Redefining Best Picture: A 2 Step Program


The Oscar nominations have been announced, and this year’s crop of Best Picture contenders may be the most diverse yet. We have a political satire, a foreign film, and even a superhero blockbuster. When the Academy expanded the Best Picture field from five to ten possible nominees in 2009, this is what they were looking for. But despite the groundbreaking inclusion of films like Black Panther and Roma, I think there is a lot more space to improve in this category. The 2009 expansion came with the understanding that the Academy would change the way it thinks about Best Picture. And they have… somewhat. But if the last ten years have taught us anything, it’s that change is slow, especially with the Academy. While the expansion was a good start, if we really want to alter the way we watch, judge, and reward film, then more changes need to be made. And that all starts with one big question: How do we define (or redefine) Best Picture? In just 2 (albeit radical) steps, I believe we can come close to answering that question.

In the decade since the expansion, 89 films have had the honor of being nominated. That represents a big (78%) increase from the decade prior. At the same time, why is it 89 and not the full 100 that it could have been? In fact, they have only filled all ten spots twice, and not again since 2010. This year, eight films reached the final stage of voting, leaving two spaces vacant.

Step 1: Nominate 10 films every year

My first, totally reasonable, proposal to the Academy is that they fill all ten spots, every year. It’s not like there’s a dearth of great films out there. The reason for only nominating eight or nine films in a given year likely has something to do with voting constraints. If the 9th and 10th place films don’t receive enough votes, or percentage of votes, they get bumped out. But why not just keep them in? The Academy’s goal when expanding the category was to make room for a more diverse field of nominees. Giving visibility or legitimacy to two more films would further this goal, so just do it.

Though electing to fill all ten spots is a good idea, it wouldn’t really change anything. The ten films nominated would still be pretty much of the same ilk: mostly dramas, with a few musicals or comedies sprinkled here and there. There have been great comedies, thrillers, and even science fiction films nominated in the past, but they never seem to be as “present” or “relevant” as the dramas. To see if the Academy really does have a drama-bias, I categorized every Best Picture nominee since the field expansion into one of ten different genres: Drama, Musical/Comedy, Historical/Period, Action/Adventure, Mystery/Thriller, Horror, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Children/Family, Foreign, and Documentary. Now, I know that genre-blending is a factor, so I simply chose the genre categorization that best fit each film. It’s not a perfect system (what is genre?), but I think it will help.

Based on my analysis, more than 1/3 (approximately 35%) of all Best Picture nominees in the last decade have been dramas, with the two next most popular genres being Musical/Comedy (17%) and Historical/Period (12%). If you combined those three genres, you have nearly two-thirds (64%) of all Best Picture nominees. The genres least represented are Children/Family (3%), Foreign (2%), Horror (2%), and of course, Documentary (zip). But are dramas, period pieces, and comedies (though, more often than not, dramedies) the only films that matter? The only ones that should be vying for the industry’s top prize? Of course not. But there is no gradual fix— to change the genre distribution would require a complete overhaul of the category. So to consider how this category could change, let’s take a closer look at this year’s eight nominees.

Step 2: Completely overhaul the category*

*Yes, this step is a bit of a cop-out. We all know that “overhauling” the biggest award of the Oscars is no single step, but bare with me a little.

Though seemingly diverse thanks to Black Panther and Roma, this year’s crop of nominees is 50% drama. BlacKkKlansman, Green Book, A Star Is Born, and Bohemian Rhapsody all fall squarely into that the “drama” category. As for the other four nominees, I categorized them as follows: Vice — Musical/Comedy, The Favourite — Period/Historical, Black Panther — Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Roma — Foreign. Yes, yes, Vice is also a drama and a historical movie, The Favourite is also a comedy, and Roma is certainly a drama, but go with me here. For the Golden Globes, studios must decide whether to submit their film in the Drama category or the Musical/Comedy category. What if it was the same for the Oscars, but instead of two genre categories, there were ten. And the best of each genre goes on to a Best Picture nomination. It’s a radical idea that would change the entire way the Oscar voting and telecast are structured, but it would make for a more dynamic show. So what would that list of ten films look like? Would it really be so different from the eight we have now? Let’s see…

For our purposes, let’s assume that Vice, The Favourite, Black Panther, and Roma each win the top spot in their respective genres, and that A Star Is Born is chosen as the pick for Best Drama. Sure, we would have to lose three of this year’s nominated dramas (BlacKkKlansman, Green Book, and Bohemian Rhapsody), but let’s look at what we would gain. For the final five nominees, I picked films that were among the highest rated in their respective genre. Mission: Impossible - Fallout for Action/Adventure, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse for Children/Family, Free Solo for Documentary, A Quiet Place for Horror, and You Were Never Really Here for Mystery/Thriller.

So look at that: ten films in Best Picture, one for each genre. Looks pretty good, huh? Best Picture has long been a fairly obvious euphemism for Best Drama, which I’m actually fine with. My favorite movie of the year is more often a drama than not, and I don’t think changing the who gets nominated will necessarily change who wins. If you go back through the last decade and alter the nominees to fit these rules, I bet all the same winners would prevail: The Shape of Water (Sci-Fi), Moonlight (Drama), Spotlight (Drama), Birdman (Comedy), 12 Years a Slave (Historical/Period), etc. But what would change is the landscape of the category— the films that defined the year, and redefined movies.

This hypothetical version of the category is more colorful, more diverse, and certainly more reflective of the year as a whole. And if you think there isn’t at least one great film in each of these ten categories every year, you’re dead wrong. The big change here is a change in perception. If the Oscars want to stay relevant for the next generation, while still appealing to the Oscar purists who love “classic” Hollywood traditions, this is the way to go. And the best part is, it’s totally doable. 

The Golden Globes already split their Best Picture nominees into two (admittedly limiting) genre categories. The Critics Choice Awards have separate categories to crown the best Comedy, Sci-Fi/Horror movie, and Action movie. Hell, even the Oscars already have categories for Foreign, Documentary, and Animated (which is practically synonymous with Children/Family for our sake)— What’s a few more? Now, I know I am not the first to suggest or support this type of recalibration, but that doesn’t make it any less important. I predict the Academy will continue to cut speeches, sideline categories, and test out baffling new ideas in the years to come, but if they really want the Oscars to continue to be the “cultural event of the year,” they will need to do more than that. They will need to redefine Best Picture— and themselves. And if anyone from the Academy is reading this, I think I just gave you a damn good place to start.

David Merkle