The Nolan Effect: Why the Larger Best Picture Pool Is Actually Shrinking the Number of Oscar Contenders

Did Christopher Nolan ruin the Oscars? I know he didn’t mean to, but five years ago, fan outrage and industry frustration over the fact that Nolan’s acclaimed film The Dark Knight failed to receive a Best Picture nomination led the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to make its most dramatic rule change in decades, expanding the Best Picture roster from five to 10 nominees for the first time in more than 60 years. Lots of silly reasoning went into this decision — a misplaced panic about the show needing to become “relevant” to the young, fear about falling ratings (even though the ratings weren’t actually falling), and terror that if the Oscars continued to recognize movies like Milk but not the ones that were grossing half a billion dollars in the U.S., they would soon be doomed. But the stated public rationale was simple and clear: A larger Best Picture field would mean that a more surprising and varied set of films would be competing for statuettes.

Five years and 47 Best Picture nominees into that approach, it’s time to admit that the experiment has failed. An alteration that was designed to widen the Oscar field has, instead, narrowed it. And that’s not just an opinion: It’s right there in the numbers.

Last week, shortly after the nominations were announced, Nick Davis, an associate professor in gender and sexuality studies at Northwestern University who maintains a passionate avocational interest in Oscar history, tweeted a jarring statistic: This year, he noted, the “top six” Oscar categories — picture, director, and the four acting races — comprised a total of just 11 films. I found that number perplexing because it seemed counterintuitive. How could a year that was widely heralded as one of the best in a long time for American movies yield the smallest — the least diverse, if you will — pool of contenders in recent memory? I decided to poke at the stat a bit more by adding in the two writing categories for a “top eight.” Those results were scarcely better: This year’s major-category nominations — 44 in all — were spread among just 12 films. (The only non–Best Picture nominees to receive any major category recognition this year were August: Osage County, Blue Jasmine, and Before Midnight.)

That’s the fewest in 30 years. What’s more, the second-lowest number of films represented in the major nominations in the last 30 years — 14 — happened just one year ago. And the third-lowest also happened in the five years since the rule change. The inescapable truth: Best Picture may have gotten bigger, but the Oscars have gotten smaller.

For those of us who understand that the Academy Awards can’t be perfect but want them to continue to strive to be better, this is a deeply disappointing trend. In a good year for the Oscars, voters reach out toward a wide variety of deserving pictures, directors, performances, and scripts, choosing to herald outstanding work even when it’s in a movie that has little chance of becoming a Best Picture nominee. The greater the number of films that are embraced, the clearer it becomes that voters have done their homework. And those “outlier” nominations tend to withstand history’s verdict rather impressively: David Lynch for Blue Velvet. The scripts of Trainspotting and Election. A teenage Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson. Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream. Christopher Nolan himself, for his Memento screenplay. For movies, but also for the reputation of the Oscars, one major nomination truly is better than nothing.

And for at least a quarter-century before the rule change, that type of nomination was routine. In 1988, for instance, all five nominees for Best Supporting Actor came from movies that were not nominated for Best Picture. That kind of energetic, far-reaching voting was absent this year, when, for instance, James Gandolfini (Enough Said), Daniel Brühl (Rush), David Oyelowo (Lee Daniels’ The Butler), Paul Dano (Prisoners), and John Goodman (Inside Llewyn Davis) might all have credibly served to represent movies that were otherwise almost completely shut out. In their place, the five Supporting Actor nominations all went to actors who costarred in Best Picture nominees.

Some might argue that all the difference demonstrates is that this year, all of the talent was concentrated in a small handful of movies — but that’s true in a bad year, not in a good one. And before the rule change, “bad year” vs. “good year” didn’t make much of a difference. Between 1984 and 2008, an average of 18.3 movies were represented in the top eight categories each years — sometimes as many as 22, and never fewer than 16. A drop in the last two years, first to 14 and then to 12, can’t be written off by dismissing the quality of the movies that were available to nominate; it represents the encroachment of an all-or-nothing mentality that has, I would argue, been fueled by the Academy’s misguided approach to its biggest prize.

To understand why, it helps to abandon any preconceived notion you might have of Academy voters as people who sit around all year with nothing much to do but see every possible contender and then make their voting decisions calmly and with time to spare. Yes, some of the voting members are elderly Los Angeles–based retirees who have all the time in the world to attend Academy screenings and yell at Martin Scorsese, but the majority are working professionals who, like the rest of us, can’t usually see everything they want to see and, unlike the rest of us, have to see everything by a deadline (this year, voting closed on January 8) that is a full month earlier than it used to be.

That means prioritizing — a nice word for tossing a whole bunch of movies aside. It also means relying increasingly on cues from well-funded Oscar campaigns. When only five Best Picture nominees were allowed, the field of likely contenders usually narrowed by December to seven or eight. For members of the actors branch, who also have to vote for 20 acting nominees, or of the writers branch, who have to pick 10 writing nominees, that meant that in order to fill out their ballots, they had to look beyond the Best Picture candidates and turn their attention to a large pool of additional movies. But since the rule change, 14 or 15 films annually harbor hopes of a Best Picture nomination. There’s some truth to the old saw about the psychology of voting that people like to vote for winners, and they also prefer not to waste their time on candidates that they hear don’t stand a chance. I suspect that the practical effect of a larger Best Picture field is that AMPAS voters now tend to divide the 50-odd DVD screeners they receive into two piles: Movies they “should” see (in other words, the big contenders) and everything else. Guess how often the second pile never gets looked at until it’s too late?

Two other factors only exacerbate the problem. The first is the backloaded release calendar. This year, all nine of the eventual Best Picture nominees opened in the fourth quarter; last year, eight out of nine did. The Wolf of Wall Street didn’t hit theaters until Christmas Day; the screener for Her didn’t reach some voters until days before the deadline. When good movies drift into theaters more gradually — as they did two years ago, when three Best Picture nominees opened before Labor Day — a wider array of films get assessed. But when all the big ones stack up at the finish line, as they did this year, voter viewing tends to happen as an act of triage — save the worthy, kill the rest — right as other awards are being handed out. And those other, heavily repetitive ceremonies tend to reinforce a narrative of inevitability that pushes borderline movies even further to the margins.

Which leads to perhaps the biggest problem: the campaigns themselves. Many people reflexively equate Oscar campaigns with “buying awards”; that’s glib, but if you were to say “buying nominations,” you’d be uncomfortably close to the truth. It’s not actual nominations that are being purchased, but awareness — it costs a great deal of money for a distributor to keep a movie in the pool of widely discussed contenders during the last three months of the year. The bills that pile up aren’t just for the For Your Consideration print ads and the expenditure of sending out thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of DVDs, but for the hotel, transportation, support staff, per diem, and amenity costs of shuttling your talent from one event on the circuit to another. If you consider the Toronto, New York, Telluride, and AFI festivals as Oscar stops, then throw in the profile-raising premieres, the “intimate” luncheons, cocktail parties, teas, dinners, and late-night post-screening soirees on both coasts to which press are invited, the various critics’ dinners and “precursor” awards galas, the industry screenings, the guild Q&As, and the events, retrospectives, and tributes that barter made-to-order awards in exchange for a star’s willingness to show up and be feted, the cost of an Oscar campaign can soar into eight figures.

And as the numbers rise, distributors are increasingly unwilling to risk wasting their money and effort on a movie that might yield only a Best Supporting Actress or a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. Tough decisions are made, and those decisions serve to reinforce the two-tiered system. An example this year is Ron Howard’s Rush, a modestly budgeted movie that Universal distributed but did not finance. A few weeks into the film’s disappointing run in U.S. moviehouses, it became clear that Rush was, at best, a long shot for a Best Picture nomination. But it was equally clear that the film’s costar Brühl, who played Niki Lauda, was a strong potential contender for Best Supporting Actor recognition. (Brühl did, in fact, receive nominations from the Screen Actors Guild, BAFTA, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.) According to someone close to the film, it was a struggle even to get enough outside campaign money to pay for a couple of ads for Brühl and a visit or two to Los Angeles. But the money it would have taken to raise Rush’s profile enough to make its sound, its makeup, its editing, and Brühl himself look like winners to Academy voters simply wasn’t there, and the picture was shut out on nomination day. And for most films that are made and distributed independently, the cost of buying into the campaign system is now prohibitively steep. It is not a coincidence that, of the 12 movies on this year’s much-too-short short list of top-category contenders, 10 are from the studios or from studio-owned indie labels and the other two hail from the mightily well-financed Weinstein Company. Yes, ideally, voters would be able to look past this. But time is short, screeners are numerous, and it is obliviously high-minded to assume that with a little effort, voters can all render themselves invulnerable to the very loud noise that studio money can make. The same titles are being shouted in their faces week in, week out. How can anything else hope to be noticed?

The Academy’s semi-official stance about the bigger-is-better Best Picture field is that it makes the Oscars more relevant by opening up the top prize to a kind of movie that might not have been in the running before. But there’s zero evidence that the expanded field has done anything but dilute the prestige of a nomination. It certainly hasn’t affected the choice of a winner, nor can an argument be made that the “extra” nominations — whichever ones they are — are going to movies that diversify the pool of candidates. The only big, popular genre film of the nine movies nominated this year is Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, and its 10 nominations and Producers Guild win (it tied with 12 Years a Slave) strongly suggest that it would have made the Best Picture list even in a year with just five nominees.

What the expanded Best Picture pool — reinforced by the campaigns and the release timetable — has done is to concretize a sense among voters that major nominations should, whenever possible, come from top-tier movies. And that’s damaging. Films like All Is Lost, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Enough Said, Fruitvale Station, Inside Llewyn Davis, Prisoners, and Rush clearly didn’t have the gas in their tanks or the broad-based support from voters to get Best Picture nominations, but before this rule change, every one of them would have stood a decent chance of emerging on nomination day with one major citation — something that would make moviegoers say, “I really should catch up with that one.” The history of the Oscars would be better and richer for the inclusion of those movies and for the wider, more generous, and thoughtful survey of the year in cinema that their inclusion would represent. Instead, we have a smaller-than-ever nomination list — one that, in important ways, fails the Academy, and fails to respect and to represent the year in movies.

Filed Under: Academy Awards, Oscars, Movies, Christopher Nolan