The Oscar “Huh?!” Factor: Why Academy Voters Usually Pick the Wrong Film

A college professor reveals the method behind his madness in NOT always choosing Academy Award-winning films when selecting the stories students live by for classroom use.  Part one in 2015 Oscar Week Series.

The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg recently opined: “I try to vote in a way so that, in 50 years, people aren’t going to go, ‘Huh?!'” Sadly, history reveals that, when it comes to picking a film audiences will recognize as truly great 50 years from now, Oscar voters nearly always miss the mark. Here’s why.

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

Powerfully acted and gorgeously directed, will this year's enigmatic front-runner produce anything more than a "Huh?" fifty years from now?
Powerfully acted and gorgeously directed, will this year’s enigmatic front-runner produce anything more than a “Huh?” fifty years from now?

Sunday night tens of millions of viewers from nearly every nation on earth will tune in for the coronation of Hollywood’s “Best Picture” of the year.  Studios spend millions of dollars in countless screeners, screenings, billboards, interviews, Variety Ads, Twitter campaigns, blog attacks, and countless party conversations, seeking to sway the roughly 6,000 members of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters to crown their film as King or Queen of the industry.

This year’s battle between Richard Linklater’s groundbreaking directorial achievement Boyhood, Clint Eastwood’s controversial crown-pleaser American Sniper, Ava DuVernay’s perfectly timed social commentary Selma, Wes Anderson’s rare comedy nominee The Grand Budapest Hotel, and acting powerhouses BirdmanWhiplashThe Theory of Everything, and The Imitation Game (over 50% of the Academy voters are actors), this might be the most wide open race in recent memory.

Historical films are riding a five-year winning streak (The Hurt Locker, The Artist, and Life of Pi, Argo and Twelve Year’s a Slave), leading many to believe that the producing teams for Selma, Imitation Game, or Theory of Everything will be giving their carefully prepared acceptance speeches Sunday night. Other’s believe this will be the year that breaks that streak. My personal hope is for Selma, but my guess is that acting/directing of Birdman or the novelty of Boyhood will win out.

Mistakes of History

But no mater who Academy voters select, will they get it right? You wouldn’t think so looking at the award’s history. Arguments are legion. Nearly every year is controversial in one way or another. The truth is, many if not most Oscar winners simply don’t stand the test of time. For instance, there are few Academy voters today who would argue that Shakespeare in Love (1998) was anything close to a classic, yet it somehow managed to win over Stephen Spielberg’s WWII epic, Saving Private Ryan.  The 1968 musical Oliver was certainly endearing, but not nearly as enduring as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Why does such a careful and democratic  process often fail?  Here are a few reasons.

Politics as Usual

26263-oscarmovies-1424335238-969-640x480Many Oscar winners have “outside the film” appeal to voters that may not always be a genuine indicators of greatness. The Hurt Locker (2009) was a compelling film, but it is hard to imagine how voting might have gone if Katherine Bigelow had not been in a position to be the first female director to win top honors. (Or, if Avatar director, James Cameron–Katherine’s ex-husband–had not alienated many academy voters with his “I’m king of the world” Oscar acceptance speech for his 1998 Titanic win.) In fact, Katherine’s might have been more worthy of winning for Zero Dark Thirty (2012), but other political factors led to actor/director Ben Affleck’s film Argo winning after being snubbed by the directors guild in their nominations for best director. (Remember what I said about half the voters being actors?)

Even more dramatic are the publicity efforts launched by studios and internet devotees in order to promote their films and sometimes smear their rivals.  2011 winner The King’s Speech had to overcome an alleged smear campaign launched by devotees of The Social Network that all but overshadowed the equally deserving Inception.

A Series of Unfortunate Timings

15 years later, it is hard to imagine how ‘Shakespeare in Love’ won over Spielberg’s WWII classic.

Some films are simply too far ahead of their times to even receive a nomination for Best Picture. Citizen Kane (1941) is near the top of most “All-Time Great Films” lists, but lost to the long forgotten How Green is My Valley. Hitchcock’s cutting-edge masterpiece Vertigo is still required viewing in any school of film, while only the most die-hard fans even remember the 1958 winner Gigi. 1999 genre-bender The Matrix couldn’t even garner a Best Picture nomination, yet few doubt that it will be studied as a classic for years to come.

Other great films lose Oscars simply because they are up against other greats the same year.  Forrest Gump (1994) garnered a much-deserved Best Picture Oscar. Yet few would argue that it was unequivocally better than two other celebrated films in the same year: Quentin Tarantino’s groundbreaking  Pulp Fiction, and Shawshank Redemption (currently #1 on IMDB‘s greatest movies ever made.)

Sometimes a film’s novelty gives it a short-term popularity. The unique silent film aesthetics of 2012 winner The Artist helped give it the upper hand over more conventional films. Yet many purists point to the social importance of the civil rights movement portrayal of The Helpthe acting excellence of The Descendants, and/or the overall of craftsmanship of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (11 nominations) as more deserving.

The truth is, the public-relations-driven, artistically myopic, and sometime overtly political nature of Hollywood often make an Oscar a highly unreliable measure of long-term greatness.

How Shall We Then Choose?

The 2011 Picture of the Year had to overcome a smear campaign

What about this year?  Unfortunately, most Academy voters aren’t like Scott Feinberg who recently admitted: “I try to vote in a way so that, in 50 years, people aren’t going to go, ‘Huh?!'” Chances are they will get it wrong.

And what about those of us voting at home?  If the professionals don’t always get it right, what hope do we mere mortals have?

Still, over two decades of using film in the classroom has taught me that there might be a better way to predict which film will have true staying power. Although I started out using only Academy Award-winning films, I quickly realized that the Academy isn’t very good at selecting the stories my students live by.

In the next three posts I’ll reveal what those standards are.

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