Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Could there only be 5 Best Picture nominees at the Oscars this year?

In 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made a big change in the system for their prestigious Best Picture award. After The Dark Knight was snubbed in 2008, the Academy decided to expand the field from five to ten nominees, in order to give more popular films a chance to be nominated. And it worked- in the subsequent years, box office hits like District 9, Up, Inception, Toy Story 3, and Inglorious Basterds were nominated for the highest honor in film, which pleased both critics and fans. Later, the field expansion allowed for more independent films, another move that made cinephiles happy. After two years of the 10 nominee group, the Academy made changes again in 2011, basing the number of films on a preferential ballot system and the number of first place votes for the film. 2011, 2012, and 2013 all had nine nominees, while 2014 and 2015 had eight nominees. Eight seems like the new expected number, and when filling out predictions, most Oscar experts choose eight or nine films that they anticipate receiving a nomination.

But there's reason to believe that 2016 could be different. To start things off, let's take a look at Gold Derby's expert predictions for Best Picture, as of December 13, 2016.

1. La La Land- 9/2 odds (22 predicting win)
2. Manchester by the Sea- 13/2 odds (4 predicting win)
3. Moonlight- 15/2 odds (0 predicting win- same for all other contenders)
4. Fences- 9/1
5. Silence- 12/1
6. Arrival- 14/1
7. Loving- 14/1
8. Lion- 14/1
9. Jackie- 25/1
10. Sully- 28/1

So how are Best Picture nominees chosen? Indiewire has an excellent guide to that, which is certainly worth a look. But essentially, a film must receive 1/11th of the first place vote + 1 to be automatically nominated for Best Picture on the initial ballot. After that, there's a complex reallocation system that allows for down-ballot favorites to gain a nomination. Indiewire lays it out pretty well, and frankly, I still don't quite get it- the system is nothing short of convoluted. But basically, here's the gist- the favorites get nominated first, and then the vote favors passionate runner-ups. After the initial round, a film has to get 5% of the first place votes to be nominated, and that usually leaves us with eight or nine nominees. The new system favors quality and passion, not quantity. To make that point clear, I seriously don't believe that we'll ever see a Best Picture field of 10 in the future. But this raises the question- will we ever see a field of five nominees again?

If it could happen during any year, this would be it. As the Oscar race has moved forward, it has become abundantly obvious that the main race won't be much of a competition this year. The preferential ballot system favors consensus in the end, and no film has been as beloved in 2016 as Damien Chazelle's La La Land. It's a lock to get a nomination, and there's a damn good chance that it wins Best Picture as well. Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea and Barry Jenkins' Moonlight are also in great shape for a nomination, as they're both critical favorites with large fanbases. If I was going to take a guess, these three films will receive the lion's share of Best Picture votes across the board. But what's going on below those three films?

Here's the thing- I don't think any film beyond the main trio has a chance to win Best Picture. Silence was thought to be a major contender after it broke into the awards race, but the film has garnered more respect than adoration. Fences is starting to crumble, Loving is looking like more of an acting play each day, Lion doesn't really seem to be connecting on a profound level, and films like Arrival and Jackie were never sure things. Hell or High Water, Sully, and Hacksaw Ridge are potential dark horse contenders, but they're far from guarantees. To me, this all hinges on three questions-

1. Do any of these films have enough to get 5% of the vote?
2. How many first place votes will La La Land, Manchester, and Moonlight get on the initial ballot?
3. Which films have the most passionate base of support?

There's also good reason to just brush this idea of five nominees off completely. After all, Bridge of Spies was nominated in 2015, and that was a relatively quiet, understated piece of work that inspired more reverence than passion. If that movie could get 5% of the vote, something like Lion surely could as well. But at the same time, if the big three get a huge percentage of the first place votes, and the rest of the votes are split between very small, passionate groups, we could end up with only the minimum amount of nominees. The Academy's system is so complex or convoluted that I'm not convinced that we'll end up with the total minimum, but there's a very good chance that we only see six or seven nominees. If I had to guess right now, my prediction would be:

1. La La Land
2. Manchester by the Sea
3. Moonlight
4. Arrival
5. Fences
6. Silence

Again, there's a scenario where three of these movies taper off entirely, allowing for more of a consensus pick like Lion to sneak in. But as of right now, I think the support is so concentrated in our three main contenders that only a few select films even stand a chance of getting in. I intend to do more research on this and maybe even a little bit of math in the coming weeks, because this is really a distinct possibility that we need to think about as January 24th approaches.

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