OSCAR MADNESS

Why ‘Best Picture’ Is Now Meaningless

The Oscar for Best Picture will go to…who cares? With pundits predicting a win for The Revenant, we examine why the biggest award in Hollywood has become its most embarrassing.

02.28.16 5:01 AM ET

The Revenant is the worst film nominated for Best Picture this year. And it will probably win the Oscar.

“The worst” isn’t just an arbitrary opinion on the film’s strange emotional distance and beautifully shot boringness; it’s a collective consensus. It has the lowest score on Metacritic, which aggregates a film’s reviews, of all eight Best Picture nominees. And yet, it will probably win the award.

The truth is that this is the first year in decades where the Best Picture category is actually unpredictable, which perhaps explains why a film as poorly reviewed as The Revenant could end up winning.

If it does, it will be a history-making moment in the category. No, not because the worst nominee won Best Picture—that happens with shocking routine (Crash, A Beautiful Mind, Dances With Wolves…)—but because it will have defied statistics. And if you can’t count on statistics, what can you count on?!

All the benchmarks we prognosticators usually use to predict Best Picture are all bunk this year. In a rare instance of Oscars excitement, Spotlight, The Revenant, and The Big Short all stand very real shots of winning Best Picture.

Traditionally, previous wins from the guilds—the Directors Guild, Producers Guild, Screen Actors Guild—factor along with key nominations in non-Best Picture categories to statistically predict Best Picture, typically with great success.

Because important precursor wins were split up among those top contenders and this year’s Oscar nominations are all over the map, people favoring The Revenant for the trophy are operating on their gut, its late-breaking momentum, and anecdotal evidence from voters.

Bear with us, now, while we nerd out on stats and Oscars history, in an attempt to explain why the Best Picture race is uncharacteristically thrilling this year. And then, more importantly, why the category has become utterly meaningless.

In other words—with The Revenant possibly joining the esteemed company of Birdman, The Artist, The King’s Speech, and more—why the Best Picture category reliably sucks.

Still, there’s hope yet! Here are all the reasons odds say The Revenant shouldn’t win Best Picture.

It did not receive a SAG Ensemble nomination. (No movie since Braveheart won without this.) It did not get a screenplay nomination. (Titanic was the last movie to win without one.) No movie released after October has won since Million Dollar Baby. And no director has ever helmed two consecutive Best Picture winners. (Alejandro González Iñárritu also directed last year’s winner, Birdman.)

The Big Short won the PGA award. Every PGA winner has won Best Picture at the Oscars since 2009.

The Big Short also won the Writers Guild Award, earned a crucial SAG Ensemble nomination, and is the only film other than Spotlight to be nominated in each of the five major categories at the Oscars (picture, director, writing, editing, and at least one acting category).

Ostensibly, that should make it a frontrunner. Like we said, the race is exciting this year! The Big Short could win!

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As for Spotlight, it’s the best reviewed Best Picture nominee, which you’d think should count for something in award that has the word “best” in its title. It also won the SAG Best Ensemble award, which means that actors really liked the film. That’s important, as actors make up the largest section of the Oscars voting body, but also unimportant, as that award has only correctly predicted Best Picture 10 of the last 20 years.

So why do people think The Revenant will win? That it won the two most recent big awards—the DGA and the BAFTA—is in its favor. Nothing rivals momentum. The BAFTA voting body has an overlap of about 500 voters with the Academy, which is nothing to scoff at.

It’s rare for a film to win Best Picture without winning several below-the-line categories as well.

While Spotlight and The Big Short should win screenplay awards, neither is that competitive in those categories. Leading the field with 12 nominations, The Revenant should pick up a few. The movie is also a bigger commercial hit than Spotlight or the Big Short, and the enthusiasm over Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is having an amplifying effect on the film’s general reception as well.

There are also theories for why it didn’t manage to tick off those other big boxes. Its late release could be to blame for its lack of a SAG nod—voters didn’t have time to screen it—and its PGA loss could simply be owed to the fact that the film was poorly produced: it went over budget by a staggering $70 million.

In other words, after Sunday night, we should expect The Revenant to join a list of films including The Artist, Argo, Birdman, Crash, and a long line of others stretching back to How Green Was My Valley in 1941: Best Picture winners that we almost immediately regret.

It’s inevitable that hindsight brings a sharper focus to a film’s true greatness. In the moment, voters are susceptible to things like campaigning, buzz, star power, and an understandable inability to gaze decades into the future to see which nominees will stand the test of time. Fair enough.

It’s hilarious to look back and see that Citizen Kane lost to How Green Was My Valley; Rocky beat Taxi Driver, Network, and All the President’s Men; and Dances With Wolves won instead of Goodfellas. And it’s frustrating that movies that changed the face of cinema—2001: A Space Odyssey, Jaws, Star Wars, Singin’ in the Rain, Avatar—either didn’t win or, in some cases, weren’t even nominated.

But there are also institutional failings that lead to such nonsense, particularly as the decades creeped on past How Green Was My Valley and started handing out instantly regrettable Best Picture trophies to films like Crash, A Beautiful Mind, Shakespeare in Love, The English Patient, or Dances With Wolves—not to mention more recent missteps.

There’s The King’s Speech, a made-for-TV movie bullied into Best Picture by the muscle of Harvey Weinstein when an all-star squad of reserves—The Social Network, The Fighter, Inception, Toy Story 3—deserved it more.

Wins by Argo, The Artist, and Birdman proved the Academy’s penchant for masturbatory acknowledgement of films that celebrate and comment on its own industry—again, each with politics and award campaigns manipulating voters in its favor. Momentum, too, played a major part in explaining why those films triumphed in their years.

That’s not to mention an air of “coolness” that predicated a vote for, say, Birdman over the more earnest Boyhood. The entire Academy votes on Best Picture. When there isn’t time to re-watch every nominee—or even watch each for the first time—the ever intangible “buzz” is what skyrockets a film to the forefront of influenced voters’ minds and, by extension, their Oscar ballots.

Those ballots are a nightmare in and of themselves.

Understanding how the Best Picture winner is determined once voters send in their choices, ranked by preference, requires an advanced degree in mathematical science.

Every other category at the Oscars is decided by popular vote except for Best Picture, which uses a preferential ballot. If one film receives first-place votes on 50 percent of the ballots, it wins Best Picture.

Since that almost never occurs, what actually happens is that, after all the first-place votes are counted on every ballot, the film with the fewest is eliminated. Those ballots are then reassigned to the film ranked number two on each of them.

If there still isn’t a film with 50 percent of the ballots, the process repeats itself. The film with the fewest No. 1 and reapportioned No. 2 votes is eliminated, and then reassigned to the next choice still in play. The process of elimination goes on until there’s a winner.

I know. It’s like trying to understand The Big Short.

What this means is that in a year when, for example, there is robust but maybe not extremely passionate support for The Help, The Descendants, and Hugo, the fact that Harvey Weinstein hypnotized a contingent of voters into placing The Artist at number one on their ballots is crucial.

Because The Artist was undeniably slight, charming, and inventive, it was likely ranked quite high even on ballots that rank it No. 1. So when the dueling between The Help, The Descendants, and Hugo ends up knocking each one out of contention, those votes are reassigned to The Artist, helping it to ho-hum victory.

A small amount of people loving a movie is more important than a large amount of people all liking a movie, but with less enthusiasm. Every voter might have liked Boyhood, but that doesn’t matter as much as a small group of voters loving Birdman.

This year, it’s likely that Spotlight will find itself suffering in that same situation.

The other issue, which is a fundamental issue in everything wrong with the Oscars, is the overwhelmingly white, male, and aging makeup of the Academy—a group of voters with tastes that do not reflect those of the rest of the movie-watching world because they’re a demographic that does not reflect the rest of the movie-watching world.

If the fact that the movies that changed the world and film history—those aforementioned films like Citizen Kane, Jaws, Vertigo, Rosemary’s Baby, Dr. Strangelove, Fargo, Pulp Fiction—did not win the award doesn’t already discredit the meaningfulness of Best Picture, then certainly knowing the arguably irrelevant factors that tend to influence voters, not to mention the laughably exclusive makeup of those voters themselves, should.

The Best Picture title has become nothing more than an empty certificate given to the campaigner that spent the most money, or the film that was lucky enough to be released last and therefore surf a wave of buzz to a trophy. Sure, the award isn’t always wrong. As recently as 12 Years a Slave winning in 2013 the Oscars have gotten it right.

But while the award can mean a spike in ticket or DVD numbers, boost a director’s profile, and secure a solid sale for TV rights, it doesn’t mean, at least not anymore, what it should: greatness.