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The Oscars By the Numbers

An obsessively detailed breakdown of facts and figures before Sunday's big night

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This Sunday night, the 89th annual Academy Awards will take place to honor Hollywood’s best (and most well-promoted and junketed) films of 2016. It’s a time to celebrate the industry that, when at its best, makes great movies possible.

Before we can finally stop arguing with one another about whether La La Land is good or not or if Moonlight is “implausible” (it’s not) and look ahead to what 2017 will offer, the Oscars will serve as one last hurrah for the endless cycle of predictions, debates, and endless complaints about all the movies that were included and omitted. There’s a lot to every year’s Oscars, from the major mainstream successes and breakout indies to the studios that championed both and the much-maligned Academy voting body, whose tastes often leave viewers feeling frustrated rather than accurately represented. It can get overwhelming, particularly if you’re not the kind of person who starts obsessively following Gold Derby as soon as the fall rolls around.

The Oscars are an institution with their own trends and preferences, and given the recent decline in major studios’ spending on lower-budget, more prestigious projects, it’s clear that they have a major impact on a more modest film’s chances of being made or seen, whether we like it or not. It’s as much a cornerstone of the American moviegoing year as a summer full of mega-budget action movies. And lord help us, it’s a good bit of fun to obsess over the minutiae of a given year’s crop of nominees, whether it’s to agree wholeheartedly with the films chosen or rage over how [your favorite movie] was passed over in favor of [a biopic, probably]. And look, there’s a tradition of pageantry and bloat to this annual gala for which we can’t help but jeer and cheer.

giphy The Oscars By the Numbers

With that in mind, we’ve decided to take a slightly longer view of the Oscars, specifically the most modern quarter-century of them. After all, from The Silence of the Lambs’ Best Picture win at the 1992 ceremony onward, the Oscars have served as a reflection of a rapidly shifting industry, one existing at the intersection of swelling budgets, ambitious new filmmaking, and an old guard that at its best has found ways to breathe new life into long-running careers. The modern Oscars are at once a mirror of the industry’s best and a running reminder that the popular favorites aren’t always the critical or artistic ones.

And what better way to try and envision these contradictions and relationships than with some good. old-fashioned numerology? In this first installment of our By the Numbers feature, we’ll be taking a deeper dive into the past 25 years of the Oscars (few will be expecting your hot takes on How Green Was My Valley, and we wanted to keep things at least a little simpler). From Best Pictures to performers to the many other nominees, we’ll try to offer a little more understanding about what the Oscars have favored, what they haven’t, and what’s played best with the Academy over the years.

Besides, nobody wants to show up to an Oscar party without some trivia in tow. So pop some Prosecco, color-code your ballots, and enjoy our trip through the Oscars of yore, with a couple of handy graphs and charts along the way. We’ll see you on Sunday for all the lengthy speeches and endless montages we’ve come to expect.

(Note: All information on film budgets comes from Box Office MojoDeadline HollywoodLos Angeles TimesVanity Fair, andThe Hollywood ReporterData on nominees/winners from Wikipedia.)

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The Best Pictures

This year’s ceremony sees nine films vying for Best Picture; since the 2011 ceremony, the Academy’s rules for the number of nominees have been expanded, allowing for anywhere between the traditional five nominees and a maximum of 10. Controversial snubs at the 2009 Oscars in the BP race were allegedly the driver for increasing the field to 10 nominees for the next two years before settling on the current system. (You can thank WALL-E and The Dark Knight for this, or blame traditionally obvious choices like The Reader.)

In short, the system is thus: Academy voters rank all of the nominated films in their ballots, through several rounds of voting. Ranking after ranking is made until a solid group of nominees emerge; it’s a runoff system, meaning that the film with the most #1 votes might not necessarily win Best Picture. If said film is divisive, it could also hit the bottom spot on a ton of voter rankings. So, it might pay off to be everybody’s number two flick.

If only we could hijack a PricewaterhouseCoopers briefcase man to better look at the specific make-ups of the last several years. Alas, we’re based out of Chicago and not Los Angeles.

Now, audiences often complain about how many of the year’s highest-grossing and most popular films are seldom nominated for Best Picture, in favor of “movies I haven’t even heard of.” There are a multitude of reasons, many circling around the Academy’s culture and propensity for giving smaller films a chance. There’s the importance of critical praise in putting a film over enough to warrant Oscar consideration (in most cases). There’s also the increasing rarity of a top-budget film landing above an 80 on Metacritic (see: Cameron, Nolan, Abrams on occasion). For some further perspective, consider the numbers on this year’s crop of nominees.

Budgets (best available):

  • Arrival – $47 million
  • Hacksaw Ridge – $40 million
  • La La Land – $30 million
  • Hidden Figures – $25 million
  • Fences – $24 million
  • Hell or High Water – $12 million
  • Lion – $12 million
  • Manchester by the Sea – $8.5 million
  • Moonlight – $5 million

Domestic Grosses (as of 2/21/17):

  • Hidden Figures – $144 million
  • La La Land – $134 million
  • Arrival – $99 million
  • Hacksaw Ridge – $66 million
  • Fences – $55 million
  • Manchester by the Sea – $46 million
  • Lion – $37 million
  • Hell or High Water – $27 million
  • Moonlight – $21 million

Did you know that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, last year’s top grosser, allegedly cost $200 million to produce before figuring in marketing (the general rule of thumb with major Hollywood productions is that the ad budget will be close to the production budget, effectively doubling the number)? This year’s nine nominees, combined, cost roughly $204.5 million. There are recent years in which the top grosser outclassed the entire crop of nominees, sometimes by a wide margin. Best Pictures tend to be far more modest in production and success when compared against their more mainstream counterparts. To this point, consider the recent history of BP winners’ budgets against each year’s highest-grossing counterparts:

gross animation The Oscars By the Numbers

*In 2010, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 shared a budget with Part 1
**budgets unadjusted for inflation

The average production budget of a BP winner since 1991 is $42.5 million ($35.6 if you remove Titanic). The average cost of the highest grosser in the last 25 years? $134.6 million. And that latter average will rise sharply in the next 7-8 years, as some of those more modest early ‘90s productions are supplanted by today’s monsters; American Sniper is the only top grosser since 2003 to come in at less than nine figures in its budget. Simply put, it’s rare that the highest amounts of studio money will be dedicated to the kind of film that might also play at the Academy Awards; if a film crosses over, it tends to be incidental. Over the past 25 years, there have only been three instances in which the year’s highest-grossing film is also the Best Picture winner: Forrest Gump, Titanic, and The Return of the King.

As studios continue to downplay standalone properties in favor of the franchises that can keep the wheels greased for billion-dollar corporations, expect these gaps to widen. The best films in a given year will only continue to exist more within the realm of independent production and less and less with the major studios who’ve been behind so many Oscar greats throughout the decades, as those majors strive for evergreen properties first and risky standalone projects a firm second. (Just look at Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a long-running passion project at Paramount that resulted in one Oscar nomination and barely $7 million grossed in theaters.)

It’s a far cry from the old days of the Academy, when luxe projects like Lawrence of Arabia would earn massive investments from studios and find major success when it was time to give out awards. Costly pursuits like the infamous Heaven’s Gate largely ended the days of auteurs being granted major budgets for standalone, sequel-unfriendly properties, and now there’s a stark divide: There are the movies that win awards and the movies that make the real money, and rarely do the two meet. Except in the Visual Effects categories, most of the time.

For Your Consideration

— In the last 25 years, only four BP nominees have been sequels: Toy Story 3, Mad Max: Fury Road, and the two Lord of the Rings continuations. (The Silence of the Lambs could also be considered a Manhunter sequel, but it’s less a direct continuation than another story in the same universe.) Even before our chosen timeframe, there have only been three others over 89 years: the Godfather sequels and The Bells of St. Mary.

— Not including the current set of nominees (many of which are still in theaters as of this publication), just 59 out of the 153 best picture nominees since 1991 have managed to gross more than $100 million at the box office, a total of 37.9%.

— As the joke goes, the Weinsteins have a hold over the Oscars: In 25 years, they’ve championed 14 Best Picture nominees through Miramax and another nine through The Weinstein Company. Other major players include Warner Bros. with 20 nominees, Paramount with 14 (19 if you include releases from their now-defunct Paramount Vantage imprint), Fox Searchlight with 14, and Columbia/Universal/Dreamworks with 10 each. (Note: this accounts for the film’s primary distributor/funding source, without getting into the morass of co-production percentages and so on.)

— To that last point, Warner and Paramount also have the most winners over that span, with four BP selections each.

— How about this for great symmetry? The shortest winner of the last 25 years is The Artist at 100 minutes. The longest – as you might have guessed – is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King at 200 minutes.

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The Nominees

And now, the rest! If we’re going to talk auteur filmmaking, let’s start with the auteurs. In the realm of Best Director, four filmmakers have won dual BD trophies since the early ‘90s: Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan), Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby), Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi), and Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant and Birdman (or: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)).

The most nominations over the past 25 years have (Shock! Surprise!) gone to Martin Scorsese, who famously got over the Best Director hump at long last in 2006 for The Departed. That was just one of Scorsese’s five nominations, though; he was also recognized for Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street, Gangs of New York, and The Aviator. Two filmmakers have been up for four Oscars during that time: Spielberg (Lincoln, Munich, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) and Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima, Mystic River, Unforgiven). And then there are those who’ve garnered three nominations during the same timeframe: Ridley Scott, David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, Stephen Daldry, the Coen Brothers (though technically only Joel was nominated for Fargo), Iñárritu, and the late, great Robert Altman.

The youngest director to ever be nominated is still John Singleton for Boyz n the Hood. He was only 24, fresh out of USC, and ready to take over the cinema world with his socially inclined vision. Some time later, he would also end up directing the Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction. On the flip side of that, Eastwood is the oldest nominee and winner for Best Director at 74. The Academy loves a comeback and a familiar face and rewarded his earthy, humanistic effort in Million Dollar Baby.

giphy The Oscars By the Numbers

By the way, in the last 25 years, of the 125 total nominations given for Best Director, a total of three nominees have been women (.024%, if you were wondering): Jane Campion (The Piano), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), and the first woman to win, Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker).

Only one filmmaker has been double-nominated in the category in the last 25 years as well: Steven Soderbergh at the 2001 Oscars, who was nominated for Erin Brockovich and won for Traffic. (Francis Ford Coppola did this in ’75 with The Conversation and The Godfather Part II as well.)

In the acting categories, everyone’s heard about this, but boy does it bear repeating: Meryl Streep is on to her 20th acting nomination in 2017 — her 11th in the past 25 years alone. What does this mean? It means that a) she’s so totally not overrated, and b) we should start planning our Meryl Marathons post-haste. When was the last time you watched Music from the Heart or One True Thing?

Of the last 125 nominees for Best Actor and Actress, 46 actors were playing roles based on real people with 11 winners, and 43 actresses were playing real people, with 10 winners. So it might be a brawl between Denzel Washington and Casey Affleck for Best Actor at this year’s ceremony, but the numbers give the slightest bit of a nudge to Andrew Garfield. (Let’s be honest, though. Probably not.)

Since 1992’s Oscars, the oldest actor nominated for an award was Gloria Stuart at 87 for her supporting role as the adult Rose in Titanic. Christopher Plummer remains the oldest winner at 82 for his dashing and casual work in Beginners. The youngest winner? Anna Paquin at 11 for The Piano. (Almost beat Tatum O’Neal winning at 10 for Paper Moon, too. Kids, right?). And the youngest actress ever nominated remains Quvenzhané Wallis, at nine years old, for Beasts of the Southern Wild.

A small note, but one worth mentioning: If you’re ever looking to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor, there are a surprisingly high number of nominees from the past 25 years that fall into villain roles – roughly 35-40 of the past 125 nominees played the antagonists in their stories, depending on how you feel about figures such as Tommy Lee Jones’ dogged US marshal in The Fugitive, for instance. Several of them are iconic winners as well, from Javier Bardem’s chilling Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men to Gene Hackman’s terrifying Little Bill in Unforgiven. (Other victorious notables: Kevin Spacey for The Usual Suspects, Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight, Christoph Waltz for Inglorious Basterds, and most recently J.K. Simmons for his abusive music teacher in Whiplash.)

And although it’s the youngest category at the Oscars (active only since 2001), Best Animated Feature already has its own lineage and traditions as well:

animation final The Oscars By the Numbers

Oddly enough, Dreamworks won the initial Animated Feature award in 2001 for the first Shrek but has been merely a bridesmaid in the years since. (That drought will continue; Dreamworks Animation was sold to NBCUniversal last year and has no eligible film in Sunday’s race.) Meanwhile, Disney’s in-house animators have frequently had to watch as Pixar overtakes them on a year-to-year basis, even after Disney took the extra step and acquired Pixar in early 2006. Though they’ve competed head-to-head in many years, Disney has never won Best Animated Feature in a year where Pixar had a competing film nominated as well. (For instance, this year will likely see either Zootopia or Moana take the prize, but Pixar’s Finding Dory was snubbed in the nomination round.) A quick glance at the “wins” column will tell you how absolutely dominant Pixar has been since the category’s inception, nominees be damned.

Also curious? Last year’s Anomalisa was the first nominee in the category to be rated R. Thanks, Charlie Kaufman!

For Your Consideration:

–Did you know that composer Thomas Newman (Wall-E, Skyfall, The Shawshank Redemption) is up for his 14th Oscar nomination this year, for Passengers? He’s never won. And strangely, he’s in good company. It took his cousin, famed singer/songwriter/composer Randy Newman, 16 nominations to win his first Oscar (Best Original Song for Monsters, Inc.). So hang in there, Tommy!

–Bradford Young, the eye behind the gorgeously gray Arrival, is the first African American to be nominated for Best Cinematography in 89 years of the awards.

–That Sound Mixing nomination for the blunderbuss that is 13 Hours got us curious: Just how many of Michael Bay’s films are Oscar-nominated? And how many nominations does Bayhem have under his belt? Seven of Bay’s films have been nominated for technical awards, for sound and effects. Seventeen nominations in all. And none of his films were nominated for Best Picture. No, that’s not a cheap shot at all.

–The screenplay categories have long been known as a way for the Oscars to honor the films that find major acclaim but don’t necessarily fit into the archetypal styles that the awards tend to favor in the major categories. To that point, seven of the last 25 Best Original Screenplay winners weren’t even nominated for Best Picture: Her, Little Miss Sunshine, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Talk to Her, Almost Famous, and The Usual Suspects. Two of the Adapted Screenplay winners were also snubbed in the top category: Gods and Monsters and Sling Blade.

–Only two hip-hop songs have been nominated for Best Original Song, but rap is two for two in the category, with Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” (from 8 Mile) and Three Six Mafia’s “Hard Out Here for a Pimp” (from Hustle & Flow) both taking home the prize.

–Movies that are and will forever be Academy Award nominees, thanks to the Makeup category: Suicide Squad, Norbit, Hitchcock, Click, The Wolfman ‘10 (shout-out to Rick Baker, though), Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and Bicentennial Man.

–Other entirely inexplicable nominations from the past 25 years: Patch Adams for Original Score, Shrek and My Big Fat Greek Wedding for Original Screenplay, Con Air for Original Song (thanks, LeAnn Rimes!), and somehow, Batman Forever for Cinematography in 1996.

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The Ceremony

We get it. The ceremony’s long. Or rather: loooooooooooong. So we asked ourselves, how long has it been since the Oscar telecast was shorter than three hours? Or two for that matter? In 1973, when The Godfather won Best Picture (and Marlon Brando sent out Sacheen Littlefeather to accept his Oscar for Best Actor and John Wayne was thankfully too drunk to pull her offstage), the broadcast ran for two hours and 38 minutes. The year before, when The French Connection won, the Oscars ran for one hour and 44 minutes. It’s all been three-plus hours since.

Oh to long for the succinct glory days, when the very first Academy Awards ran for a very svelte 15 minutes. And those Oscars apparently only had 270 viewers, or rather, attendees at the private AMPAS dinner. The point being: This thing’s grown in 89 years.

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The heartiest broadcast of all time happened in 2002. This was the post-9/11 broadcast, a mere five months after the tragedies of New York and the Pentagon occurred, and Oscar had a lot to say about that. AMPAS president Frank Pierson wrote a letter to Variety stating that delays or cancellation would effectively signal that terrorists were winning. And like good showmen, the show must go on. This was possibly the biggest, if not easily the longest, telecast of the Oscars. And what a show. This was the year Woody Allen came out of his self-imposed seclusion and work schedule to say a couple things about the power of NYC and its art with a hysterical and heartfelt monologue. Nora Ephron made a loving montage about the great films with New York City at their core. And maestro John Williams, Mr. Star Wars himself, conducted the orchestra for the evening.

It was also the first year at the Kodak (now Dolby) Theatre, the modern staple for the event, what with its vibrant red and gold amphitheater setting (give us a break we’ve been watching this for years).

By contrast, the shortest telecasts of the last quarter-century were twofold: in 2005 and in 2012. The latter saw the much-debated win for Michel Hazanavicius’ black-and-white revival The Artist, a terrific film if you’ve never seen Sunset Boulevard or Singin’ in the Rain before. (But hey, it was the first silent film to win Best Picture since the very first Oscars in 1929.) It was … uh, the year when Billy Crystal brought back his Sammy Davis Jr. impersonation, to the delight of hopefully nobody. And in 2005, Million Dollar Baby took home the prize as Chris Rock made his hosting debut on a telecast perhaps best remembered for those weird award announcements where “lesser” nominees were rotated through faster, in order to keep the show moving.

Ready for a healthy heap of awkward?

THEY CAN’T EVEN GET OUT OF THEIR FUCKING SEATS. Witness Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s Taika Waititi try to make a visual gag out of being stuck in his seat. Watch through your hands as American Honey’s Andrea Arnold must accept her goddamned Oscar and give a speech IN THE AISLE.

The point is, it’s a long haul. Come Sunday, it’d be best to have some snacks.

For Your Consideration:

–For the record, the Oscars generally allot about 45 seconds for acceptance speeches. Or as Charlie Kaufman once put it when he got his screenwriting Oscar for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: “29 seconds… 27 seconds…that’s really intimidating.” That’s not a lot of time to thank agents, studios, families, mistresses, dogs, cats, and so on. But some winners, especially actors, try to get their two cents in. Or several hundred words. Mr. “Alright, alright, alright” himself, Matthew McConaughey, accepted his Best Actor with 549 words – the lengthiest Oscar speech of the last 25 years. He thanked God, peers, heroes, himself – you name it. Second to McConaughey? Halle Berry, with 528 wonderful words for her Oscar for Monster’s Ball. And the shortest speech also came from one of the youngest winners: Anna Paquin, with 50 words for Best Supporting Actress in Jane Campion’s The Piano.

–In terms of the hosts, Billy Crystal remains the king, with seven hosting gigs in the last 25 years and even more before the 1992 Oscars. Whoopi Goldberg MC’ed four times. Steve Martin, two-and-a-half times (once with Alec Baldwin to promote It’s Complicated, so we’ll split). Chris Rock, Ellen DeGeneres, and Jon Stewart each hosted twice as well. And in the end, no one has ever been 100% satisfied with these hosts, so get ready, Jimmy Kimmel.

–And then, there were those who were invited to do their diligence only once: Dave Letterman (1995), Hugh Jackman (2009), James Franco/Anne Hathaway (2011), Seth MacFarlane (2013), and most recently Neil Patrick Harris (2015). Whether any are invited back, time will tell, but we’re reasonably confident Franco won’t be one of them. Just a hunch.

That’s all for this year’s Oscars By the Numbers. Be sure to tune in on Sunday night and to follow all of CoS’ news and editorial coverage of the 89th annual Academy Awards.

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