How Rotten Tomatoes may have radically skewed the Oscars’ Best Picture race

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For a certain class of Oscar spectators, the Best Original Screenplay category has always been the one to watch. That's where the best movies end: films too smart or creative to be fully appreciated by the Academy in general, and certainly not accepted enough to enter the Best Film career. It is the category of films that challenge traditional notions of filmmaking. In the 1950s, it was where icons of works of art such as Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and François Truffaut received their first nominations. In 1989, it was the category that recognized two major game changers of American cinema, Do the Right Thing and Sex, Lies, and Videotape. And in the 2000s, it became a haven for the favorite films of a new generation of moviegoers: films like Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Pan & # 39; s Labyrinth.
But these films are no longer segregated in the script categories. Now, they are the nominees for the Best Film, and even the serious candidates for the award. Spike Jonze's film, Being John Malkovich, in 1999, did not receive a Best Picture nomination, but his 2013 film Her. Wes Anderson did not get a Best Film nomination for The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001, but he did it for The Grand Budapest Hotel in 2014. And the success of Paul Thomas Anderson Boogie Nights in 1997 was not nominated for Best Picture, but his Phantom Thread is a nominee this year. These are all cases in which young and disruptive directors have become increasingly accepted and familiar to the Academy over time. But his nominated films are as wonderfully rare, intransigently specific and personal as movies that were lost a decade or more before. And their modern counterparts, first-time soloists Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele, are beginning their careers as directors with nominations for Best Picture for their own idiosyncratic personal visions.

Vicky Krieps at Phantom ThreadCourtesy of Focus Features

The easy explanation is that the number of Best Movie nominees allowed was extended in 2009, allowing a wider range of options. That's true, and it's a factor, but it does not help us get there. After all, Get Out and Lady Bird, who would not have received nominations for Best Film 10 years ago, were not just the eighth or ninth film to hit the field; both are considered contenders to win the Best Film. They are ranked in the third and fourth most probable winner, respectively, according to Gold Derby, and Oscar experts have promoted them both as potential winners. Like any major institutional change, the growing number of nominees for the best unconventional film comes from several interconnected factors: the nomination process for the Best Film has changed, and the composition of the Academy has changed. But there is another factor: the ubiquity of Rotten Tomatoes, which seems to have created an unprecedented unity between the critical flavor and the Oscar results.
For most of the history of the Oscars, a movie could accumulate a ton of votes in the third, fourth or fifth place on the ballots and receive a nomination for Best Picture. Although it is impossible to say with certainty, it is quite likely that this is the way in which the popular nominees such as Seabiscuit and The Full Monty came to the race. But those days are gone. The rules changed substantially in 2011, and now, for a movie to receive a Best Picture nomination, it needs at least 5 percent of the first place votes. In effect, that change altered the process of nominating Best Film from a measure of consensus to a measure of passion. And it makes a lot of sense: why should a movie be nominated for Best Film if there is not a major faction of the Academy that thinks it's the best movie of the year?
Changing the percentage requirement is probably the most important reason why we see more idiosyncratic personal films in the Best Movie category. When Ser John Malkovich was relegated to the Original Screenplay category in 1999 (while The Cider House Rules received a dubious Best Picture nomination), it was more likely due to lack of consensus, not passion. The people who embraced being John Malkovich were fervent admirers, but probably too strange for many members of the Academy.

Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird. Courtesy of A24.

And the new demographic composition of the Academy makes it easier for these films to reach the 5 percent benchmark. The Academy has taken the initiative to address its diversity issues by inviting more than 1,000 new members over the last two years, many of the previously underrepresented groups, such as women, people of color or foreign authors. This new diversity of thinking in the voting group has likely increased the number of members deliberately seeking out of the traditional Best Movie fare. Instead, they are finding subtle pieces of characters such as Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea and Lady Bird, all films that would have had difficulty getting out of script careers only five or ten years ago.
Another important change in the membership of the Academy is worth mentioning: Harvey Weinstein is gone. Several of the most famous "How did that get nominated for Best Film?", The children of the posters of the last two decades – films like The Reader and The Cider House Rules – were distributed by Weinstein companies, with Weinstein campaigning for they. His ability to intimidate voters to select his films was legendary, and is no longer at stake. But that kind of forceful persuasion could have been replaced by another: the cold, hard mathematics of the Rotten Tomatoes consensus.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when the cultural proliferation of Rotten Tomatoes reaches the critical mass. Flixster bought the site in early 2010, and Warner Bros. bought both in 2011. The Rotten Tomatoes scores for the Best Movie nominees in recent years seem to suggest that there was some kind of change at the beginning of the 2010s. Best Movie nominees released from 2000 to 2009 have an average Tomato score of 86.4, while nominees released since 2010 jump to an average score of 90.5.
in the last three years, only a single Best Film candidate has had a score below 86, and nothing has been below 80
But that leap becomes especially revealing in the details, particularly with what we see both at the bottom and top of the annual Best Picture crop. From 2000 to 2014, there were 19 Best Picture nominees with a Tomato score below 80, and four nominees who scored less than 70. But in the last three years, only a single Best Picture nominee has scored. lower than 86 (The Revenant), and nothing has been below 80. Even more fascinating: from 2000 to 2010, only one winner of the Best Film (The Hurt Locker) was also the highest score of the nominees of his year. But since 2011, five of the six winners of the Best Film have had the highest Tomato score of their nominated group. (Birdman was the exception)

Daniel Kaluuya at Get OutCourtesy of Universal Studios

The cause of these changes could be the same: the very nature of such ubiquitous numerical scores associated with movies could be, in essence, to embarrass Oscar voters so that they no longer nominate movies like The Reader (62) and no longer allow movies like Crash or A Beautiful Mind (both 75) to really win the damn thing. Instead, films like Get Out and Lady Bird (both of 99) are being nominated, and they really threaten to win.
Rotten Tomatoes scores are the opposite of the new Best Movie nomination process: they measure consensus instead of passion. And the consensus expressed as a simple and stark number can be a powerful persuasive. Ten years ago, the voters of the Academy surely knew that WALL-E was very dear, but many films are very dear; that in itself is not a persuasive argument for a nomination for Best Picture. But what would happen if 2008 voters knew that WALL-E scored 96 Tomato scores, while The Reader only scored 62? Suddenly, it would be harder for them to convince themselves that The Reader was more worthy of their vote. And it would be easier for any individual voter to worry that they personally could be helping to delegitimize the Oscars by avoiding the best movies.
The likes of the Academy often clash with critical and popular opinion, giving rise to countless articles on "The wrong cinema won the Oscars". But current statistics suggest that voters and the public are aligning. With an average Tomato score of 92.9, this year's Best Movie nominees have the second best Tomato collective score of any Best Picture crop in this century. (Only the 2011 nominees, the year in which The King & # 39; s Speech won, scored better, with an average score of 93.2). It is impossible to know if this is a direct causality, and the members of the Academy are being directly influenced by these Tomato scores. But it is clear that the Oscars began to nominate (and award) films with a better rating for the Best Film, almost exactly at the moment when the Rotten Tomatoes scores became inescapable in the spirit of the time.

Certainly, other factors are helping. Social networks help to popularize the underdog and build a consensus on the favorite movies of the fans. But social networks also contribute to making the tomato score of a film even more ubiquitous. For example, Lady Bird's reputation as a must-see movie spread through Facebook and Twitter, but a large part of what specifically was spreading that reputation were the stories about her 99 Tomato score, which was heavily publicized before the movie would even open in most markets.
Lady Bird and Get Out are wonderful movies that deserve the Best Movie winners, but do all the members of the Academy who vote for them completely agree with that? Or did some of these voters simply line up with the entire press emphasizing universal praise? For that matter, did some critics who contributed to those scores succumb to the same pressures? Certainly, many voters of the Academy would not be susceptible to that kind of pressure, particularly given the anonymous nature of the vote. But there has always been a faction of the Academy that cares deeply about the reputation of the Oscars, as evidenced in part by the tendency of voters to choose safe, respectable and respectable films on unique films that generate a passionate response. These members may be particularly vulnerable to being influenced by a critical consensus so clearly visible.

It would be good to feel that voters do not really feel pressured by numerical data. But it is difficult to argue with the results. In what used to happen in a normal year, the Original Screenplay category would have the two or three nominees for Best Film that qualified, and then two or three more strange films (probably better ones) that had little chance of being nominated in other categories main. This year, the opposite happened; there are several nominees for Best Film that could not be nominated in the Original Screenplay category.
Ironically, one of those films is Phantom Thread by Paul Thomas Anderson. Yes, the archetypal author who finished repeatedly in script careers (for Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood and Inherent Vice), but rarely in the Best Movie career (only once before, with There Will Be Blood) now It has had the tables turned around. Phantom Thread was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, but could not get a Best Original Screenplay nomination. The field was too stacked. (The five nominees were The Big Sick, Get Out, Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.) And now those of us who used to ride hard for the original Screenplay category are facing a strange new status quo – finally, the Best Movie category feels like the most complete meeting of the best films of the year.


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