When the Oscars expanded their Best Picture lineup in 2009, they had a major goal in mind—get popular, acclaimed summer movies into the race. This problem had boiled over earlier in the year, when two of the most critically acclaimed and popular movies of 2008—Wall-E and The Dark Knight—received a combined 14 Oscar nominations but were inexplicably left out of the Best Picture race in favor of films like Milk and Frost/Nixon, which had been largely ignored by audiences. For the Oscars, what had previously just been a ratings problem was suddenly a credibility problem as well.
Ratings for the Oscar telecast had been in a slump for several years, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) could (sort of) swallow that as long as they were still (sort of) rewarding the right films. But when suddenly the two best reviewed films of the year, which also happened to be in the top five grossers of the year, couldn’t get invited to the dance, the apparent bias against anything but prestige dramas became too problematic too ignore. So the Best Picture lineup was expanded from five to ten. The theory was that this would allow Academy members to throw real support behind a few mega-populist (summer) films each year, without sacrificing their appetites for weightier fare. And this even worked… for a time.
In the first two years of the expanded Best Picture lineup (‘09 and ‘10), eight films received Best Picture nominations despite opening before Labor Day, including two traditional summer movies each year—2009’s Up and District 9, and 2010’s Inception and Toy Story 3. But Pixar films make for a great case study in how short-lived this change really was. 2008’s Pixar movie, Wall-E, was one of the lightning rods that led to the expansion of the Best Picture pool, and it focused attention on how Pixar was getting screwed. The rewards were immediate; the next two Pixar films, Up and Toy Story 3, both got Best Picture nominations, and it briefly looked like the problem had been solved. But since then, no Pixar film has gotten a Best Picture nomination. Now, to be fair, 2011-2016 wasn’t exactly the company’s hottest qualitative stretch, and I’m certainly not suggesting Cars 2 got robbed. But consider Inside Out: its Rotten Tomatoes score was 98%, its Metacritic score was 94, and it made over 850 million dollars. But it didn’t get a Best Picture nomination. Instead, it had to settle for a Best Original Screenplay nomination and a Best Animated Feature win. Inside Out exemplified absolutely everything the Best Picture category was expanded to include—immense popular success, immense critical success, a traditionally ignored movie season, and a traditionally ignored movie genre—but it still couldn’t get in the race.
So what happened? We have to go back to 2011, when the Best Picture race changed course once again. After two years of the 10-film Best Picture lineup, and an initial ratings bump that had already dissipated, the Academy once again decided that prestige mattered more than populism. In the previous two years, under the 10-nominee system, voters ranked their 10 favorite films of the year, and each numeric ranking carried a different weight in the final tallies. But if a film showed up on enough ballots, even in the bottom few spots, it would probably crack the final 10 nominees. In 2011, that was done away with. Starting that year voters would still rank their 10 favorites, but a film could no longer receive a Best Picture nomination purely on the strength of showing up in the lower rungs of enough ballots. Now, if a film didn’t receive at least 5% of the total first place votes, it wouldn’t receive a Best Picture nomination, regardless of how many total ballots it showed up on. With around 6,000 members in the Academy (at the time), that meant a film must get a minimum of around 300 first-place votes to receive a Best Picture nomination. This also meant that now the number of Best Picture nominees is in constant flux. It can be anywhere from five to ten, purely depending on how the first-place votes shake out.
On face value, this new system made sense—if at least 5% of the Academy doesn’t think you’re the Best Picture of the year, then why should you get a Best Picture nomination? But in practice, this meant that summer movies and non-traditional genres had been kicked out once again. In 2011, the first year of this revised system, only three summer films landed Best Picture nominations and they were a Civil Rights period piece, a Woody Allen movie, and a Terrence Malick art film that provoked theaters to warn patrons about how quickly they need to walk out in order to receive full refunds. (Seriously.) And since then, summer releases have been almost completely ignored; Out of the 43 Best Picture nominees from 2012-2016, a total of five were released before Labor Day, and four of those were indies. Only one out of the last 43 Best Picture nominees—Mad Max: Fury Road—was a true summer movie in the traditional sense of the term.
But 2017 could be the year that upends this pattern. When Moonlight shockingly won Best Picture earlier this year, after nearly two full minutes of La La Land acceptance speeches, there was a collective public temptation to just say, “Well, this has been the year of unlikely endings.” As though, after Brexit, the Cavs, the Cubs, Trump, and the Patriots’ absurd second-half Super Bowl comeback, Moonlight’s win (after many viewers had already turned off the Oscar telecast) could be purely explained away as just the latest in a year of truly bizarre and unlikely victories, and no attempt at logical explanation need be applied. But the ultimate lesson of Moonlight’s win isn’t, “Hey, 2016 was pretty weird, amiright?”, but rather that AMPAS has evolved into a very different group of people, and we shouldn’t expect them to vote in the same old ways.
In the last two years, AMPAS has invited almost 1,500 new members to join, while also removing the voting rights of several older members that haven’t been involved in the film industry for a long time. According to some reports, these new member classes give the Academy a 359% increase in women and a 331% increase in people of color. Yes, the average AMPAS member is still an old white male. But the membership is suddenly a hell of a lot younger, more diverse, and more #woke.
Based partially on what this new-look Academy seems primed to respond to, and partially on what the old-look Academy has always responded to, I think we’ve probably already seen three or four Best Picture nominees—even though Labor Day is still a few weeks away. Let’s look at them individually, in order of release date.
Going by any traditional sense of Oscar history, this “social thriller” from Jordan Peele, which is, basically, a horror movie, shouldn’t have much of a chance. Depending on how precisely you want to define the horror genre, the last horror movie to receive a Best Picture nomination was one of the following: The Sixth Sense (1999), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Jaws (1975), or The Exorcist (1973). So it’s either been 18 years, over 20 years, or over 40 years. Not a great track record.
But what those four films have in common is that they all transcended the horror genre to become massive cultural talking points, and nearly everyone saw them. More than anything, that’s why they made it to Oscar night—because they simply couldn’t be ignored. By that metric, Get Out actually looks like a very safe bet. Among post-Exorcist horror films so popular and acclaimed that even non-horror fans saw them in droves, only The Blair Witch Project has failed to get a Best Picture nomination.
The Silence of the Lambs makes for a particularly interesting comparison. Like Get Out, it opened in mid-February, before the previous year’s Oscar ceremony had even happened. And like Get Out, it’s a film that’s far less interested in momentary jump scares than it is in just wanting to deeply disturb and unsettle you, even after the credits roll. That’s the most important element that carried The Silence of the Lambs to Oscar night more than a year after its theatrical release—it stayed with people. It wrapped itself up into voter’s guts and didn’t let go. Can Get Out do the same thing? In 2017, yes, I think it can.
Get Out is the exact type of movie primed to be recognized by the diverse new Academy members. It is one of the most fascinating and original commentaries on race in recent history (and, honestly, perhaps ever). It became a major talking point of the zeitgeist, and the Los Angeles Times declared it a “cultural phenomenon,” at a time where it’s virtually impossible for any film not based on pre-existing properties to ever achieve such an impact. Critically, Get Out is only the ninth American film to ever receive at least a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with over 100 reviews factored in, and six of the other eight won Oscars. It had a reported $4.5 million budget and made over $250 million. It also became the highest grossing film by a black filmmaker in American box office history. So Get Out wasn’t merely a success with critics and audiences, it was a profound and unprecedented success in both arenas.
And remember, because of the new Best Picture voting rules, it doesn’t matter if the older members of the Academy resoundingly hate (or worse, don’t understand) the movie. It only needs 350-ish first place votes to get a nomination, and it could get that many just from this year’s new member class. Unless Universal declines to mount a campaign for it (which would be insane), hitting that number will almost certainly not be a problem.
The Big Sick
When predicting Oscar results, pundits often like to try and game out which groups or quadrants of voters a movie will appeal to. The huge advantage The Big Sick will have is that there’s almost no segment of voter it won’t appeal to.
The Big Sick is both very funny and very dramatic. It’s a beautiful, true story that manages to feel like an “Oscar movie” (for voters that care about that kind of thing—and they’re out there), but it also doesn’t remotely feel like a movie that was birthed into existence for the sake of winning Oscars (which is equally important to other voters). It’s a film about so many things—modern romance, family, tradition, multiculturalism, comedy, immigrants, healthcare, love, forgiveness, acceptance—all of which will have strong appeal to different sets of people. It stars two generations of main characters, and has intelligently written male and female leads, so it won’t be un-relatable to voters of any certain age or gender. It actually passes the Bechdel Test. For Academy members that like to make pseudo-political statements** with their votes, it offers a more pleasant, less edgy alternative to Get Out (which older voters simply may not see the appeal of). And, as far as indies go, it’s been a strong financial success, making over $40 million (and counting), against a reported $5 million budget. So voters who need to feel like they’re backing something that truly connected with audiences—and again, they’re out there—can still see The Big Sick as worthy.
**Note: As the film’s star, Kumail Nanjiani, has said, The Big Sick is only a film with a political statement if you believe “Muslims are humans” is somehow a political statement. I agree that The Big Sick doesn't even remotely have a political message. But that’s also not the point; the point is whether any members of the Academy may view supporting the film as a politicized action, regardless of how fair that is. And yes, I think some will.
The only type of Oscar voter that likely won’t enjoy The Big Sick is the “steak eater,” a term coined by Anne Thompson to describe the type of AMPAS member—usually older, usually male—who wants their Best Picture pick to feel like the Best Pictures of old. Even though the Academy is rapidly changing, these are the voters who aren’t changing with it. These voters want spectacle, heroes, high-budget production craft, period settings and costumes, and proof that Hollywood actually still does make ‘em like they used to. And truly, there is nothing the steak eaters love more than a damn good war movie.
Generally speaking, when a widely acclaimed filmmaker makes a widely acclaimed WWII movie, it’s getting one of the Best Picture slots. We saw it just last year with Hacksaw Ridge, and previously with Inglourious Basterds, Saving Private Ryan, and The Thin Red Line. And remember, prior to those films, it had been at least a decade since Mel Gibson, Quentin Tarantino, and Terrence Malick had made a film that got even a single Oscar nomination, so it’s not like new work by any of them seemed like obvious Oscar bait. That’s just how strongly voters respond to good WWII movies. But Dunkirk is actually even more of a shoo-in than you might think, for two reasons.
First off, Dunkirk has been phenomenally successful on all fronts. It has both a higher Rotten Tomatoes ranking and a higher Metacritic score than all of the aforementioned WWII films, and, somehow, after only four weeks in release, it’s already made more money than all of those films except for Saving Private Ryan.
But perhaps more importantly, Dunkirk is by Christopher Nolan, who is arguably the most snubbed A-list director currently working, and nothing gets Academy blood boiling like a great “He’s due” narrative. Nolan’s nine previous films received a combined 26 Oscar nominations, but he’s never been nominated as a director. He has received three other Oscar nominations—two for Original Screenplay (for Memento and Inception), and one for producing (Inception)—but they all somehow felt like consolation prizes. Even though Inception did get a Best Picture nomination, Nolan’s films are largely viewed as having been shunned by the major categories. That will end with this year’s nominations.
Of the films spotlighted here, Detroit is the one I feel least confident about—it’s definitely the “or four” of my “we’ve probably already seen three or four Best Picture nominees” declaration. Though it’s certainly still early, it hasn’t been a financial success yet. And perhaps more importantly, it hasn’t been without controversy. When Oscar season truly ramps up, every possible nominee gets picked apart from every possible angle, and Detroit may simply be susceptible to too many angles of scrutiny. It’s provocative in the most controversial sense—among some, it will provoke visceral, antagonistic reactions, and that’s not helpful.
But having said that, there are still several reasons Detroit could find itself among the final group of nominees. Some of them are even good reasons, so we’ll start with one of those: Kathryn Bigelow is an absolute master filmmaker, and she is at her apex. After The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty (both Best Picture nominees, with the former having won), Detroit is her third arguable-masterpiece in a row, which is an incredibly rare feat for a filmmaker (or artist of any kind, really). Awards-giving bodies have a propensity to respond to extreme hot streaks, and this certainly qualifies. And because Bigelow went (shockingly) un-nominated as a director for Zero Dark Thirty, she has the benefit of voters potentially responding to her hot streak without also feeling voter fatigue, because they’re also responding to the perception that she got screwed the last time around.
Going to the less-fair side of things in Detroit’s favor, we’re (thankfully) in an era with an added awareness of women’s opportunities, and an extremely heightened desire to spotlight women filmmakers. For voters that want to get behind a film by a woman, sadly, Detroit may be their only decent choice without feeling like they’re throwing their vote away on a film with no shot.
Lastly, and getting to the ugly side of these speculations, Detroit may pull through because it triggers a more easily recognizable type of white guilt. I think Get Out is nearly assured of a Best Picture nomination partially because of how the huge influx of black voters will support it. But I’m not sure how white voters will react to it. It might make them uncomfortable in a way that isn’t even within the comfort zone of discomfort (if that makes sense), while Detroit hits in a more obvious way that people think white guilt is supposed to feel like. For as utterly gut-wrenching as it is, Detroit is gut-wrenching in a way that people are (kind of) emotionally prepared to feel. It asks white people to think about racism in a way that they’re (more or less) used to thinking about it. Get Out doesn’t do that; it wants us to think about racism in a way that’s simply too radical and uncomfortable for a lot of people to broach.
Put simply, the older, white Academy members that voted for either The Hurt Locker or 12 Years a Slave because of what those films politically stood for—women filmmakers and non-Hollywood-ified portrayals of our racial history, respectively—may equally respond to Detroit.
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As is true of any year, we simply don’t know what the Oscar race will even remotely look like until after the fall festivals—Telluride and Venice over Labor Day weekend, Toronto the following week, and then New York a few weeks after that. Voters always have short memories, and any or all of these four movies might drop out if the fall slate is unusually strong. At this moment, and like every August, we start to see trailers for the fall releases and think they all look incredible. But inevitably, many of them won’t be. As explained at the beginning, it’s been very hard for summer (or earlier) releases to make it into the Best Picture race. However, I think the enduring lesson of Moonlight’s win won’t merely be that last year was weird. It’ll also be that the Academy is very different now, and the old rules of what kinds of movies get Oscar attention will be less and less applicable every year.