Does “Best Picture” Really Mean Anything?

oscar-pimpNow that the Academy Award nominations have been announced, there are five more movies that will go down in history as those identified by the most widely respected movie adjudication entity as the best made last year. The nominees for Best Picture are The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, and Slumdog Millionaire. None of them will appear on the list of the most successful movies of the year- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button currently sits at number 20 for movies released in 2008, but well short of the top 5 as of the announcement of the nominations. It follows that none of them will be near the top in attendance either, so there’s no argument that these could be the most popular movies of the year.

If we were going off of box office receipts, our five nominees would be The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Indiana Jones and the Spaceship of Crap, Hancock, and WALL-E. Based on popularity and critical opinion, strong cases could be made for The Dark Knight and WALL-E to be amongst the Best Picture nominees, but unless you think the American Film Institute has any relevance, the remaining three shouldn’t be seen in the vicinity of the word “Best.”

So what of the critics? Does critical adoration play a part in determining the Best? Surely the best movies made will also be the ones that get the most praise from those that make a profession about expressing their opinion. Review aggregator Metacritic isn’t the definitive source for qualitative judgment, but the only two Best Picture nominees that appear in their list of the top 20 reviewed movies of 2008 are Slumdog Millionaire and Milk. In fact those are the only two that appear in the range of scores they identify as giving a movie “universal acclaim” (81 points or more on their 0-100 scale). By their estimation The Reader has an aggregate score of 58, which would signify almost half the reviewers didn’t think this movie was very good, let alone one of the best of the year.

As far as the Academy Awards go, neither financial success nor critical opinion plays a direct role in determining the Best Picture. The nominees are selected from ballots submitted by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. AMPAS consists of “over 6,000 of the most talented and accomplished men and women working in movies.” Surely the people voting for the movies don’t have any personal, financial, or political forces motivating their decisions. They would certainly want to see the best movies get all the praise, not one that might put money in their pocket, right?

The Big Money has a nice little article about the financial boost that can come from a Best Picture nomination. By their estimate, an extra $6,663,508 can come from a nomination- not a lot in the bigger picture, but it does illustrate that financial gain could be one of the rewards. In reality, if a movie has already made $300 million is another $6 million going to matter much? Probably not, but most of these Best Picture nominees aren’t going to see a nine digit gross.

The estimated gross for The Reader as of today is $9.7 million. Frost/Nixon stands at $12 million, Milk at $22 million, Slumdog Millionaire at $55 million, and Ben Button at $111 million. That $6 million boost would be huge for The Reader, Frost/Nixon, and Milk, and still very significant for Slumdog and Button.

Here’s where the impropriety shows up- Frost/Nixon and Slumdog both expanded wide this past weekend, the first weekend after the Academy Award nominations were announced. Frost/Nixon was first released December 5th and Slumdog November 12th. Could the timing of their wide expansions be for any other reason than that they were counting on the Best Picture nominations to give those movies a boost? There’s no question. Clearly there’s a financial incentive for a nomination if movies will build their release schedules around the nomination date.

What this has done is caused a stratification to occur in the movie industry. There are two classes of movies- those made for financial gain and those made for critical acclaim. That’s always been the case to a certain degree, but in recent years those two classes have become more mutually exclusive.

The last movie to be nominated for Best Picture and be tops in the box office was Lord of the Rings: Return of the King in 2003. That was the first time since Saving Private Ryan n 1998, and prior to that were Titanic in 1997 and Forrest Gump in 94. Previous to Return of the King, it was a fairly regular occurrence for at least one of the Best Picture nominees to be one of the five highest-grossing movies of the year. It didn’t happen every year, but there are very few gaps. It’s now been five years since a nominee was any higher than 15th on the list (The Departed, Juno).

So far, the only Best Picture nominee for 2008 that has appreciably out-grossed it’s budget is Slumdog Millionaire. Milk is about $1 million to the good right now, but Button is $111 million against a $150 million budget with momentum slowing, Frost/Nixon is $12/$25, and The Reader $10/$32. With the exception of Button, none of these movies had budgets much greater than most direct to video fare- i.e. no one wanted to invest money in a movie that is not going to make a lot, i.e. these movies were only made with the hopes of winning awards and make enough money to cover their costs.

Seeing as how these movies are (for the most part) products of a non-lucrative award-focused sub-industry, and that pandering to the likes of AMPAS members for a little monetary boost is a real possibility, what does a Best Picture nomination really mean? Was it one of the best movies of the year, or was it just one of five the most agreeable to AMPAS members?

I’m not saying the designation is worthless or the movies undeserving, but that the Best Picture award is as arbitrary as any other and doesn’t represent either the most popular or most critically acclaimed movie of the year. Regardless of that, millions will be on the edge of their seats for the announcement of the winner and will hail it as the best movie of the year, deserving or not.

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