What do All Best Picture Movies Have in Common?

atkins-bookshelf-moviesEach year in January, the esteemed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces the nominees in the category of Best Picture. And each year, the Academy does not disappoint movie fans and critics with a list of films with puzzling inclusions as well as egregious exclusions. The list leaves you scratching your head and wondering if the members of the academy have even seen the films. Then a few months later, one of the films — but certainly not the best film —  is awarded the coveted Oscar, leaving most cinephiles completely dumbfounded. Acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert believed that this repeating scenario is no accident: “The Academy Award winners for the past thirty years have followed consistent molds, primarily in the categories of Best Actress, Best Actor, and Best Picture… This is not to say that the Academy Awards are a conspiracy run by some secret society [but] rather, at the very least, there is a subtext to American culture that plays out in the ideas and ideals in American cinema, and it plays out consistently… Whether or not they are healthy or corrupt, they are there in us. So, ‘Best Picture’ is not a great movie; rather, it is a great movie that fulfills the mold.” So what exactly is that mold?

A review of the Best Picture movies over several decades reveals a definite bias, or specific set of ideals, tacitly promoted and rewarded by the Academy members. Studios that want their films to be nominated for Best Picture simply need to study and implement some or all of these common ideals, that collectively form what we can call the “Best Picture Formula”:
1. The film’s protagonist is male (if female, the character exhibits masculine traits)
2. Sexuality and/or gender plays a major role in the protagonist’s story
3. The protagonist has a physical or mental handicap, faces overwhelming hardship, and overcomes those limitations
4. The central theme of the film is self-reliance, survival, or heroism — in most cases, against all odds
5. The protagonist has dysfunctional relationships or has difficulty with intimacy
6. The film is a period-piece
7. The film is a grand, big-budget historical epic
8. The film is an American production
9. The film is a serious drama (and definitely not an action film, sci-fi, fantasy, or comedy — in that order)
10. The film is inspirational
11. The film is a biopic or is based on a true story
12. The films features several successful, award-winning actors
13. The film is based on a famous, and sometimes pretentious,  literary work
14. The film is set during war time, particularly during the 1940s
15. The film is rated R or PG
16. The protagonist is a doctor
17. The film takes place in New York City

To underscore the predictability of the Best Picture Formula, the staff of  Time magazine created the very clever and cheeky “Random Oscar Winner Generator.” To develop the algorithm for the random generator, the researchers parsed all the Best Picture movies (specifically their unique tags from the Interneet Movie Database) that were nominated since 1970 (a total of 242 movies) to distill them down into a simple formula or film premise. Each click of the Random Oscar Winner Generator produces the synopsis of a possible Oscar-winning film. Directors and screenwriters take note! Here are some random examples:

A gay gangster confronts family relationships, surrealism and religion in Atlantic City
A French convict works through frustration, redemption and marriage
A virgin child in peril in suburbia struggles with suspense, adultery and unfaithfulness
In Harvard, betrayal, violence and politics mix for a Christian attorney and a photographer
In suburbia, a revolutionary and a Nazi cope with loyalty, innocence and marriage
Guilt, betrayal and gambling plague a Jewish scientist, an old man and an attorney in 1950s Chicago

Read related posts: Why is it Called the Oscar?
Famous Love Quotes From the Movies
Who is Alan Smithee?
What is the Oscar Bump?

For further reading: rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/how-to-win-an-academy-award
entertainment.time.com/2014/01/15/the-random-oscar-winner-generator/

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