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The Oscars: The ‘Least Worst’ Formula

Throughout the first half of February, the Sound On Sight staff will take a look at the Academy Awards.

With the biggest night of the cinematic year coming up on the 26th February, the nominations are all set and confirmed, and the potential recipients are on a presidential-like campaign trail which is one part professional self promotion, one part shameless exercise in popularity competition; exciting times for sure, and a great time to be a bookie.

However, if there’s one thing to learn from following the ceremony for a number of years, it’s that it will not be unpredictable, aside from a possible if unlikely shock win or two, and that it certainly won’t be entirely satisfying.

It may sound cynical to suggest that the Academy Awards follow a specific formula, and that’s because it is. The theme running up to the actual event is of Oscar mistakes over the years, a hot discussion point. But for every knee jerk paranoid observation and half baked theory about why a certain film or actor didn’t win, there’s a half truth regarding how the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences goes about choosing its victor.

It’s what I call the ‘Least Worst’ formula.

The Formula

Despite the popularity of the Golden Globes, the Baftas and, dare I say it, the MTV Movie Awards, you will be hard pressed to find anyone who suggests that the Oscars aren’t the most significant method of recognition in the film business. Simply put, the little gold man named Oscar is the ultimate accolade and hat tipping form of praise. Win it, and you’re the best.

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The problem with this is that, for the most part, there’s never an objective way of picking the best of anything, when what it boils down to is subjective belief. Whatever you choose, someone’s going to stand up and start shouting “Outrage! Attica, Attica!” There’s a strong chance said person will also summate that the Oscars are entirely political, or based on popularity, or are obsessed with period pieces and vehemently disdainful of comedies, science fiction and action.

While this sort of ranting will always be scorned upon, it’s actually a lazy generalization of an honest truth. Because although the Academy cannot be objective, they are under a hell of a lot of pressure to try, and will naturally give it their best shot.

This is where the formula comes into play. When assessing a group of films, the Academy’s panel of judges will discuss each, and the first step is whittling down the number through various criteria.

Let’s take a look at this year’s Best Picture Nominations  by way of example:

The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

Now, looking at these nine, vastly varying films, the panel must first eliminate films that are the most objectionable, and may alienate fans and critics, to the point of being ‘outrageous’. This immediately gets rid of The Tree of Life. It should, in fact, rule out The Artist too, but this little piece makes back points in the ‘arts’ stakes, which I’ll get to later.

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So, that’s one down, eight still to get through. Now we get into critical and commercial reception.

If there’s a film in there that didn’t do well, and isn’t rated highly, it’s probably because it gets a ‘point of merit’ nomination. This is when a film contains something which automatically earns it a nod, usually something political or socially relevant. In this case, controversial though it may be, the film in question is Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, savaged by critics who ironically suggested it’s 9/11 context and preachy sentimentality were part of a shameless attempt to get an Oscar. It’s clear that were it to win, it would be considered scandalous, so it’s quickly out of the running too, leaving us with seven.

The third stage is popularity, basically the big names. By dint of being well known, this level sees to Midnight in Paris, by far the least heard of film within the nominees, despite being a Woody Allen effort (Allen, incidentally, is not due any Oscars).

Six now, and this is where the going gets tough. Ideally, the panel will want to pick from five, so if they can find a way to get rid of one more it will make the process significantly easier. In this case, you have to pick the film that is the least artsy, least inspiring, and less universally acceptable. Given that it’s a sport based film, despite its themes, this will see Moneyball ridded.

So now, through process of elimination, the panel have gotten down to five films, the way things used to be, without having broken sweat.

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The Big Five

The Artist

The Descendants

The Help


War Horse

This is when, ideally, the group of movie experts and masters will decide on the best on show, and everyone stands and claps upon announcement, fighting an enormously straining battle to keep a warm smile on their faces.

However, things won’t change now; they’ll just be altered slightly.

Each film will be discussed at length, with the opinions and views of all expressed, and the conversation/debate will not be limited to terms of quality. Everything will be scrutinized, whether it’s personnel, politics, social relevance, genre, popularity, appeal and artistic merit.

For example, The Artist is the most artistic (no pun intended) film available, in that it’s a silent film. However, War Horse is easily more appealing to a wider audience, as well as being more universal. Also, it’s Steven Spielberg, and he hasn’t won Best Picture for 18 years. But more appealing still is Hugo, which meets the two half way by being sweeping in scale, impressive in arts and broader in palette. And it’s Martin Scorcese, who is still due some back pay.

The Help, a commendable and enjoyable romp, has lasted this long so far because of its period setting (the Academy DO love period films) and the overtures of civil rights and race issues, a hot point too. But it wasn’t adored on release, simply liked. It does not have the sense of ‘big’, as the others do. A nomination is sometimes enough. With not enough to say for itself, it is dropped from the list. Meanwhile, The Descendants, a more modest effort, is not standing up well in the discussion, barely being raised in conversation and is generally being left in the box. It will fade out of the debate until it is covertly no longer being considered.

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This leaves three. It is at this point that the panel must make a decision regarding The Artist. If it is to win, it must win now, it will not stand up to a game of elimination. In that head to head death match arena, Hugo and War Horse will fare far better. Despite the clamor over it, and it’s billing as Oscar bait, if The Artist does win it will be considered a wild card victory.

The Wild Card

Sometimes the Academy will confound everyone by picking the least likely of the bunch, a decision which is seen as romantic by some, confusing by others. For a long time, it will look like the judges decided to shelve their usual reservations and formal obligations, and just went with their heart.

However, it’s mostly a ploy. The Academy Awards is an event, and a commercial one at that as well as being a trophy dishing affair. Money and gifts are thrown at the organization by producers lobbying for the top prizes, the marketing campaign mentioned earlier. Also, it is a TV feast, one which draws millions of viewers to a show that, for long stretches, is the equivalent to staying a doctor’s waiting room. If the program were to become dull and predictable, it would lose interest.

So, sometimes they throw out a shock win, whether it’s Driving Miss Daisy, Chariots of Fire or Million Dollar Baby. Nobody sees it coming, and fans are delighted that it could happen. They don’t happen too often, and the panel will be well aware of this.

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It certainly didn’t last year, where The King’s Speech winning was as predictable as me getting loaded on a Friday. Arguably, the last surprise was Slumdog Millionaire in 2008. So, four years. Is that long enough? Will quality shine through…?

And the Winner is…

What happens when the envelope is opened on the 26th is entirely down to the answer of this question; stick or twist?

By now, depending on whether the judges will be willing to land a shock, two possible names are on the card.

If they throw caution to the wind in a calculated move to stay fresh, then The Artist will win. However, if they decide that they cannot allow a ‘gimmick’ feature to claim top spot, then the winner will be…



There will be plenty of agendas behind this, but ultimately it comes down to the Directors. Spielberg hasn’t won best Director since 1999, while Scorcese picked his up in 2005. Conversely, Scorcese has never won Best Picture, while Spielberg has, for Schindler’s List. In this scenario, Hugo will win Best Picture, while Spielberg picks up Best Director. This is the only thing to separate the two films by the end of deliberation, since both share common themes and vision, not to mention both being audience-friendly.

In the event that The Artist loses out, with the Academy being more conservative, Jean Dujardin will claim Best Actor as a consolation prize. The ripple effect of the Best Picture decision will be significant.

Though this particular method of selection sounds very specialized, it will be used in varying forms for the other categories. Actors will have a far greater chance of success if they play a real person or feature in films that lose out in the major awards. History also plays its part, with certain actors ‘due’ a win, rather than deserving it. Al Pacino’s victory for Scent of a Woman is the best example of this. First time nominees should expect little (Adrien Brody being a notable exception). Screenplay gongs rarely go to movies untouched by the other categories.

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Least Worst

The end result of all this is that the Academy come as close as they can to being objective, by in fact avoiding the stigma of being objectionable when choosing a film. Not many people will argue with it winning. Plus, it stays true to its wholesome values and avoids controversy, while continuously appearing to be progressive and open minded.
In short, they win just as Hugo or The Artist do. This is the film business, and the awards are an extension of it, not a break from it.

So, the next time an aggrieved fan spits bile about how his film was robbed because of politics, or because it isn’t a period piece about real people, or because the Director is famous for snorting the white nose gold, remind him that he’s only quarter right.

The best film of 2011 may not win on the 26th, but the ‘least worst’ film will.


Scott Patterson