Awards-season observers often say that films about the industry are catnip for Oscar voters. We did the math.
Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is less a movie about the murderous Manson family than it is an homage to Tinseltown itself, every scene a love letter to the Los Angeles of a half century ago. With the film earning 10 nominations up and down the Oscar ballot, it is fair to ask: Does Hollywood love films about itself?
After all, early in the last decade, there were back-to-back best picture victories for films centered on making movies. The Artist (2011) won using precious few words to tell the story of a pair of actors struggling to make the transition from silents to talkies. A year later, Argo (2012) took the crown for its based-on-real-life tale of CIA agents working with silver-screen producers to camouflage a dangerous mission as an innocent motion picture. And for years, awards-season pundits have repeated the old saw that the academy votes for films that remind voters of themselves.
Yet, an analysis of all 91 best picture winners reveals only two (as previously noted) with major plot points about filmmaking. If this analysis is expanded to all 563 best picture nominees, only nine fit the bill: Once Upon a Time, The Artist and Argo, along with the 1937 version of A Star Is Born, Sunset Boulevard (1950), All That Jazz (1979), The Aviator (2004), Hugo (2011) and La La Land (2016). (The 2018 rendition of A Star Is Born swapped out film stars for pop stars and the other versions weren't nominated for best picture.)
That adds up to 1.6 per cent of all nominated films primarily focused on moviemaking. And among those nominees, only 25 per cent went on to win the award (not counting this year's contender, whose fate remains unknown).
Granted, classifying movies this way is an inherently subjective exercise. The data set could be expanded to include stories that use filmmaking as a framing device, like Titanic (1997), which opened with the narration of documentary footage. In examples like Birdman (2014), as well as this year's nominee Marriage Story, a significant character was once in Hollywood but is not shown there onscreen. And The Godfather (1972) famously featured a plot thread about a producer facing a death threat (conveyed via a horse's head in his bed), but that is surely not the dominant plot of the film. I drew the line at homemade movies, so the video of the floating plastic bag in American Beauty (1999) did not make the cut.
Even with an expanded definition that includes these borderline cases, there are still only 23 best picture nominees that dealt with film production, or 4.1 per cent of all nominees in history. That larger sample had a similar winning rate: 24 per cent of those pre-2020 nominees were winners: The Artist, Argo, Titanic, Birdman and The Godfather.
But while this data shows Oscar voters aren't obsessed with recognising their own endeavours, there is some evidence to suggest that the Academy Awards may be trending in that direction. Through 2003, only 2.3 per cent of films met the broader criteria; since 2004, 10.2 per cent of nominees do.
Starting in 2003, there was a three-year stretch of nominees that at least mention movies in the plot description. Bill Murray plays a movie star in Lost in Translation (2003). Leonardo DiCaprio brings producer Howard Hughes to life in The Aviator (2004). In Capote (2005), the title character (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) attends the premiere of To Kill a Mockingbird, the film version of the novel by his friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener).
Before this awards season, featuring Once Upon a Time and Marriage Story, only one other race ever involved multiple Hollywood-based contenders: 2012, when The Artist won best picture, Hugo was nominated for its tribute to filmmaking pioneer Georges Méliès, and Midnight in Paris received a nod for the story of a frustrated screenwriter seeking refuge in the past.
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Plenty of films more squarely about cinema than Marriage Story or Midnight in Paris were not even nominated for best picture. Sullivan's Travels (1941), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), The Stunt Man (1980), Barton Fink (1991), Adaptation (2002), and many other well-regarded films did not make the best-picture cut. In more recent years, movies like Saving Mr. Banks (2013) and The Disaster Artist (2017) were left off the academy list despite the category's size expansion.
Most spectacularly of all, Singin' in the Rain (1952) was never up for best picture and yet is now considered one of the greatest films of all time, clocking in at No. 5 on the American Film Institute's Top 100 list. What did win best picture instead of Singin' in the Rain? The Greatest Show on Earth, which focused on a different type of entertainment: circus, not cinema.
Even this year's list of films provides evidence to suggest that the academy does not automatically nominate plots about its own work. While Once Upon a Time did make the cut, others dealing with filmmaking like Dolemite Is My Name and Pain and Glory did not.
Many factors go into the academy's decision on nominating a film for best picture. So while the data does not prove a lack of interest in awarding movies about Hollywood, it certainly is not convincing that such an interest does exist.
But if the modest trend since the mid-2000s continues — a trend that could be sped up by a Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood win at the Dolby Theater in February — then perhaps the future of film awards will demonstrate a greater interest in film itself.
Written by: Ben Zauzmer
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