The Evolution of the Best Picture Nomination

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Hollywood’s elite will gather at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles to celebrate the 88th on Sunday. Much of the discourse surrounding the Oscars this year has been focused, deservedly so, around the glaring whiteness in the acting nominations. Before you dismiss this year’s show entirely, you should take notice of an evolution of the Academy Awards’ highest honor, the Best Picture category.

Though it’s not a perfect model, a reliable barometer to gauge the American public’s approval for a film is by its box office numbers. The more money the film makes, the more the public enjoyed it. (Or, the harder it was to ignore.)

Equally imperfect, a film’s artistic quality is determined by how it performs during award season. Typically, these two measures clash as the films that are nominated for Best Picture often go largely unseen by the American public.

Oscar-nominated films don’t fetch much attention at the box office because of their content, release date, and MPAA ratings, but it’s arguable that the film’s budget plays a role too.

Without a large-scale budget to allocate to distribution and marketing, many people will never hear about a film, let alone see it. In the past this has been the case with many Best Picture winners, including 12 Years a Slave (2014), The Artist (2012), Hurt Locker (2010), and Slumdog Millionaire (2009). It’s especially true with some of the nominees: Philomena (2014) Armour (2013),The Tree of Life (2012), Winter’s Bone (2011), The Kids Are All Right (2011), Milk (2009), and The Queen (2007).

Average Film Budget By Best Picture Nomination Class

2013: $52.1M

2014: $39.7M

2015: $19.6

2016: $70.1M

In recent years, however, that trend seems to be changing. Movies with larger budgets are getting nominated. Never more so than in this year’s class of Best Picture nominees. This past year saw a number of big-budget films that were each able to both rake in box-office bucks and receive critical approval: Mad Max Fury Road, Jurassic World, Creed, The Revenant, The Martian, and Star Wars the Force Awakens . Each of those films received favorable reviews and cleared over $110M at the box office. In 2014 the year’s highest grossing film was American Sniper, which received a Best Picture nod.

The Academy is also becoming less snobby. Last year featured a pivotal change to convention when The Grand Budapest Hotel was nominated, despite being released in March. Typically the Best Picture nominees are restricted to a fourth-quarter release. A similar feat occurred this year with Mad Max Fury Road , which was released in May.

A third factor could be the Academy Awards as a broadcast property. In an unstable television landscape, threatened by cable cutting and streaming, the most valuable commodity for networks to possess is live-event programming. Sports, awards shows and political debates are among the most viewed programs. Is it possible that the Academy is intentionally nominating films that have registered large box-office hauls in order to increase viewership? Perhaps. Last year with a group of Best Picture nominees that featured lower-than-average budgets the show saw a major dip in ratings. A cynical mind might leap to a conclusion there.

No matter how or why it occurred, the 2016 Best Picture nominees break from convention. Whether or not this is an outlier or the beginning of an Oscar Evolution remains to be seen.

Will the big-budget trend of the 2016 Oscars contribute to big ratings and a more enjoyable show? Will Chris Rock hold Hollywood and the Academy’s feet to the fire? Will Leonardo DiCaprio pretend that he’s surprised to win Best Actor? Tune in Sunday night at 7:00 E/T on ABC to find out.

 

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