A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit
In the aftermath of the 91st Annual Academy Awards, where Green Book was crowned Best Picture, Deadline sources are saying that conversations have heated up within the membership of AMPAS about changing the system regarding how the Best Picture winner is chosen. Let the debate begin – again.
This is not new. Opinions have been split on using this method, also employed by the Producers Guild which likewise chose Green Book, ever since it was introduced in 2009. That’s when the Academy doubled the number of nominees from 5 to 10, another major change that still remains controversial in some quarters within AMPAS. There has been increasing angst over the preferential (or ranked) voting system, which is designed to find a consensus choice, or, as I say, the least least-liked movie. Unlike the 23 other categories, where there is simply one vote for the movie you want, members must rank their Best Picture picks from 1 being first choice to 10 for last choice. In 2011, the Academy moved to a system where there could be anywhere between 5 and 10 nominees. This year, there were 8, and it’s a method that makes some voters’ eyes glaze over in trying to understand how it works. Think of it as the Academy’s version of the Electoral College, where the actual popular vote isn’t necessarily going to produce the winner, as we have seen in recent elections. Of course, it isn’t a strict connection, but you get the idea. One member called yesterday thanking me for correcting her notion that her number one vote was actually for her least favorite, but rather her most favored, which, in her case, happened to be the eventual Best Picture winner this year. She was happy because she said she had it all backwards. This was the second year in a row we have had this conversation.
There has been considerable media buzz and ink over the idea that some voters, anxious to defeat Netflix with the fear that a Best Picture win for the streamer would produce a seismic and catastrophic change in the industry, tried actively to “game they system” and intentionally urged putting Roma in 8th place, thinking this would help stop any momentum it has. It is a somewhat dubious proposition that this would have any real effect, but psychologically, it seems to have gripped a number of voters wishing to do damage and thinking this is the way to do it, at least in their mind. The bigger question is if the Academy’s board will take this up at all, or do anything about it. A couple of years ago I asked CEO Dawn Hudson if she had heard any opposition to the preferential method, and she indicated that she hadn’t, at least at that point.
In the end, Roma won three Oscars, including Best Director for Alfonso Cuarón, but lost the top prize to Green Book, which also won three awards, including supporting actor for Mahershala Ali and Original Screenplay, the latter being the only category outside of Best Picture in which the two films competed directly against each other. Since Screenplay was a straight vote, it indicates to me Green Book likely would have won Best Picture outright, even without the preferential ballot where your second and third choices can have a major impact in a close race. Whichever way you look at it, Green Book topped Roma in both categories where they were head to head. It is not even clear if Roma was runner-up (I had heard of voters who watched at home, rather than more properly in a theater, turning it off after 30 minutes), since there was strong support evidenced for the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody (winner of the most Oscars with 4), Black Panther (with 3 Oscars), BlacKkKlansman etc. But was Roma, a movie that far outspent its rivals and a betting favorite among a majority of critics and pundits (not this one), intentionally hurt by the preferential system due to fear of Netflix? Is this the case of a studio, not its movie, being the real target? We’ll never know for sure, since AMPAS accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers is under strict orders to never reveal numbers or the winner’s path to victory, thus crushing my hopes for the dream book I would love to write: “91 Years of Academy Award Voting Totals,” by Pete Hammond.
A similar scenario was heard in 2016 when La La Land was a heavy Best Picture favorite with 14 nominations. It won six Oscars, including Best Director, and seemed on its way to a traditional Best Picture win. But in the most notorious opening of an Oscar envelope ever, famously lost to Moonlight. I knew of voters who admired the Damien Chazelle musical, but didn’t want it to actually win, so ranked it last even if it really wasn’t their least favorite. In that case, the second place votes for Moonlight might have helped the underdog prevail in the end, since no film can win on the first ballot count unless it has 50% plus one, a virtual impossibility with such a large group of films competing. Of course, it is all speculation, and in fact, just how this system really works is widely misunderstood, if understood at all. This method of choosing Best Picture has upended the traditional pattern of past Oscars where the winner of Best Director and Best Picture often went hand-in-hand. However, in five of the past seven years, there has been a split between the film that wins Best Director and the one that wins Best Picture, an eye-opening statistic for Oscar watchers and one that repeated itself this year, when Green Book director Peter Farrelly wasn’t even nominated in directing.
The Television Academy used the preferential weighted ballot system in many of its categories until dumping it altogether a couple of years ago and simplifying its Emmy contest. For the Motion Picture Academy, this system of choosing Best Picture was actually in their DNA. It was used when there were regularly ten nominees between 1934 and 1943, before moving to just five Best Picture contenders in 1944 and dumping preferential, which only returned with the list of nominees doubled once more. But with so many Best Picture nominees possible again, the idea of getting a “consensus” choice was important to the Academy, and likely remains so, even as a rising number of voters think they can really indeed “game the system,” which certainly isn’t the most dignified approach to choosing an Oscar winning Best Picture. It doesn’t add to the image of the Academy’s voting process that even this kind of talk is out there.
WILL ACADEMY MAKE NETFLIX PLAY BY NEW RULES?
Whether this evergreen discussion comes up as an issue at the next Board of Governors meeting is to be seen. However, another matter involving Netflix is sure to be addressed regarding theatrical exhibition windows as they apply to Oscar eligibility. Right now, the rules state a film qualifies with a seven-day run in theaters in LA and/or NY, but there is definitely a movement to clarify that and make it an even playing field where all studios and distributors, Netflix and Amazon included, must have a minimum theatrical run (four to six weeks is the range I’ve heard) before any kind of television, i.e. streaming commences. Steven Spielberg, a Governor of the
Directors branch, has stated publicly that if a film debuts day and date on Netflix or services like it, it is a TV movie. His view has its followers, including at least one former top official of AMPAS to whom I spoke, and there are those who argue the Academy has to look to the future of exhibition wherever and whenever it may be. Exhibition executives themselves have been vocal. Both AMC and Regal pretended Roma wasn’t a Best Picture nominee (with a leading 10 nominations) by refusing to include them in their annual Best Picture showcases. The two leading theater chains in Britain just severed ties with BAFTA after that organization awarded Roma Best Film just two weeks before Oscar night. AMPAS has had a committee dedicated to looking into all these matters, and it won’t be cooling down. Look for this to be a major hot topic this spring as AMPAS sorts out the considerable damage of this bruising season (before delivering a decent Oscar show with a ratings bump), gets ready to vote in a new President (John Bailey is termed out), and moves closer to opening its movie museum.
WHAT TRIPLE CROWN?
This isn’t at all meant to be a knock on our sister publication Variety, so don’t take it that way. But I have to quibble with the cover of this week’s print issue, which features Roma director Alfonso Cuarón holding his three newly-minted Oscars next to the headline: TRIPLE CROWN. Just from a statistical Oscars POV, it needs to be corrected for the record. It is indeed a major achievement for Cuarón, the biggest personal winner of the night, to get to take those Oscars home and place them next to the pair he already had for Gravity. He won for Best Director, Best Cinematography, and as director of the Best Foreign Language Film. However, a “Triple Crown” in Oscar circles refers to the three major categories of Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, a feat accomplished in one night by a few notables in the past such as Billy Wilder (The Apartment), James L. Brooks (Terms Of Endearment), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather Part II), and Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman), to name four that come to mind, with Brooks being the rare bird to do it all by himself.
Cuarón actually only won one of those categories this year, Best Director. Also, the Foreign Language Film winner technically goes to the country of origin, in this case Mexico, and is not counted officially by AMPAS as a win for the director, even though Cuarón gets the Oscar, which is engraved: “Foreign Language Film ROMA Director Alfonso Cuarón.” So again, just for the record, impressive feat that it is, this isn’t the Oscar Triple Crown, but rather three Oscars. Calling it that is sort of like claiming the Preakness winner won horse racing’s Triple Crown, without the Kentucky Derby or the Belmont. Just sayin’.
CONGRATS TO THE WINNING “CONTENDERS”
Finally, a big congratulations to all the winners of the 91st Annual Academy Awards, and especially all of those who made the stop at Deadline’s The Contenders events in LA, London, and, for the first time, in NYC. They include Best Picture winner Green Book with Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie (all three also taking Best Original Screenplay too), and Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali; The Favourite’s Best Actress winner Olivia Colman, who we met at our London event; Bohemian Rhapsody Best Actor winner Rami Malek, who appeared at all three; If Beale Street Could Talk’s Supporting Actress winner Regina King, who joined us in New York; Roma’s three-time winner Cuarón, whom we saw in London and L.A.; and BlacKkKlansman Adapted Screenplay winners Spike Lee and Kevin Wilmott joining us in NYC. Also, a big shout out to the record number of nominees who appeared at The Contenders. In terms of other precursors, it was a very big year for the Toronto Film Festival’s People’s Choice award, which once again had the eventual Oscar Best Picture winner six months ahead of time. It was also a very big year for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Golden Globes. Their top winners in early January all repeated at the Oscars, including the same three wins for Green Book, Rami Malek, Olivia Colman, Mahershala Ali, Regina King, Alfonso Cuarón and Roma as Best Director and Foreign Film, and “Shallow” as Song. Their Best Film Drama choice of Bohemian Rhapsody was derided by critics at the time, but went on to win the top number of Oscars Sunday night. Of course, they split the major categories between comedy and drama, but still… pretty good track record there. The Critics’ Choice Awards (I am a voter there), usually with the best correlation with Oscar, had an off-year, missing Best Film, Actor, Actress (twice, since they tied Glenn Close and Lady Gaga), and both screenplay awards. Oh, well, there’s always next year. Ready to do it all again? It’ll be sooner than you think. The Oscars are moving up two weeks earlier to February 9th! Telluride passes just went on sale today.
And those are all the Notes fit to print this season.