The Best Picture race at the 2020 Academy Awards may be shaping up to be the most openly contested race in years. The nine deserving titles, of which three or more are legitimate contenders, include the Producers Guild of America and Directors Guild of America winner “1917”, the top pick from the Critics’ Choice Awards “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, or the surging, surprise Screen Actors Guild Awards favourite “Parasite”, along with the critically acclaimed outsiders, “Marriage Story” and “Little Women”.
The best predictor of the Best Picture winner on Oscar night is, traditionally, the Producers Guild Awards, where 21 times in the past 30 years the PGA choice was the Oscar choice. But let’s remember, the PGA voters are merely members of the singular producers union. The same goes with the writers of the WGA, the directors of the DGA, and the actors of SAG. However, on Oscar night, the votes are tabulated from all the motion picture unions, with the actors union retaining the most votes (16% according to The Hollywood Reporter).
A much better barometer of the eventual Best Picture winner comes from Oscar night itself. So winning which category translates best to a win in the final Best Picture category?
Not Best Actress. Only three times in the past 30 years has the Best Picture also starred the Best Actress. (The last time was in 2005 with Hilary Swank starring in “Million Dollar Baby.”)
The Best Actor category hasn’t fared much better. (Take note, “Joker” fans.) Only six times in the past 30 years has the Best Picture starred the Best Actor. (The last time was in 2012 with Jean Dujardin starring in “The Artist”.)
So which category did better? Best Director. Twenty times in the past 30 years the Best Picture was guided by the Best Director. After all, doesn’t the director command an army of performers who bring life and texture to the vibrant and moving story with a spectacular display of visual and aural elements the main reason the film deserves the Best Picture honour? Most of the time. But not all of the time.
However, the category that fared even better at predicting the inevitable Best Picture is the Best Screenplay categories. Twenty-one times in the past 30 years the Best Picture was aided by the Best Original or Best Adapted Screenplay. (Eight times by the Best Original Screenplay and 13 times by the Best Adapted Screenplay.) Makes sense. After all, isn’t a rousing and inspiring story with smart, dynamic dialogue and logical and surprising character development the main reason the film deserves the Best Picture honour? Most of the time. But not all of the time.
The Best Original Screenplay (and to a lesser extent, the Best Adapted Screenplay) is often considered the consolation prize for the Best Picture award. It’s like winning Miss Congeniality at the Miss Universe pageant. It’s like the Oscar voters saying, “Really love your story. Very innovative. Kudos to thinking outside the box. But it doesn’t mean your movie will win the big award…”
If neither of the Best Screenplays led to the Best Picture, you’ll often find that these scripts were perhaps too innovative or too “outside the box” of what a Best Picture winner should be. Innovation is often rewarded in the “lesser” awards, but the Best Picture award is traditional and eternal and the enduring symbol of the entire motion picture industry in that particular year. And the Academy won’t mess with that.
So now let’s look at the nine times since 1990 that the Best Screenplay winners did not foreshadow a Best Picture win in the gallery below.