Best Picture: Says Who?

Part 2 of a 3-part series

Copyright (c) 2006 Dianne Durante

Read part 1 or part 3)

Millions of people - not all of them film buffs - will tune in on March 5, 2006, to learn what movie has been voted the Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Picture. But just who are the people who vote that a movie is "Best Picture"? What are their qualifications, and what are their standards?

Who's in the Academy

On the model of the academies established during the Enlightenment to promote research and the dissemination of knowledge, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was established in 1927 to preserve and promote the fledgling film industry. Today the Academy comprises fourteen branches, among them writers, producers, directors and cinematographers. Each branch's membership committee examines the credentials of top professionals in its field and makes membership recommendations to the Academy; the Academy then issues official invitations to membership. A non-Academy member nominated for an Oscar is automatically considered for membership, although he or she may be rejected during the review process. The Academy has just short of six thousand voting members.

The nomination process

Three hundred eleven American films met the Academy's basic requirement of having played in Los Angeles County for at least seven days in 2005. By January 21, 2006, Academy members submitted ballots for Oscar nominees within their respective fields of expertise (for example, writers voted on Best Screenplay) as well as for Best Picture. The top five vote-getters in each category became the official nominees, to be announced January 31.

In the next round of voting, whose ballots are due in late February, members can vote in all categories. The votes will be tallied by PricewaterhouseCoopers (an independent accounting firm) and the results announced at the gala Academy Award ceremony on March 5.

Academy standards and predispositions

But on what grounds do Academy members vote? Do they consider content, artistry, financial success, or a combination of these? The short and surprising answer is: we don't know. There is not and never has been an official set of standards or guidelines for choosing Best Picture. Few Academy members publicly discuss even their own standards.

Well, then: does the Academy count on sheer numbers to neutralize factors such as personal prejudice, political bias and massive ad campaigns by Hollywood studios? Contacts in the film industry tell me that a typical Hollywood filmmaker would be shocked at the very idea that standards could be established. In the view of the Academy's leaders, said screenwriter Greg Bowyer, "whatever gets the most votes, that's the best! There is no further thought or analysis or judgment required. … Not only do they evade analysis, but they are outright hostile to it."

Despite the fact that no standards have been established, past choices for Best Picture show recognizable trends in content and outlook. According, since 1927 most Best Picture Oscars have gone to dramas (39%), trailed distantly by historical epics (16%), comedies (14%), musicals (11%), war movies (8%), and (at 5% or less each) action-adventure, western and suspense movies.

Not surprisingly, given the liberal political bias of Hollywood, award-winners tend to portray the Left as good and the Right as evil and reactionary. There's also a recognizable trend in the protagonists and plots of the Best Picture winners. For the past decade, admirable characters who struggle to overcome formidable obstacles and finally achieve their goals have been rare in Best Picture winners. More often the protagonists have a few appealing characteristics but end up defeated, deprived of their values, or deceased. Think of Braveheart, The English Patient, Titanic, Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago and Million Dollar Baby. Only Lord of the Rings 3 (Best Picture 2003) has protagonists who fight for the good and win through at the end. In most of the years from 1995 to 2004, upbeat films competed for Best Picture and lost: Apollo 13, Babe, Sense and Sensibility, The Full Monty, Chocolat, Seabiscuit, Ray … The list goes on. Upbeat films are being made, but Academy Awards for Best Picture don't go to them.

Other critics, other standards

The Best-Picture trends in genre, political bent and type of characters are easy to see statistically, after the awards are announced, but they don't help a typical viewer judge for himself which films of a given year were particularly good. Nor will listening to other film critics help: critics often disagree on the best picture in a given year.

For example, the Golden Globe Awards are announced in mid-January by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a group of about 85 professional journalists who cover Hollywood for international publications. Each year HFPA awards Best Picture (Drama) and Best Picture (Comedy or Musical). In six of the past ten years HFPA has awarded Best Picture (Drama) to the film that received the Oscar for Best Picture. In two other years, HFPA gave the Best Picture (Comedy or Musical) to the same film that the Academy later named Best Picture. (See chart.) That's a substantial overlap, but far from complete agreement.

Roger Ebert, who has been writing and speaking on film for almost forty years, is one of America's most influential critics and the first to win a Pulitzer Prize. Over the past decade Ebert's top-rated film for the year, announced in December, has agreed only once with the Academy's choice for Best Picture - in 2004, with Million Dollar Baby. In six of the past ten years, the Best Picture winner didn't even make it to Ebert's list of the year's ten best films.


Oscar: Best Picture

Golden Globe Best Picture Drama / Comedy or Musical

#1 On Ebert's Top 10 of the Year List



Sense & Sensibility / Babe

Leaving Las Vegas (Braveheartisn't on the list)


The English Patient

The English Patient / Evita

Fargo (The English Patient isn't on the list)



Titanic / As Good As It Gets

Eve's Bayou (Titanic is #9)


Shakespeare in Love

Saving Private Ryan / Shakespeare in Love

Dark City (Shakespeare in Love is #8)


American Beauty

American Beauty / Toy Story 2

Hoop Dreams (American Beautyisn't on the list)



Gladiator / Almost Famous

Almost Famous (Gladiator isn't in top 10)


A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind / Moulin Rouge

Monster's Ball (A Beautiful Mind is #9)



The Hours / Chicago

Minority Report (Chicago isn't on the list)


Lord of the Rings 3

Lord of the Rings 3 / Lost in Translation

Monster (LOTR3 isn't on the list)


Million Dollar Baby

Aviator / Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Million Dollar Baby

Let's descend from the rarefied world of professional critics to the American public. Using box-office receipts as the public's vote for best picture, there's a glaring disparity between popularity and the Academy's Best Picture winners. Of the films produced from 1995 to 2004 that rank among the top fifty grossing movies of all time (in adjusted dollars; details here), only Titanic and Lord of the Rings 3 have won Best Picture awards. Half a dozen other blockbusters were not even nominated for Best Picture: Star Wars Episodes 1 and 3, Shrek 2, Spider-Man 1 and 2, and Passion of the Christ.At most, such films receive nominations in technical fields such as special effects, editing or sound.

Are objective standards possible?

Few would argue that Star Wars Episode 1 deserved a Best Picture nod simply because the public thronged to see it. In many cases, factors that don't appear on screen make a film popular, such as its place in a series (Star Wars) or the familiarity of the story or character (Spiderman). But if we ignore financial success as well as critical acclaim, what means are left to judge a film? Can we name a best picture based on anything except whim?

Perhaps we can approach this question from a different angle. Is it possible to choose the best New England clam chowder among twenty entries? After all, no one has decreed the size of the potato cubes, or how many pieces of clam or celery should be in a serving.

First: we may argue about the details, but certain ingredients and proportions are required if a concoction is to qualify as New England clam chowder. No clams, no clam chowder: clams are essential. Clear chicken broth instead of a cream base: clam soup, not clam chowder. Too many potatoes: clammy potatoes rather than clam chowder.

Second: we are not seeking the platonic ideal of New England clam chowder, the one recipe that now and forever will trump any other clam chowder in every respect. The question we're considering is which of twenty bowls of clam chowder is the best.

A few of our twenty clam-chowder entries might be eliminated because a chef, in a burst of creativity, produced a delicious soup that failed to meet the basic requirements for clam chowder. To the bowls that remain, we can apply objective criteria such as the quality of the ingredients, the proportions at which they're combined, and the skill of the preparation. An element of personal taste will still be involved in judging - you may love celery while I detest it. However, if we agree on the basics, we can at least discuss which of the competing clam chowders is best, rather than merely shouting our opinions at each other.

Returning to films: yes, there are many facets to a film. No, we can't grade each one to the tenth of a percentage point and average them out to determine the Best Picture of the Year. Yet standards are possible, if we identify the basic elements of films and study their realization and integration in a specific film. Based on that, we can judge whether a particular film surpasses other films created that year.

For more on the basic elements, their integration, and evaluation of films see my essay on analyzing and evaluating movies.