    Just as everyone else working to maintain the status quo does.

  5. Chris says:

    Lockedcut, that is not my recollection of anticipation for “Avatar” at all. Yeah, there were worries about cost and length but no one had forgotten how “Titanic” blasted those exact same worries. It was expected to be a smash and, obviously, it was.

  6. Bob Burns says:

    I’m a fan of BP/BD splits, especially considering that the nominated films are as different as apples, oranges, tractors and cats.

  7. Sam E. says:

    How much of the lower grosses has to do with an increasing split between the best picture/director categories? There’s been three times since the expansion that the film that won best director but not best picture was a 100-million dollar earner(Gravity, The Revenant and La La Land). Also, Argo and Life of Pi had similar grosses domestically but Life of Pi made almost 400-million more worldwide.

  8. Doug R says:

    I think Avatar was expected to be a “flop” like Blade Runner 2049 which has made almost exactly what the original did, adjusted for inflation.

  9. shuddles says:

    I can’t help but wonder…what is the “correct” % of nominations of blacks, women, people of color other than black, etc.? At what level would people be happy and at which we would not hear any discussion of this issue?

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon