Read the rest of Slate's coverage of the 82nd Academy Awards here.
Want to win an Oscar for best picture? Easy. Just release an R-rated period musical about a dead military figure that's based on a book and make sure it runs for two hours and 10 minutes.
We've had 82 years of Oscars to look at what movies win best picture and what do not, and, based on the averages, that's what it boils down to. How did I derive proof that Hitler: The MusicalBased on a Novel by Sapphire will be sweeping the 2014 Oscars?
Let's break it down:
From Gone With the Wind to No Country for Old Men, 40 of the 82 best-picture winners are based on books. Second place? Surprisingly, it's original material (22 of the 82 winners), with plays coming in third, although that's trending downward, with only three winning movies based on plays since 1968: Amadeus, Driving Miss Daisy, and Chicago. * In last place? Only two winners, Marty and The Departed, have been based on other movies.
War movies are on top, accounting for 21 of the best-picture winners. Fun fact: The greatest concentration of best-picture-winning war movies were in the 1990s when America wasn't fighting any big-time wars. The next most popular genre is biography, with 14 winners based on the lives of real people, from Shakespeare in Love all the way back to The Great Ziegfeld in 1936. Third place? Nine best-picture winners were musicals. In addition, 39 of the 82 best-picture winners were period films.
Looking at the box office (adjusted for inflation, of course) reveals that we didn't watch Oscar winners, then we watched them a lot, then we stopped watching them. In the 28 years from 1927, when the first Oscar ceremony was held, until 1955, only three movies made it into the all-time box-office top 100: Gone With the Wind, The Best Years of Our Lives,and The Greatest Show on Earth. And in the 31 years since 1978, only three movies made it into the top 100: Forrest Gump, Titanic, and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. But in the 22 years between 1956 and '78, 11 movies made it into the top 100. Movies like The Sound of Music, Ben Hur, The Godfather, Rocky, and The Sting cleaned up at the awards and cleaned up at the box office, too.
The MPAA started rating movies in 1968, and since then, best-picture winners have been overwhelmingly R-rated. Twenty R-rated films have brought home the gold since '68 while only 12 PG movies have. PG-13 is responsible for seven, and if you're rated G you may as well be rated X: Oliver!and Midnight Cowboy are the only two movies at either extreme of the ratings system to win.
One thing is for sure: The Academy likes its movies long. The running time of the average best-picture winner is two hours and 20 minutes long. From 1979 ( Kramer vs. Kramer) until 2009 ( Slumdog Millionaire), only Driving Miss Daisy and Crashwere under two hours. Before 1979, the average running time was slightly shorter—a mere two hours and 10 minutes.
Does it matter what studio releases your film when it comes to the Oscars? Absolutely. Columbia Studios is the champ with 74 wins and 110 nominations, taking home the gold with classy pictures like From Here to Eternity, Gandhi, The Last Emperor, and Lawrence of Arabia. (Their last win was in 1987, however.) The runner-up is 20th-Century Fox with 58 wins and 98 nominations for scrappier fare like All About Eve, Braveheart, and The French Connection.
But what anyone who's still paying attention at this point wants to know is: Who's going to win this year? To eliminate more than half of 2010's 10 nominees you need to remember just one rule: Every previous best-picture winner won five Oscars on average and was nominated for eight. That takes out A Serious Man(two nominations), An Education(three nominations), District 9 (four nominations), and The Blind Side(two nominations). Upcan easily be jettisoned: It's based on original material, it's a comedy (only nine comedies have ever won), it's rated PG, and it's 96 minutes long (only Marty and Annie Hall have been shorter).
The remaining movies are Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, Up in the Air, and Inglourious Basterds. Precious and Up in the Air are both R-rated dramas based on books, which looks promising, but with only six nominations each and both being dramas set in the present with running times of an hour and 50 minutes, they can be counted out. Avatar has the right running time (162 minutes) and the right number of nominations (nine) but it's rated PG-13 and it's science fiction (no science fiction movie has ever won best picture and only one fantasy film, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, has ever won). That leaves us with The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds, both very long, R-rated war movies with nine and eight nominations, respectively. Based on the numbers, the advantage goes to Inglourious because it's a period piece and it's from a studio with an Oscar history, rather than TheHurt Locker, which is set in the present and is distributed by first-timer Summit Entertainment.
But does the best-picture Oscar even matter? As Mo'nique said, "I couldn't eat that Oscar. Everybody needs money, baby." Don't worry, Mo'nique, science has spoken, and if your agent got you points, an Oscar will earn you mad stacks of cash. In their 1988 paper, "What's an Oscar Worth?" John C. Dodds and Morris B. Holbrook determined that an Oscar nomination for best-picture would yield $988,247 in additional revenue. Go on to win best picture and you can add $3,380,154 to your gross.
In a bizarre statistical anomaly, however, while a best-actress nomination will add $872,632 to your bottom line, a best-actor nomination will add only $809,630. However, a best-actor Oscar win is worth $1,037,634, while a best-actress win causes the movie to lose money. It's a "statistically insignificant" amount of money, but it's still a loss, so maybe Mo'nique knows what she's talking about after all?
Slate V: How To Judge the Best Art Direction Oscar