Oscars 2019: why average films always seem to win best picture

So the Awards season is over as the 91st Academy Awards has now drawn to a close.

The night was full of passionate and emotional speeches, most notably from Olivia Coleman who won Best Lead Actress and accepted the award with a tremendous amount of wit, bemusement and grace saying “This is hlilarious! I’ve won an Oscar!” as she barely held it together.

There were exotic and outgoing red carpet outfits such as Billy Porter who wore a ball gown styled to look like a tuxedo and Melissa McCarthy who wore a Tudor dress covered in stuffed toy rabbits while she presented an award.

But let’s not forget the brilliantly captivating performance of Shallow from Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper which took home the Oscar for best original song and almost convinced us that there was a real life romance between the acting duo.

But with all the celebration and showmanship the best picture winner, Green Book, proved divisive. As BlacKkKlansman director Spike Lee tried to storm out of the Theatre as the winner was read out claiming that “I thought I was courtside at Madison Square Garden and the ref made a bad call,” going on to say that the film was “not my cup of tea”

In Green Book, an African-American classical pianist is driven through a 1960s American deep south by an Italian-American chauffeur. Lee joked that “Every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose.” In reference to Driving Miss Daisy, where an elderly Southern woman is chauffeured by an African-American driver and beat out Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing when they were both nominated in 1990. “They changed the seating arrangement!” he said.

Part of why the winning picture has split opinion is that whilst on the surface the win seems like a win for the black community, the director and many of the crew that stood up to accept the award were white. Leading people to claim that “Hollywood still doesn’t get race” such as Joseph Harker of The Guardian.

On social media people also made their displeasure and surprise known, with many indicating it was an average at best film:





But to understand how this happened we need to understand how the academy votes on a winner.

After all the glitzy film festival premiers, slick advertising and shady backroom handshakes between producers the films are nominated, and the list is scrutinised by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. From there it’s up to a select number of people to decide the winner. At this point it doesn’t matter about box office takings or political controversies, it’s all down to these individuals’ preferences.

The Academy consists of roughly 8000 members made up of actors, casting directors, cinematographers. Costume designers, designers, directors, documentarians, executives, film editors, make up artists, musicians, producers, public relations, short and animation, sound, visual effects and writers.

Eligible candidates to become members must first meet certain requirements. For example, directors need at least 2 directing credits with one being within the last decade. Once someone becomes a member they can only nominate within their field with the exception of best picture, which everyone can nominate. So, this is where it gets confusing.

Between five and ten slots are available for best picture, after the 2009 Dark Knight snub persuaded the academy to update their rules from the limit of 5 so there was room to include more popular films. In order to receive a nomination a film needs at least 5% of the votes from the academy so roughly 400 votes based on the 8000 total assuming every member votes, unlike in 2016 where many members boycotted the Oscars in the #OscarsSoWhite campaign after no people of colour were nominated that year.

But a nomination is only half the battle. Much like politics, there is a complicated system in place for deciding a winner. Unlike every other category where experts working within a designated profession vote and the most votes guarantee a win, that’s not the case with best picture. This utilises something called preferential balloting.

For example, if there were 10 nominees, voters rank them from 1-10. Those rankings are then ordered and if no film equals 51% of the top votes, then the film with lowest vote is eliminated and its votes given to the second choice on the voter’s ballot. This continues, ranking the nominees until one rises above the rest and reaches that 51% threshold and once that happens the Academy has their best picture winner.

However, this system of giving the vote to the second choice means that controversial or out of the norm films that generally split the vote between people that love (rank top) and hate it (rank bottom) are tossed out and their votes given to nominees that whilst everyone liked or enjoyed, they wouldn’t necessarily choose as their favourite.

This system means that unlike all other categories, nominees aren’t rewarded based on merit and with few exceptions, average films take the top honour.


What’s your view on this? Should Green Book have won? Should their be popular vote instead of a ballot?

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