This morning, the Oscar nominations came out. Like every year, I was excited to see some of my favorite films nominated. Like every year, I was disappointed by which films — and which filmmakers — got overlooked.
Like every year, I asked myself: How could the Academy be so bone-headed?
The truth is, I am the Academy. I’m an Oscar voter. Two weeks ago, I logged in and submitted my nominating ballot. So I thought I’d spend a few paragraphs talking through what the mental process is like.
As a member of the Writers branch, I get to nominate films in three categories: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Let’s start with the writing categories. I often get asked whether I read all the scripts. I don’t. I couldn’t. Any given year, there are thirty to forty films that could conceivably be up for a screenplay nomination. No one reads all of them. I read the ones I’m most curious about.
I used to complain that they should retitle the screenplay awards, “Best Movie that Probably Had a Good Screenplay.” You can listen to dialogue and feel the storytelling, but you can’t really tell what was on the page.
The truth is, you could make the same argument about almost any category. “Best Performance by an Actress in a Role that was Probably Reshaped in the Editing Room.” “Best Sound Mixing — or wait, is that Sound Editing?”
In the end, you make your decision about what you saw on the screen, and hope that you’re awarding the right person.
When nominating films for writing, I’m asking myself which films had great stories and great storytelling. Which ones had incredible characters that I remember independent of the actors in the role. Which ones I really, really wish I’d written.
I don’t make a huge distinction between originals and adaptations, because every script is tough to write, no matter its source. If a screenplay is based on a great book I’ve read, I’ll be looking for what the screenwriter brought that really made it a movie.
Some movies have multiple screenwriters. I generally don’t know or care much about the backstory of who wrote what. Famously, Shakespeare in Love won best screenplay for Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, screenwriters who didn’t work together on the project. That’s fine. We give awards for the product, not the process.
For writer/directors, I ask myself, “Does the writing merit an award independent of its direction?”
I never vote for a screenplay as a consolation prize. If I like a movie but it’s not quite Best Picture calibre, I won’t throw it a screenplay vote just to spare its imaginary feelings.
Every studio wants a Best Picture nomination, so during awards season they spend a lot of money buying ads and throwing parties.
I’ve seen the ads. I’ve been to some parties. No offense to all the very hard-working publicists, but I really don’t think it influenced my choices at all.
The single most important thing for me was screeners. I try to see as many movies as I can on the big screen, but with a young kid and a Broadway show, screeners were the only way I could see some of these films. If I were a studio, I would take the money I spend on For Your Consideration ads and invest it in hand-delivering a screener to every possible voter.
For Best Picture nominations, I’m asking myself two questions:
- Which of this year’s movies were exceptionally good?
- Which of this year’s movies absolutely have to be on the list, because to exclude them would be madness?
The first question is about my feelings right now. Which films moved me emotionally, inspired me, impressed me? Which films constantly had me saying, “You absolutely have to see it.”
The second question imagines my future self looking at the nominations ten years from now and being bewildered that an incredibly influential movie was overlooked.
As much as possible, I want the function of Future Me to be advocating for films, not disparaging them. It’s tempting to think, “Yeah, that movie was good but in ten years no one will care.” I try not to do that. If a movie is great right now, it deserves acclaim right now. If a movie is great and future-worthy, it deserves acclaim both now and for the future.
Basically, I give a few bonus points for movies I suspect I’ll still be talking about ten years from now.
For Best Picture nominations, you rank your choices. The advantage to this system is that you can feel secure putting your top choice at the top. You’re not “wasting your vote” for something that doesn’t have a shot.
This year as I filled out my ballot, I felt confident in my choices. And I suspect most voters did. On some level, the Oscars are a popularity contest, but I honestly believe that voters are thoughtful when making their picks.
The nominations aren’t quite what I wanted. Yet had the nominations been exactly what I wanted — had they been exactly what any one person wanted — they would have seemed bone-headed to everyone else. The inevitable result of collective list-making is that no one thinks you made the right list.