1929. Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. This is the site of the first-ever Academy Awards, or as it’s more commonly referred to, the Oscars. Known for its glitz and glam, the Oscars also represent the best of the best in the film industry, which makes it even more tragic to watch it die. The 2018 Oscars drew record-low ratings, dropping nearly 20% from the previous year, and even if we disregard the inevitable snubs and drama surrounding the host every year, it’s evident that the Oscars have a problem. They’re rigged.
So why are the Oscars such a big deal? A recent study found that studios, on average, spend an extra $10 million just to run an Oscar campaign. Now, it may sound like a lot, but it’s actually not a bad investment. Over the past four years, best picture winners generated an additional $19 million at the box office. That’s more than 42% of total ticket sales. “The King’s Speech”, for example, was initially projected to gross just $30 million, but after its subsequent nomination and victory, it went on to make more than $400 million in the box office.
Today, the Oscars aren’t just an awards ceremony. They’re also a marketing event, but it wasn’t always like this. “The Deer Hunter”, a best picture from 1978, was the first film ever to use the Oscars as a marketing strategy. Universal Studios worried the film would be a commercial failure due to its grim and depressing tone and came to a realization that the only way to draw a crowd was by winning the Oscar. And it worked. Another figure who took advantage of the system was none other than Harvey Weinstein. The controversial film producer was notorious for his aggressive marketing strategies to win best picture. It’s how “Shakespeare in Love” took home the prize in 1999 over Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”, an obvious favorite at the time.
It’s no surprise that Hollywood pours so much attention and money into the event, but there is another secret. The Oscars aren’t that difficult to win. That is, as long as you understand the rules of the game, and the key is all in the statistics. For instance, you wanna make longer films, ideally over two hours. This graph charts the run time of all best picture winners since 1929. There are no distinct patterns, but in terms of probability, longer films have a better chance of winning. Only three out of 90 winners had a runtime below 100 minutes, while 28 ran below two hours. And 76% of all winners since 1960 have been more than two hours long. So why do the Oscars love longer films? The answer is simple: Because longer films tend to feel more important, and if there’s one thing we can agree on, the Oscars love important movies, almost to a fault. These are not important movies in the context of cinematic achievements but rather the buzz that surrounds a film. It’s the same reason why film marketers work hard to create that Oscar buzz, like the extent to which actors went to prepare for a role or the difficulties behind the scenes. There’s no reason why runtime should have an effect on whether a film wins the best picture or not, yet, it clearly does.
This obsession with important films is the same reason why dramas are the king of the award season. A whopping 93% of best picture winners are dramas, while only 2% are action and fantasy. This pattern extends beyond the best picture category. A study found that actors were nine times more likely to receive a nomination for their work in a drama. Over its 90 years of history, science fiction and horror movies have never won best picture. It’s why monumental works of cinema, like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” or Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” were never even nominated, and this is where we start to see the problem. There is a formula to winning the Oscars, and it’s a formula that should not exist in the first place, especially in a ceremony dedicated to rewarding good art.
The concept of picking the best film to come out in any given year is ludicrous considering how subjective movies are. The Oscars are well aware of this, and instead, they choose a different approach, rewarding the most important over the best. It’s an admirable effort, but it has its limits. It ignores subjectivity entirely and promotes a criteria that makes a film important. You might have heard this criteria referred to as Oscar bait. An Oscar-bait film attempts to appeal to this specific formula in order to win, providing a safer investment for the studios. These films are often adapted from a famous source material, based on a true story; even better, they include period dramas with lavish costumes, and historical biographies of important figures, bonus points for characters with a disability. Since 1980, 89% of the best picture winners fit into at least one of these five categories.
These films also meet a similar criteria: mass appeal. Oscar voters love critically and commercially successful movies. Of every best picture winner, 82% have a critic’s rating above 80, and 78% have an audience rating above 80 as well. This is a perfect representation of how the Academy votes for best picture. They use a preferential voting system where the voters are asked to rank the nominees in order to reward collective preferences. This means that the least disliked films will always win over smaller, niche movies with ardent fan followings. It also means that the Oscars will almost always go with a safer bet instead of films that try for something different.
This causes another problem: fatigue. Because the Oscars prefer certain movies over others, their nominations and winners look pretty much the same every year, whether it’s a film about journalists trying to uncover the truth or a historical epic about a man against a nation, it’s something we’ve all seen before. And the same goes for talent. Since 1970, about 71% of best picture winners had a director or a cast member who was previously nominated for an Oscar, a trend that carries until today. Sure, it feels great to watch DiCaprio win an Oscar he well deserves, but seeing the same people over and over and over again every year signifies that other creative independent voices are not being heard. The Oscars are dominated by enormous studios. 52% of best picture winners are from the six major Hollywood film studios, but that number rises to 81% if you include many major film studios like MGM.
The Oscars are dying, and they have no one to blame but themselves. What started out as a celebration of great achievements in filmmaking has turned into nothing but a business strategy for studios who compete for profit. And the ones who suffer the most from it are none other than you, the viewers, who no longer gain the insight or the entertainment that was promised. And all the drama, the issues, and the snubs will continue on until the Oscars realize what their event is really all about: movies.