It’s either a huge shame or entirely clever that the Academy and Oscars producers’ nuclear-level bungling of the lead-up to Sunday night’s ceremony has made it so that most of us forget that the point of the whole thing is to actually give awards to movies.
Remember them? The nominees? The films and the actors meant to be debated, rewarded, and to spark conversation about our current cultural moment?
There has been so much attention paid to the slow-motion car wreck piling up on the road to Sunday night that the rubberneckers have nearly missed the fact that this year’s Best Picture winner has the potential to change the Oscars in ways that ensure the awards will never be the same again—and some argue is long overdue.
In the eleventh hour, Roma has just barely peeked its head above the surface as frontrunner. That would be historic, twice over: the first foreign language film to win Best Picture, and the first film distributed by Netflix to do so.
Alfonso Cuarón’s deeply personal, 135-minute period piece in homage to the woman who raised him, shot in black-and-white with dialogue in Spanish and Mixtec, may have been the best-reviewed and most passionately championed film of the awards season. But especially when you reread that description—135 minutes, black-and-white, foreign language—you’d understand why Roma, no matter how high the praise, was a hard sell to voters.
But perhaps the bigger hurdle for Roma is the industry’s complicated feelings towards Netflix. It was not even two years ago when audience members at Cannes booed when the Netflix logo played before films screening there. The influential festival even changed its rules to bar streaming-only movies from showing there.
And for every filmmaker thrilled that Netflix puts their projects in front of millions of eyeballs around the world, there is another perturbed by its potential ramifications on the cineplex, skeptical of the amount of money it spends, and fearful of what conditioning movie fans to watch films on their iPads and phones could mean for the future of the craft.
Netflix’s awards campaign for Roma has been historically expensive, coming at a reported $25 million, putting off voters who perceive that as the streamer thinking it can buy its first Best Picture win. Still, the cash has clearly paid off.
While it’s our prediction that Roma will pull off the win, this is one of the more open races in recent history. It’s not a “tight race” per se, like years in which two or three films battled down to the wire for Best Picture: Moonlight vs. La La Land, Boyhood vs. Birdman, or last year’s Three Billboards vs. Get Out vs. Shape of Water. There are believable cases for at least seven of the eight Best Picture nominees to take home the trophy. (Sorry not sorry, Vice.)
The case for...everyone
In what may be a first in a modern awards season, the guilds all awarded their Best Picture prize to different films. Green Book won the Producers Guild Award. Roma took the Directors Guild. The Black Panther cast won the Screen Actors Guild prize, and the American Cinema Editors gave their honors to Bohemian Rhapsody and The Favourite. (The Writers Guild actually gave their awards to two films not even nominated for Best Picture, though in this writer’s opinion both should have been: Eighth Grade and Can You Ever Forgive Me?.)
Each of those guild prizes have been served in the past as a bellwether for Best Picture, which makes the even spread almost useless for predictions. That is, unless it suggests that BlacKkKlansman is actually the frontrunner. It didn’t win any of the guild prizes, but it was the only Best Picture nominee to be nominated for all of them. Or maybe A Star Is Born is in the best shape. As Variety’s Kristopher Tapley points out, it received the most total industry guild nominations, and therefore may actually have the most industry support.
The fact that Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody won Golden Globes doesn’t necessarily mean anything—there is zero overlap between the Globes and Academy voting bodies—but it does signal that the two films are “Best Picture worthy,” a designation that, amid controversies and mixed reviews, both desperately needed. (The fact that Roma won the BAFTA does carry more Best Picture prognostication weight.)
And what about this whole botched idea of Best Popular Movie? This year’s Oscars has been shrouded in panic and paranoia over ratings, to which the Academy has long thought a solution would be finding ways to reward more box-office hits and combat the reputation as awards for movies nobody sees. The idea of the Best Popular Movie was nixed, and proved unnecessary as voters nominated Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Star Is Born in Best Picture anyway, the first time since 2009 that there are three films that grossed over $200 million domestically in the category.
There has never been a connection between box office gross and Best Picture success but, this year more than ever, that conversation is still likely on voters’ minds, which bodes well for Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody, especially.
And while there is no tangible way of measuring it, there has always been a notion that the Best Picture race doubles as a referendum on the culture at the time. How the category shakes out tends to be used as a snapshot both of a cultural moment, but perhaps more clearly, the industry. What is the Academy saying not only about us, but about them, with a given year’s winner?
Black Panther’s success was a watershed moment for the industry, and certainly for our culture. It would make sense to want to acknowledge that moment with a Best Picture win.
Then there’s all the wonky math about how Best Picture votes are tabulated and what happens if frontrunners end up splitting the vote. The preferential voting ballot is complicated enough to warrant entire posts explaining them, but key points are that voters rank the Best Picture choices from 1 through 8, and it matters more to score high on a majority of ballots than to score high on some and low on others.
It’s hard to be the generally well-liked films this year. Roma is adored, but anti-Netflix sentiments could reflect in low voting. Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody are arguably the People’s Choice, but they also are vehemently disliked by those who aren’t fans. We’d venture that Black Panther and A Star Is Born won’t be near the bottom of any ballots—but also may not score many number 1 or 2 votes. Vice is, well, Vice.
That leaves The Favourite as a potential spoiler, the film most likely to appear near the top of almost every ballot.
Roma’s win could change everything
That the field is still, on the eve of Oscars night, so open and the nominees themselves such an atypical—and, in some cases, controversial—mix for Best Picture could be owed to the push to expand and diversify the Academy membership. Awards pundits and members of the industry are still trying to read the tea leaves about what that expanded membership means.
It likely helped Black Panther become the first superhero film nominated for Best Picture. It likely helped Roma overcome bad vibes towards Netflix. It likely helped Bohemian Rhapsody and Vice, two of the worst-reviewed Best Picture nominees ever, score major nods. And it likely helped Green Book make it in despite several controversies. And there are likely as many people furious that all those things happened as there are voters satisfied that they did.
The group is more diverse than ever and bigger than ever, which are both good things, but it is also more splintered than ever. As Mark Harris wrote for Vulture, “It’s hard to imagine a lineup more reflective of this churningly angry years-long moment—and almost as hard to imagine what, of the eight nominees, will effectively enough disguise itself as a consensus choice in a nonconsensus universe and make it to the finish line.”
Is Roma that consensus choice? We certainly think so. It will marginally help to answer one question, which is what to make of this past, wild awards season. But it raises another, at this point, impossible one: What does it mean to have a Netflix Best Picture?
No one knows how many people have seen Roma, which means we won’t be able to measure the “Oscars bump,” that silly stat that tracks how a Best Picture win commercially helps a film. But that also means that we don’t necessarily know what kind of Best Picture winner Roma is. Is it another one of those arthouse picks that the public scoffs at because they’ll never see it? Or did its Netflix platform actually help it reach eyeballs, if not on the Black Panther or Bohemian Rhapsody scale, at least on par with Shape of Water’s $63 million domestic haul last year?
With “relevance” the biggest Academy buzzword these days, that’s something that matters.
And what about the message it sends to an industry that on the one hand has telegraphed lethargy in embracing Netflix as a reputable film distributor, but on the other flooded the service with talent and content over the last few years? All reports trumpet the seemingly endless budgets and creative control filmmakers are given by the company. Would a Best Picture win have even more top-tier talent knocking on the Netflix door?
Maybe now it’s understandable that the ceremony is OK with going without a host this year. Clearly, it’s got bigger issues to consider.