FEATURE: Define “Best Picture”

14 09 2009

For those of you not familiar with the movie industry, several high-profile film festivals (Toronto, Telluride, Venice) have occurred over the past week, inciting much talk about the upcoming onslaught of movies that will be highly considered for Academy Awards.  For those who read the factoids, it is hardly a secret that this season also brings a rush of euphoria for me.  I will keep you posted with trailers and buzz, and I will also soon be posting early predictions for nominees.  But as kind of a warm-up for what is to come, I wanted to give my answer to the question an age-old question: how do you define “Best Picture”?  What you will read below is an English paper that I wrote last year for a compare and contrast essay, mainly what critics think and what audiences think about the best movie of the year.

One Sunday in February or March every year, all the focus of popular culture turns to the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles, California, for the Academy Awards.  The glitz and glamour dominates the red carpet, yet the two most important people glide down the red carpet almost inconspicuously. Cameras do not flash in their face; people do not ogle at their outfits or speculate about whether or not they will end up in the tabloids; Ryan Seacrest from E! might interview them just for kicks.  Although just accountants, these two people hold a briefcase filled with twenty-four envelopes that will change the lives of many people.  Millions of moviegoers across the world watch the ceremony to find out the names inside the envelopes, but they stay tuned in to hear the presenter call out a movie, not a name.  They want to see what over 5,810 people working in the movie industry voted as the Best Picture.  However, for many moviegoers across America, their opinions do not match the Academy’s. Many of them have never heard of some of the nominated movies; some of the movies might not have played in their town.  With each passing year, a divide between what the general public perceives as Best Picture and what the Academy chooses as its Best Picture has grown wider and wider.

The Academy gave two awards for motion pictures at the first ceremony: one for “Outstanding Picture” and “Unique and Artistic Picture.”  At the next awards ceremony, they merged the two awards into “Best Picture,” claiming that the two categories were similar enough that they only merited one award.  And still to this day, the Academy Award for Best Picture represents the ultimate prize for any movie.  But are the members of the Academy voting for a movie that is outstanding or one that is unique and artistic?  Any movie can be outstanding, yet few merit the term “unique and artistic.”  It appears that they choose to award the outstanding because such an adjective is so opinionated that it can easily be swayed by many factors.

Recently, the process of selecting a Best Picture in recent years has become less subjective and more political.  The most well known case occurred in 2005 when “Crash” won Best Picture over “Brokeback Mountain,” the latter of which had won almost every award possible.  Because the movie focused on the lives of two closeted homosexual men, most people attributed its loss to homophobia.

The voters are often hand out Best Picture to a director that they like.  Handing out Best Picture along with Best Director has become all but standard practice: 59 of the 81 Best Picture winners also won Best Director. Many people assume that 2006’s Best Picture winner, “The Departed,” won only because they felt obliged to give an award to Martin Scorsese, then the perennial Oscar bridesmaid.

The Oscar voters also like to play it safe, rarely awarding controversial or provocative films.  In 1993, they awarded Best Picture to “Schindler’s List,” a film about the Holocaust.  Although many acclaimed movies were produced about the subject in the 50 years since the horrific genocide, “Schindler’s List” marked the first nomination for Best Picture for a film about the Holocaust.  The Academy generally receives movies set in the past more favorably than movies set in the present or future.  In 2008, “Slumdog Millionaire” was the only movie set in the present day.

The voters are notorious for selecting similar types of movies, which have become known as “Oscar Bait.”  To qualify as “Oscar Bait,” a movie needs an acclaimed director, a respected cast, and a subject matter that appeals to the Academy.  The Holocaust, elaborate period pieces, and biographies have become recent favorites.

It is difficult to gauge what the general public perceives as the Best Picture of the year.  Are box office grosses telling of the Best Picture?  Clearly not, otherwise Best Picture winners from this decade would include such classics as “Spider-Man 3,” “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”  Usually the highest grossing movie of the year involves an adaptation of a comic book or another popular book series; often times sequels top the list.   These movies are made to pack audiences into the multiplexes.  The People’s Choice Awards cannot truthfully depict the public’s perception because they pick the same kind of movies that dominate the box office.

Perhaps the most accurate indicator of the moviegoer’s Best Picture is the IMDb (Internet Movie Database) poll.   On this website, hundreds of thousands of moviegoers rate movies on a scale of one to ten stars.  IMDb uses a weighted average to get a rating of the movie, and they maintain a chart of the 250 best-rated movies.  The ratings give a fairly accurate representation of how the public feels about a movie; however, the system has a few flaws.  When a movie initially hits theaters, people flood the site and rate the movie very highly.  After some time, people revisit their ratings and lower them, and the average drops.   Readers often give movies with controversial subject matter one star to drop their average.  “Milk,” a 2008 Best Picture nominee about the first openly homosexual man to hold public office in the United States, was in the IMDb’s 250 highest rated films before it received the nomination.  But once the nomination highlighted the theme of the movie, homophobic voters rushed to IMDb to rate it one star.  Now, “Milk” has received 1,146 ratings of one star; unforgettable films like “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” and “Fool’s Gold” have less one star ratings.  With no completely legitimate means of discovering what movie audiences across America think is the Best Picture, maybe the Academy voters discount the opinion of the average moviegoer in general.

So why can’t the mainstream moviegoer and the Academy voter find harmony in a pick for Best Picture?  Perhaps the Academy has forgotten what Best Picture really means.  David Carr of The New York Times said, “It should be the kind of movie that is so good that it brings both civilians and the critical vanguard together.”  Ideally, a mixture of box office success and critical praise would result in a Best Picture win (or at the very least a nomination).  But if the Academy believed in such a formula, “The Dark Knight,” the film with the highest critical praise and box office gross, would have won Best Picture in 2008.  And while that year’s Best Picture winner, “Slumdog Millionaire,” was a box office sensation, the film relied on the awards season to fuel its box office.  According to Boxofficemojo.com, over 65% of its gross was accumulated after it received the nomination for Best Picture.

The average moviegoers of America have a way to show the Academy how they feel about the Best Picture choices.  Ratings of the Academy Awards telecast have shown how pleased America is with the likely winner.  When “Titanic,” the highest grossing movie in history, won Best Picture in 1997, over 57 million people watched the show.  The highest ratings that the show has received came from when the Best Picture winners were box office successes, such as “The Lord of the Rings.”  But when the Best Picture went to low-budgeted, little seen independent films like “Crash” and “No Country for Old Men,” the ratings fell to all-time lows.

Every individual looks for something different in a Best Picture.  Some are looking for a movie with cultural resonance.   Some are looking for the movie that can make them laugh until they cry.  Some are looking for a movie that makes a unique, artistic statement.  Some are looking for a movie with most exhilarating car chase.  Although the process of choosing a Best Picture winner is subjective, maybe a day will come when a movie will find us that can satisfy all that we are looking for, both for Academy voters and normal moviegoers alike.

What do you think?  Is it possible to have a movie that can unite the critical vanguard and the audience at the megaplex?  How do you define Best Picture?  How many questions do I have to pose before you comment?!?

Until the next reel,
Marshall


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6 responses

14 09 2009
Anonymous

Interesting article. What do you think of the expansion of the Best Film category? What effects, if any, do you think that could have on the outcome?

14 09 2009
Marshall

Not only did they change the number of nominees, but they also changed the voting rules on how they select the eventual winner. Rather than have voters pick one favorite movie, they in essence create a top 10 list, ranking the nominees from 1 to 10. I think this rule change has a more significant impact on the outcome because our Best Picture might not be the most beloved movie of the year but the lowest common denominator. This will probably be most harmful to controversial movies (“Precious,” which I will talk about later, might have the following scenario), who may gain a strong faction of fans but those who are strongly opposed to its subject matter will vote it down. This will be most beneficial to movies that everyone likes (such may be the case for “Up”).

As for the expansion to 10 nominees, I have decidedly mixed feelings. At first, I believed it would be a great way to throw more mainstream movies in the mix; but as time has passed, I have grown to think that it will just be more of the same “snobby art-house” movies that have characterized the category for so many years. I think that we will still be able to tell the top 5 nominees by looking at Best Director, which usually matched the Best Picture nominees when there were 5. And I think another significant development of the expansion will be the rise of “lone Best Picture nominees,” or movies that will just be nominated for Best Picture. You may think that this is impossible, but mark my words. It will happen sometime soon.

18 09 2009
mcarteratthemovies

The “Dark Knight” Oscar shutout still blisters my bum. What the hell? We’re talking about a film that had EVERYTHING: drama, breath-taking action, character development, a kickass villain, tragedy, romance, etc.? And just because it’s a blockbuster this stunning epic doesn’t get nominated for Best Picture? Boo to the Academy.

19 09 2009
Marshall

My sentiment exactly, M. Carter.

It amazes me the thoughts of the Academy sometimes. And they wonder why they are becoming increasingly irrelevant to Americans? I fear that in many years we will look back and see the Academy has been dead for a while, but the snub of “The Dark Knight” buried them.

20 09 2009
blah

the best picture should go the film that best represents the movie industry of the year. while slumdog millionaire was a good movie, it was definitely not the best picture made in 2008. the fact that certain movies such as gran torino or the dark knight didn’t even warrant nominations irritated a ton of people, not to mention me. to top it all off, nominations are hard to come by and are extremely prestigious. the academy shouldn’t be wasting best picture noms on movies such as crash (which sucked in my opinion) or juno. it’s not always a bad thing to agree with the nationwide consensus, especially when they have it right for a change.

20 09 2009
Marshall

Agreed. There is a reason that “The Dark Knight” made so much money … although it did have the highest opening ever, “Transformers 2” made nearly as much. People went back and saw it multiple times. They couldn’t get enough of it … that includes me who saw it 3 times, something I never do anymore. It is a perfect blend of blockbuster action and thoughtful drama, a refreshing and innovative mix that we seldom, if ever, see. What is sad to me is the fact that there will most likely never be another movie like this. It is going to be impossible to replicate the depth of the movie, let alone the circumstances surrounding its release. And unfortunately, the Oscars are going to spend a lot of time trying to atone for their snub, nominating plenty of sub-par movies similar to “The Dark Knight.”

You also made a point about “wasting Best Picture nominees.” If you thought “Juno” and “Crash” were bad, just wait. Now that we have 10 nominees, there will be plenty of flukes. Polarizing and controversial movies will be left out in the cold while safe choices like “Julie & Julia” could get in. (Yeah, I actually liked that movie, but I don’t think it should be nominated for Best Picture).

And as for representing the movie industry, I often hear from experienced writers about “themes” in a given year. In 2005, the year “Crash” won Best Picture, the theme was socially conscious cinema. “Crash” was an exposé on racism in Los Angeles, “Brokeback Mountain” was a story about closeted homosexuals, “Capote” was about a homosexual man interviewing demented murderers, “Munich” probed the idea of fighting violence with violence by the Isrealis in the aftermath of the 1972 Munich killings, and “Good Night and Good Luck” brought up the issue of freedom of the press in McCarthy-era America. This year, I have heard that theme could be women. Many strong contending films are directed by women – Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” Lone Scherfig’s “An Education,” Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” and Mira Nair’s “Amelia.”

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