Scattered throughout Oscarama I’ll be posting a few interesting statistics on the Academy Awards’ Best Picture category. (Well, I find them interesting anyway.) We often find ourselves making comments to the effect that “movies of type X never get nominated”, or sundry other assertions and we base these statements on casual observations rather than actual research.
Well, here’s some actual research. (As noted before, I’m including the three Unique and Artistic Production nominees from the first Oscars along with all the others, for a total of 515 films.) Today, for anybody who happens to check in on Super Bowl Sunday, and everyone who checks in afterward, it’s a look at the content of the films. Are comedies really rare nominees? Is everything always a historical drama? And can a remake get nominated? Some of the answers may surprise you.
Then again, some won’t.
The first thing I wanted to look at was a question of tone. Comedy and Drama are often considered genres, but really, they’re more of a tone applied to genres (usually; see below.) There are comedic westerns and dramatic westerns, for example. So I wanted to see if the perception that comedies are seldom nominated for Best Picture is accurate… and for the most part, it is. Comedy only makes 7% of the nominees; a measurable portion but not a large one by any means. If we add dramedy (those films IMDb has tagged with both comedy and drama), it rises to nearly one in five, which is significant, but it’s hard to say that comedy is a substantial bloc if it has to have help from drama to get there. Drama meanwhile makes up about three out of every four nominations even if we don’t count dramedies. The verdict is clear: the Academy really does prefer the serious stuff.
What’s interesting to note is that Other wedge, which is only one film smaller than the Comedy wedge. These are films that IMDb didn’t have tagged with either comedy or drama. There are a few possibilities for why this is the case. The first, and most likely, is that the film in question simply didn’t have the tag added because IMDb is user-generated in a lot of respects and nobody added either tag. In which case, we can surmise that most of these “Other” films were probably dramas as well. The second possibility is that neither comedy or drama really does apply, which leaves the question of what exactly they are. One possibility, which I regret I neglected to consider until I was finished compiling data (and thus was in no mood to look at 515 films again) is that “Thriller” should likewise be considered a tone rather than a genre — this is largely borne out by at least some of these films being thrillers. So I apologize if my data may be incomplete… however, for the big question of whether dramas dominate, we can definitively say “Yes.”
Now here we get more into what the films are about in terms of content — rather than how they go about it. I did some simplifying of the usual IMDb categories here for reasons of clarity. As action and adventure are almost always linked together in IMDb’s tagging, I simply threw the two of them together. The same goes for music and musicals, and film noir — a term properly used only for a particular sort of crime film — has been lumped into crime. Further, as all biographies are by their nature historical, I chose to exclude them from the history category — thus allowing us to get an accurate view of movies that are tagged with history but are not biographies. Finally, there are several movies where the only genres specified are comedy and/or drama; these films I listed on their own. (Otherwise if a film had more than one genre, I counted it under each genre it was tagged with).
This gives us some interesting results. First, romance is the winner by a country mile. There are probably two reasons for this. The first reason is that romantic dramas really do seem to be popular with the Academy, but the second is that IMDb is too generous when it comes to throwing around the romance tag. They seem to think that if a man and a woman kiss in one scene, then the film is a romance; as noted before, they label Tombstone a romance. This is like calling Signs a film about baseball. Unfortunately, without having seen each and every film and having total recall of them all, it’s impossible to say exactly when the tag is being misapplied.
Still, we have some worthwhile info. Biographies, unsurprisingly, are a significant force — they even outnumber non-biographical historical films two to one. War is also a popular choice. Surprisingly so is action & adventure — but this starts to make sense when one realizes that many war films are also classified as action movies. The “pure” drama is also quite large, while the “pure” comedy is virtually non-existent. I regret that I didn’t make note of what those two films were at the time — I honestly expected that count to grow beyond the point where it would have been feasible to do so. The two horror nominees are The Exorcist and Jaws, and it may be worth noting they were separated by only two years (and also that Jaws is only “sort of” a horror film anyway.)
Westerns had most of their nominations in the early days, and have mostly died down since, Unforgiven aside. Science fiction is mostly overlooked, as most of its fans have griped for years… although fantasy is more commonly nominated than one might expect. Of course, some of this includes films that are only lightly touched with fantasy, but it does include the occasional excursion into magical worlds.
Finally, that one documentary bears special mention. The film in question is Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, and it is one of the three Unique and Artistic Presentation nominees. So the Academy hasn’t nominated a documentary for their top honor since the very first year, and even then it was the separate-but-equal award rather than the one that is officially retroactively considered Best Picture — so some people wouldn’t even count it.
No more graphs for the rest of the article, as they won’t be needed.
I deliberately left animation out of the graph above for a simple reason: it is neither genre nor tone, but medium. But the question of animated films in the Best Picture category is certainly one of interest to a lot of people, especially those who view animation as an art form as worthy as any other.
Out of the 515 films that have been Best Picture nominees, only three are fully animated — though it’s worth mentioning 1945’s Anchors Aweigh with its dancing Jerry scene. The first fully animated film to be nominated was Beauty and the Beast, in 1991. After that, the only animated films to have received the honor were both Pixar films — Up and Toy Story 3. In the case of the latter two films, the Best Animated Feature category had been created by that time, and each film won that category.
It’s also worth mentioning that although the original Toy Story did not receive a Best Picture nomination, and predates the Best Animated Feature category, it did receive a Special Achievement Award for pioneering computer-animated features.
Foreign-language films are another case of a category of films that tend to raise eyebrows when they break into the Best Picture category. In fact, it took a few years — 1933’s The Private Life of Henry VIII — for a non-American English-language film to be nominated. The first five years were not only all English, but all American. From 1947 to 1955, excluding 1953, an honorary and non-competitive award was given out to the best foreign language film, with only the winner announced and no nominees. The Best Foreign Language Film category as we know it today was introduced in 1956.
And here things get a little interesting. There have been eight foreign films nominated for Best Picture — again, a pretty small number compared to the 515 total. These are the films:
- Grand Illusion (1938)
- Z (1969)
- The Emigrants (1972)
- Cries and Whispers (1973)
- Il Postino (The Postman) (1995)
- Life is Beautiful (1998)
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
- Amour (2012)
Grand Illusion of course predates the category, but we’d expect the other films to all have won Best Foreign Language Film, right? Well, not exactly… the films that were nominated for it all did, but that’s only four of them. The Emigrants, Cries and Whispers, and Il Postino were all un-nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category. This may have something to do with the different way the category is handled; each country gets to submit one — and only one — film to the Foreign Language Film category. Meanwhile Best Picture has no such restrictions… so if the Academy and the country disagree about which film is the country’s best for a particular year, a split can occur, which appears to have happened in the case of Il Postino — Italy’s submission that year was The Star Maker. However, Sweden had no nominee the year that Cries and Whispers was up for Best Picture, which suggests that perhaps they submitted a different film, and that other film was considered inferior to the five Foreign Language Films that were selected.
The Emigrants, however, is a downright funny situation. Sweden’s submission that year did make the top five cut, and was The New Land… which was a direct follow-up to The Emigrants. So for the Academy Awards ceremony that year, a foreign-language Best Picture nominee was kept out of Best Foreign Language Film contention by its own sequel.
And that makes a nice segue to talk about sequels. We sometimes lament the trend of fifty sequels for every blockbuster, but do sequels ever make it to the Oscars? Well, once in a while, though not often… and there’s an interesting trend with them.
These are the Best Picture nominated sequels:
- Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935)
- The Bells of St. Mary’s
- The Godfather Part II
- The Godfather Part III
- The Silence of the Lambs
- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
- Toy Story 3
For the record, yes, I am counting The Silence of the Lambs as a sequel to Manhunter, under the same reasoning that Casino Royale is considered a (distant) sequel to Dr. No. The characters are the same, even if the actors are not and the story does not remark upon its predecessor.
There are a total of eight films that have been nominated for Best Picture; three of them — The Godfather Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, and Return of the King — won the award. But there’s an interesting link between The Silence of the Lambs and Toy Story 3 that I suspect few people have ever considered. Simply put… they are the only two sequels ever to be nominated for Best Picture when the film that they were a sequel to was not nominated. The Broadway Melody, Going My Way, The Godfather, and The Fellowship of the Ring were all Best Picture nominees. Manhunter and Toy Story were not.
So if the category “Best Picture Sequels” ever comes up on Jeopardy!, you now know what the probable answer and question are.
As noted, sequels are only 8 out of the 515 films. Movie bloggers and fans tend to lament unnecessary remakes as much as they lament unnecessary sequels, so we’d expect a similarly small number of remakes in the ranks of Best Picture nominees, right? Uh… got some bad news for you diehard boosters of originality out there. Maybe if I break it gently in terms of percentage… it’s a fraction over 11%.
Or to put it in plain numbers, sixty of the nominees have been remakes of one kind or another. Remember that 11% of a large number is still a noticeable number.
I will note that I’m only counting films where there was previously a theatrically-released feature film; TV movies and short films are not counted. Of course, some of these remakes are more direct than others. Chicago is a musical revamp, as is My Fair Lady (of Pygmalion). Sometimes they’re “talkies” that remake silent films, such as The Wizard of Oz. Sometimes they’re English-language films that remake foreign films, such as The Departed. Sometimes they’re a remake specifically of the prior film, and sometimes they’re a new adaptation of the source material — this happens a lot with Shakespeare, of course, but there are other remakes of that sort as well, such as True Grit.
At sixty, I think there are too many to list them all here (we’re already over 2000 words here, folks, and this was meant to be a short post.) But here’s a list you might find interesting:
- Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)
- Cleopatra (1963)
- My Fair Lady (1964)
- Romeo & Juliet (1968)
- Heaven Can Wait (1978)
- Les Misérables (2012)
These are the Best Picture nominated remakes of Best Picture nominated films. Apparently the Academy really loves these stories. Now here’s the part that’s really interesting: of the six nominees that these films remake, five of those were remakes as well. All but Heaven Can Wait. Not only have there been two nominated versions of each of the other five, but there’s also been a prior version of each of those films.
Heaven Can Wait is a curiosity in its own right. There was a 1943 film of the same title which was nominated for Best Picture… but that’s not the film that the 1978 film is a remake of. It’s a completely unrelated film with a different story. The 1978 film is a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, a 1941 nominee. It’s the story of a man who dies prematurely and is sent back to live in the body of a millionaire, and it has been remade several times under different titles, with different takes on it (for example, the same basic story is used in Chris Rock’s Down to Earth). Don’t be too surprised to see it come up again someday.
And that is all the stats I’ll be sharing today. So what have we learned? Dramas really are king at the Oscars, IMDb is in love with the romance tag, biographies and war are the way to go for a BP nomination… and the Academy doesn’t just like to keep nominating the same type of film, it likes to keep nominating versions of the same film.