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Recipe for the Best Picture Oscar

With the Academy Awards quickly approaching and the nominations announcement early tomorrow morning, I thought that it would be interesting to dive deep into what it takes to build a film that gets nominated and wins the most coveted film award in the United States, the Oscar for Best Picture. In order to explore this topic as objectively as possible, criteria from 1987-2017 has been analyzed and broken down into a chart. Although there are many artistic and technical merits that make a film, this article selected runtime, genre, IMDb score, and popularity. According to the empirical date, it is possible to produce a film that theoretically should get nominated and even win, but there are incalculable uncontrollable variables that range from makeup of the Academy, to number of films submitted, to release times, to the socio-political climate at the time, so it is NOT an exact science. However, looking at the data does paint a portrait of what are some correlations between winning and the various elements that make a motion picture. Depicting the criteria in the form of a chart is certainly helpful and measurable, but combining a qualitative analysis to the quantitative approach will aid in developing a comprehensive exploration of what it takes to bring home the gold.

Films range from shorts to 3+ hour epics, and there is a correlation between runtime and winning the Best Picture Oscar. The sample of winners for this data is gathered from the Best Picture winners 1987-2017 (up to 2018 Oscars) totaling 31 films. According to the sample, 21/30 films ranged from 91 to 120 minutes with 11 of them ranging from 121 to 150 minutes. The shortest and longest films to win the Best Picture award are Driving Miss Daisy at 99mins and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King at 201mins. There were zero films to win the Best Picture award released between 1987-2017 and the number after 150mins drop off significantly. The shortest film to ever win a Best Picture award is Marty at 90mins and the longest is Gone with the Wind at 238mins. Looking to the most recent winners of this most prestigious award, there is a measurable trend toward shorter feature length films. Looking to films such as Moonlight and Lady Bird, there is clearly an intentional effort to not exceed 2hrs but get close to it. Why is this? While you may think it may have to do with film budgets, that’s incidental. Yes, money and budgets are part of the equation, but it’s because movie theatre chains want to fit as many movies as possible into a daily schedule. Two hours is a solid time not to cross because a movie theatre can play the film every three hours in a single auditorium (and stagger it with multiple auditoriums). So if you are attempting to draft your Best Picture nominees or winners, look to the runtime for one of the correlating criteria for winning this award.

Genre films are certainly the favorite of the Academy. Rarely do we witness a film playing around or experimenting with genre get nominated much less win. Personally, I like it when a film plays around with genre in an innovative attempt to tell a new story or provide a new perspective on a previous one; however, the Academy likes their straight forward dramas most. Yes, drama is in every story; but this label specifically refers to the cut-and-dry serious narratives that lack a significant level of comedy, horror, romance, etc. From 1987-2017, ten drama films won Best Picture. The next highest winner is a significant drop at 4 with the crime genre. While drama wins the most, horror, thriller, war, musicals, and romance win the least. While many dramas certainly contain elements of the aforementioned, these genres refer to the films that are genre purest than crossovers. There are certainly high profile, memorable exceptions to this rule. And the biggest surprise on this list is the Best Picture win of The Silence of the Lambs. Not only did it win the Best Picture award, but it also won Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. No other film in the last 30 years has won the Big 5 Oscars. The win of The Silence of the Lambs is also the single win for the horror genre. Over the last few years, we have seen an increase in the general popularity and critical acclaim of horror films (Get Out is a great example) but the winningest genre still remains to be drama. Another exception to the rule is Chicago’s win! Perhaps big musicals once dominated the box office but not as much anymore. Last year’s La La Land came close to winning (that is an article in and of itself) but it came in second to a hard drama. Although there are other genres represented on this graph, that covers 1987-2017 released films, it is clear that you stand you best chances of winning by writing a straight-forward drama.

While genre can be debated on many films, IMDb scores are hard quantifiable evidence that is not subject to interpretation. Personally, I am a qualitative researcher but even in an analysis such as this, having the hard numbers is an important part. While you think it would be the films that score high 8s and 9s that would win the most, the evidence from 1987-2017 states that it’s the low 8s and high 7s that win the most often. Unlike genre and runtime, there is no way to predict your IMDb score; therefore, this evidence is most handy when trying to pick the nominees and winner. It’s like looking as a sports team’s stats going into the playoffs of the final big game of the season. Perhaps it’s not an ingredient in the same way genre and runtime are; but you can extrapolate from the aforementioned data what plots to consider when building your story and how long your movie should be. If you are one of those who are selecting which films are going to get nominated or which nominee will win, then you definitely need to look to the IMDb score for guidance.

Lastly, let’s take a look at the ten most popular motion pictures to win the Best Picture award over the last 30 years. The graph referenced in this paragraph depicts the ten most popular films from 1987-2017 to win the Best Picture award. IMDb takes multiple values into account when developing this list from IMDb score, Metacritic, audience score, etc. So, this is the most subjective criteria on this list; however, since the popularity is based upon quantifiable data, it can be used as a reliable source of information. The most popular movie on this list is 2017’s The Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo del Toro, which IS an example of a film playing around with genre that won! It combines elements of science-fiction, drama, and romance. Taking the number 10 spot on this list is the Tom Hanks classic Forrest Gump. Interestingly, each of these winners is quite different from the rest. The only two to really share any similarities in plot are Silence of the Lambs and The Departed. Both of these films contain crime elements, with one skewing more towards thriller and the other more towards horror. Whereas these films differ in terms of plot, what they DO share in common is a strong lead cast. The top IMDb scorers on this list are Return of the King (8.9), Schindler’s List (8.9), Forrest Gump (8.8), Silence of the Lambs (8.6), and The Departed (8.5). All are 8.5 or higher. Beyond the IMDb score, runtime, and genre, what makes these films so popular is a compelling story comprised of a simple plot and complex characters. A superlative story begins with a screenplay, and the films on this list to also win Best Original or Best Adapted screenplay are BirdmanMoonlightThe DepartedThe Return of the KingForrest GumpSchindler’s List, and Silence of the Lambs. With 7/10 of these Best Picture winners also winning the best screenplay award, it is imperative that the film begin with strong writing.

For aspiring writers and directors, look at this data and take it into account if it is your intention to write or direct the next Best Picture nominee or winner. Following this data does in no way guarantee that you have an award winning film, but it does help to highlight some important and controllable elements to consider when crafting your story. With the new additions to the academy this year to include more women and other underrepresented groups amongst the Academy’s makeup, we may see a new pattern to observe over the next 5-10 years. There have been many changes to the landscape of motion pictures in the last few years with Netflix and Amazon throwing their respective hats in the ring, and with increased at-home viewing as opposed to watching first-run films in the cinema. It’s an exciting time to analyze the films that have a shot at winning the golden man, especially as the socio-political climate is becoming increasingly influential on the nominees and winners. What this data shows us is what we can observe over the last 30 years and apply that to the nominee predictions that are going on now and the eventual predictions for the winner in this category.

For more on the awards talk, you definitely want to follow #FilmTwitter on Twitter and the podcasts of Mike, Mike, and Oscar, Next Best Picture, and InSession Film. These are just a few of the great folks I follow, but ones that specialize in awards talk.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Oscars 90 | The 2018 Annual Academy Award Nominations

It’s that time of year again! The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced the nominees for the 2018 Oscars, now celebrating its 90th year. Here are my picks for each category! The Academy may vote for these or another nominee, but I just wanted to post the ones I would like to see win this year. For a complete listing of nominees, please visit VARIETY! I am pretty happy with this year’s list of nominees, there are only a few films, collectively, that I thought were overlooked in their respective category. Fortunately, I have seen most of the films on this list! If I have not seen the movies in a category, I have listed all the nominees. Who do you hope wins this year?!?

Best Picture: “The Shape of Water”

Lead Actor: Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”

Lead Actress: Margot Robbie, “I, Tonya”

Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer, “All the Money in the World”

Supporting Actress: Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”

Director: “The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro

Animated Feature: “Coco,” Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson

Animated Short: I have not seen any of these, so here is the list for you to decide

“Dear Basketball,” Glen Keane, Kobe Bryant
“Garden Party,” Victor Caire, Gabriel Grapperon
“Lou,” Dave Mullins, Dana Murray
“Negative Space,” Max Porter, Ru Kuwahata
“Revolting Rhymes,” Jakob Schuh, Jan Lachauer

Adapted Screenplay: “Logan,” Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green

Original Screenplay: “The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor

Cinematography:  “The Shape of Water,” Dan Laustsen

Best Documentary Feature: I have not seen these films, so here is the full list

Best Documentary Short Subject: I have not seen these films, so here is the full list

“Edith+Eddie,” Laura Checkoway, Thomas Lee Wright
“Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405,” Frank Stiefel
“Heroin(e),” Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Kerrin Sheldon
“Knife Skills,” Thomas Lennon
“Traffic Stop,” Kate Davis, David Heilbroner

Best Live Action Short Film: I have not seen these films, so here is the full list

“DeKalb Elementary,” Reed Van Dyk
“The Eleven O’Clock,” Derin Seale, Josh Lawson
“My Nephew Emmett,” Kevin Wilson, Jr.
“The Silent Child,” Chris Overton, Rachel Shenton
“Watu Wote/All of Us,” Katja Benrath, Tobias Rosen

Best Foreign Language Film: “The Square” (Sweden)

Film Editing: “The Shape of Water,” Sidney Wolinsky

Sound Editing: “Dunkirk,” Alex Gibson, Richard King

Sound Mixing: “Dunkirk,” Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo

Production Design: “The Shape of Water,” Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau

Original Score: “The Shape of Water,” Alexandre Desplat

Original Song: “This Is Me” from “The Greatest Showman,” Benj Pasek, Justin Paul

Makeup and Hair: “Darkest Hour,” Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick

Costume Design: “Beauty and the Beast,” Jacqueline Durran

Visual Effects: “Blade Runner 2049,” John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover, Gerd Nefzer

Best Picture: What Does it Take to Bring Home the Oscar?

oscar_criteriaI created this infographic using Piktochart for the Media Writing class I teach at the University of Tampa. This infograph outlines some of the correlating criteria in respect to the films that win the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards.

“La La Land” movie review

lalalandSimply dazzling! A beautifully produced motion picture musical that is sure to delight audiences around the world. Ryan Gosling (Sebastian) and Emma Stone (Mia) shine brightly in this self-reflexive modern romantic film set on the backdrop of a classically composed movie musical echoing the song and dance numbers that Busby Berkeley brought to the silver screen through Hollywood studio system powerhouse Warner Bros. Summit Entertainment’s La La Land will have you laughing one moment and crying the next in this roller coaster of emotions. Every aspiring professional who has the dream of a substantive career as an artist in the visual and performing arts–or just an artist in general–needs to watch this film. If you have ever been discouraged on your career path, or lack thereof, this film will aid in reigniting the flame that fuels your dreams of writing, acting, playing, or whatever your passion happens to be. Whereas many films similar to this one would have shot it as a period OR modern piece, this film is nothing short of a masterpiece that harnesses the nostalgic appeal of the classic musical with the power of modern cinematic storytelling.

Stories of struggling to reach your dreams are nothing new, but there is so much more to the story of Mia (Stone) and Sebastian’s (Gosling) respective goals of successful careers in the city of angels. Following a chance meeting at a night club in LA where Sebastian was playing a set list of traditional Christmas carols, Mia and Sebastian continue to bump into each other at parties and in the work place. The focus of this musical is on the everyday life of two struggling artists trying to make it in a city notorious for shattering dreams and breaking hearts. Mia and Sebastian must learn what is more important: chasing dreams of being in the spotlight or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a beautiful love unmatched by any other.

Best part about Damien Chazelle’s La La Land? The old-school movie musical feel from the moment the film opens. From set pieces to matte paintings to the manner in which the cameras capture the story as the drama unfolds, this is both a modern story of romance and conflict and classic Hollywood musical. While some may find the cinematography, lighting, and editing to be nothing remarkable, the fact of the matter is that it required great skill and hundreds of hours of effort to capture the essence of an old Hollywood musical. To recreate a nearly extinct film genre, is an outstanding achievement in cinematic storytelling and deserves all the 9s and 10s this film is receiving from critics and fans alike. La La Land takes pages right out of the books of Busby Berkeley (Footlight Parade) and Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain). Such a gorgeous combination of a classically structured and choreographed musical within a modern Hollywood. And the film could have easily rested its laurels on the technical and artistic achievements alone, but the film also possesses an incredibly beautiful love story between two aspiring artists.

In a modern studio system who appears all too often to be more concerned with franchise building, merchandising, theme park integration, and rebooting, this film is fresh, real, gritty, and endearing. In a climate so predisposed to the Star WarsesHarry PottersJurassic Parks, and Avengerses, this film brings with is a breath of fresh air that is nearly unmatched by any other film this year. While many are concerned with the lack of original stories coming out of Hollywood, may this film be a testament that masterpieces can still make their way into cinemas nationwide and not simply the art house theatre of the US’ largest metro areas. Although film is a visual medium and should not rely upon the score or songs to carry the bulk of the film (i.e. Frozen), this film is very much about the music. However, unlike films that integrate music in order to cover up poorly structured and developed writing, La La Land embraces the music as much a part of the story as the writing itself. In many ways, the film plays out like music and flows like a musical score. The way the cameras moves, the editor cut, and the blocking of the characters is very much like a musical staff, like the way music is composed and performed. But at the same time, the movie is not simply about the music but about the relationship between Mia and Sebastian; and furthermore, about their aspirations for the spotlight. Solid writing and a solid score.

The casting of La La Land could not have been more brilliant! Both Stone and Gosling successfully bring about that 1940s feel in a modern story. That could be due to the successes of both in 1940s era films prior. Stone in Magic in the Moonlight and Gosling in The Notebook. While both can successfully carry a period piece on their own respectively, together they are a powerhouse couple like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Their performances in this film were so incredibly natural, so real, and believable. At the same time, the actors are also very much contemporary–just like the film: classic yet contemporary. Even though the audience is well aware that Stone and Gosling are anything but struggling artists, they play their respective parts so convincingly that you’d swear that we were actually watching a pair of struggling artists who do desperately want a substantive piece of that Hollywood pie. A great screenplay possesses protagonists that the audience will love or love to hate, and the characters in La La Land connect so incredibly well with classic and contemporary audiences.

Inspirational. This film will help to inspire those who have a talent for storytelling, music, or writing to continue to work hard and remain dedicated to one’s craft because that is the only way that a career can pay off. The moment you stop trying is the moment that the dream dies along with settling for less. Not that day-jobs aren’t important. Certainly the importance of a day job is shown in the film, but it’s imperative that the day job never cause an artist to sell out or give up on the dream. Day jobs should fund imaginative dreams not eclipse them. There is much to love about this film; so much so that you will likely find yourself with a desire to watch it again. This IS definitely my pick for Best Picture as we head into award season with the holidays coming to a close.

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