The Key to Winning the Best Picture Oscar: Stitching Together a Compromise

TheWrap Oscar magazine: The preferential system is designed to find a consensus favorite in the Best Picture category, but is consensus even possible in this wild, ugly year?

A version of this story about the Best Picture race first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

“Roma” has won at the Directors Guild, BAFTA and the Critics’ Choice Awards, but Hollywood is full of people who don’t want to see Netflix win the Best Picture Oscar.

“Green Book” won at the Golden Globes and at the all-important Producers Guild Awards, but some voters think it’s too old fashioned and have trouble with past scandals (or tempests in teapots, depending on your point of view) involving its director and co-writer.

“BlacKkKlansman,” “Black Panther,” “The Favourite,” “Vice,” “A Star Is Born,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” – they’re all embraced in some circles, but they’re also divisive movies that have strong detractors.

And in that climate, we’re not into the final voting period in a Best Picture race that will depend on one movie becoming the compromise candidate, stitching together a consensus in a time that’s more about division than unity.

This year’s Oscar race, after all, has been rife with mudslinging, outrage-stoking, Twitter-mining and the like. So it came as no surprise that the nominations revealed an Academy electorate as deeply divided as that other electorate that exists outside the showbiz bubble.

For one thing, the eight Best Picture nominees include three films that have grossed more than $200 million in the U.S., something that has only happened once before — and the average gross of this year’s nominees at the time of nomination was more than $180 million, the highest total in the history of the category.

(This average doesn’t include “Roma,” since Netflix doesn’t report grosses — but even if you grant it a minimal gross and then recalculate, the average stays comfortably ahead of the previous high, 2009’s $151 million.)

This, it seems, is the year when the Oscars didn’t need that popular award after all, the year when blockbuster movies like “Black Panther,” “A Star Is Born” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” were nominated without any help from a dodgy new category that was announced and then quickly (and permanently, one can hope) tabled.

But it’s also the year when the two films with the most Oscar nominations, “Roma” and “The Favourite,” are the two lowest-grossing nominees–one a black-and-white Spanish-language film, the other a new provocation from the twisted Greek auteur responsible for “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster.” (Yes, “The Favourite” is prettier and less surreal, but no less weird and acidic at its core.)

Meanwhile, voters have embraced both Spike Lee’s incendiary “BlacKkKlansman” and Peter Farrelly’s conciliatory “Green Book,” two films about racial tensions that couldn’t be more dissimilar. They’ve gone for big American studio hits, from the one that’s beloved by critics (“Black Panther”) to the one that’s hated by critics (“Bohemian Rhapsody”), but they’ve also sprinkled more foreign-language films throughout the nominations than at any time in the last decade.

It’s hardly surprising that the nominations stubbornly resist pigeonholing and cover such a huge range, particularly since the Academy has added more than 1,600 members, many of them international film professionals, over the last three years.

But here’s the tricky thing: The preferential (or ranked-choice) system of counting final ballots in the Best Picture category is designed to find a consensus favorite, not simply identify the film with the most No. 1 votes. Members rank the nominees in order of preference, and the ballots of the film with the fewest votes are redistributed to each voter’s No. 2 choice. This goes on round after round, with votes sliding further down the ballots, until one film ends up with more than 50 percent of the vote.

The key to this year’s muddy Best Picture race is that in this time of division and acrimony, one of the nominees will somehow stitch together a compromise, forging a consensus between “BlacKkKlansman” fans and “Green Book” devotees, between “Roma” people and “Bohemian Rhapsody” people, between those who love the vices on display in “The Favourite” and those who love the vices on display in “Vice.”

This year, perhaps, that’ll be more important than who won the major guild awards, which have gone to three different films for only the fifth time in the last 20 years.

In a year in which people in and out of Hollywood have little interest in compromising, one of these films is going to be the compromise candidate. We don’t know which one, and I can’t see how, but it’s going to happen.

To read more of TheWrap’s Down to the Wire Oscar issue, click here.

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