Black-and-White Movies Are Twice as Likely To Be Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 24 2012 3:27 PM

Are Black-and-White Movies Twice as Likely To Be Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar?

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French actress Berenice Bejo, star of the film The Artist, during a press conference in Paris on January 24, 2012.

Photo by Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

The Hollywood Reporter responded to The Artist’s nomination for the Best Picture Oscar with the following observation:

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

The Artist becomes just the seventh predominately or entirely black-and-white film since 1970 to score a best picture nomination, following in the footsteps of The Last Picture Show (1971), Lenny (1974), The Elephant Man (1980), Raging Bull (1980), Schindler's List (1993, won), and Good Night and Good Luck (2005).
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Just the seventh black-and-white movie to be nominated? Are seven black-and-white Best Picture nominations really so few when you consider the total number of black-and-white films made since 1970? Slate decided to crunch a few numbers to find out.

There are 277 movie titles on the Wikipedia page “List of black-and-white films produced since 1970,” including movies that are partially in color (like, for instance, 2005’s Sin City) but not including movies that haven’t been released yet (Tim Burton’s upcoming Frankenweenie). If seven of these 277 were nominated for Best Picture, that puts the nomination rate of modern black-and-white movies at about 2.5%. In other words, one out of every 40 black-and-white movies made over the past 40 years has been nominated for the most prestigious of all Academy Awards.

Now, let’s consider that number in the context of the total number of films made. It’s hard, if not impossible, to get an accurate count of all the feature-length films made since 1970, but the MPAA’s most recent report on theatrical market statistics at least gives us some numbers for films released in the U.S. from 2001 to 2010. In those years, on average, 533.2 movies were released each year. The average number of Best Picture nominees per year from 2001 to 2010 was 6. (Until 2009, only five films could be nominated in this category each year, but in both 2009 and 2010, ten films were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.)

So the nomination rate for all films between 2001 and 2010 is 1.125%—almost exactly half the nomination rate of black-and-white movies. Using these rough-and-ready numbers, black-and-white movies are twice as likely to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar as the average Hollywood release.

Obviously, these numbers aren’t perfect. (Most notably, the number of films that get made each year is trending upward.) But it seems reasonable to conclude that black-and-white movies are significantly more likely to get nominated than their full-color counterparts. Why might this be?

It’s certainly possible that black-and-white movies are more likely to have artistic ambitions than color films. Your average rom-com or horror or action director would never try to get away with filming in monochrome (nor would he want to, probably). Only directors considered artistes have the clout (and chutzpah) to drain their films of color.

But could it also be that the mere fact of presenting a movie in black-and-white makes Oscar voters take notice? The absence of color dredges up associations with the great films of yesteryear—the classics that film buffs point to as brilliant, groundbreaking, timeless. Would, say, Good Night and Good Luck and The Artist (or even Schindler’s List) look quite as remarkable and dignified if they had been shot in color? I suspect not. And I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps Harvey Weinstein, the movie producer notorious for his Oscar campaigns, figured this out before we did. People thought he was crazy for buying a silent film from France. But if these numbers tell us anything, it’s that outdated movie techniques may equal Oscar gold.

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