Have we seen a Best Picture nominee from 2019 already? Let’s look at the stats
Most films aiming for a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards set their release date in the fall or winter. Since 2009, when the Academy shifted its Best Picture lineup to 10 nominees (and then ‘up to 10' in 2011), the months of September to December have accounted for 77.5% of nominees — reason why it’s deemed ‘Oscar season.’
But there are usually a few from the months of January to August that make it in. Since that shift, an average of two films (for a total of 20) from prior to ‘Oscar season’ have been nominated for the top prize, whether it be because they’re just that beloved or they have a committed-enough studio behind them — or both. For those first two years, the average was 4. But since the rule change in 2011, the average has been 1.5. There’s been one instance of zero. And last year, there were two: Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman.
Have we already seen a film or two from this year?
Only time will tell, but statistics — those that capture a film’s reception, like its Rotten Tomatoes score, Metacritic score, and box office performance — can point us in some kind of direction. Last year, this experiment pointed me toward those two very films. Let’s see what may be in store this year:
Rotten Tomatoes Score
75% of the nominees have a Rotten Tomatoes score above 90%. Up, Get Out, and Toy Story 3 lead the pack at 98%, and The Tree of Life and The Help sit in the back at 84% and 76%, respectively. Last year’s two films are both at 96%, and the past 5 years have only seen films above 90%. The average score, weighting the number of reviews, sits at 92.96%.
Not much has changed since last year, in terms of the average Metacritic score. It was at just over 85, and Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman average out to just about that. The exact number, weighting the number of reviews, now sits at 85.51.
Box Office Range
The 20 nominated January-August films split exactly in half in terms of box office hauls: 10 films with domestic grosses above $100 million and 10 films with domestic grosses below $100 million. And last year’s films were a perfect representation of that, with Black Panther at $700.059 million and BlacKkKlansman at $49.275 million.
The average domestic take of the 10 above $100 million has risen significantly because of Black Panther — previously at $214.071 million last year, but now at $262.637 million. The average domestic take of the 10 below has naturally not shifted too much after BlacKkKlansman — previously at $26.548 million last year, but now at $28.820 million this year.
Adding in a wrinkle that I foolishly ignored last year, the demarcation also brings changes to the average scores. The Rotten Tomatoes jump isn’t that notable, with those above $100 million averaging out to 92.76% and those below at 93.22%. But the Metacritic score is significantly different. Films that grossed more than $100 million domestically now average out at 82.96, with those below now at 88.02.
The box office factor lines up with the film festival factor — which now makes even more sense with the changes in average score. Those that gross above $100 million domestically don’t necessarily need film festival visits — though some do so anyway, such as Mad Max: Fury Road and Up screening at Cannes.
But those below that line seemingly do, as all 10 have visited prestigious film festivals of some kind — BlacKkKlansman premiering at Cannes last year.
The Results for 2019
These averages are ballpark figures. Only Up, Toy Story 3, and Black Panther meet or exceed this year’s averages, so it would be silly to limit my search to those lines. Accordingly, I’ll be looking at films within a reasonable range.
Above the $100 million domestic line, there are 4 contenders: Us, Avengers: Endgame, Toy Story 4, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Surprisingly, Toy Story 4 is the only film that exceeds every average. It has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 97%, a Metacritic score of 84, and a domestic box office haul of $430.816 million and climbing. Avengers: Endgame is the next closest, exceeding two, but further off of the third: a Rotten Tomatoes score of 94%, a Metacritic score of 78, and a $858.345 million domestic box office gross.
Jordan Peele’s latest, Us, falls short of two, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 93%, a Metacritic score of 81, and a domestic take of $175.005 million. And Quentin Tarantino’s latest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, falls short of two, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 85%, a Metacritic score of 83, and a domestic take of $131.133 million (it’s climbing, but it certainly won’t double).
Below the $100 million line, there are also 4 contenders: The Souvenir, The Farewell, Booksmart, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
The Farewell is the only film that exceeds two averages, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 99%, a Metacritic score of 90, and a domestic box office take of $16.025 million. The Souvenir is the only other film to exceed the Metacritic average, with 92, the highest score of any of these contenders. But the film falls short of the two other averages.
Booksmart exceeds the Rotten Tomatoes score, sitting at 97%, and comes very close to the other two — it’s Metacritic score at 84 and domestic haul at $22.680 million. It’s only asterisk is that it premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival, whereas the rest premiered at either Sundance or TIFF the prior year.
Finally, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is similarly close critically, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 93% and a Metacritic score of 84, but further away financially with only $4.515 million.
The Eye Test — Round 1
There are plenty of films within range of these stats that miss out. Last year, Mission: Impossible — Fallout exceeded every average and still was not nominated, and similar films can be pointed to for each year. Since 2009, there have been about 3 comparable films that standout next to the one or two that were nominated — such as Inside Out, The Big Sick, Moonrise Kingdom, Fruitvale Station, and War for the Planet of the Apes. So, let’s cut these 8 in half.
Due to domestic gross, The Souvenir and The Last Black Man in San Francisco can go. While both have made more than $1 million, they haven’t made as much as the lowest domestic gross of a January-August Best Picture nominee since 2009: Winter’s Bone, which made $6.531 million.
Animated films are rarely nominated for Best Picture. Only 3 have ever been recognized for the night’s top award. While two of those did come during the 2009–2018 period, those were a rare two. Up is an original of the highest order, and even fantastic originals like WALL-E and Inside Out missed out. And Toy Story 3 was the long-after animated sequel before they became a trend for Pixar. It had a kind of heart and vigor that Finding Dory, Incredibles 2, and Toy Story 4 lack. So, Toy Story 4 can go too, despite meeting the averages.
Jordan Peele’s debut, Get Out, was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Lead Actor — and won Best Original Screenplay. So surely a follow-up as well-received as Us would make it in too, right? Well, a few factors suggest otherwise.
Firstly, the Academy is still shy to horror films. Get Out threaded a line of horror and social thriller in the same way that Black Panther threaded a line of superhero film and human drama. And that extra level gave the Academy a lot to latch onto. Us has that extra level, but it’s also much more explicitly of the horror genre. Last year, Hereditary was close, and arguably should’ve been nominated, but went largely unrecognized throughout awards season beyond Toni Collette.
And sophomore features haven’t faired that well recently. Just last year, Barry Jenkins and Damien Chazelle followed up Moonlight and La La Land — a Best Picture winner and the arguable runner-up — with If Beale Street Could Talk and First Man. But despite fantastic reception, both ultimately weren’t even nominated.
That leaves us with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Avengers: Endgame, The Farewell, and Booksmart as the group from this year.
The Eye Test — Round 2
Time to whittle down even more and make some Best Picture predictions.
While Booksmart comes close in all arenas, it just reads like a film that misses out — certainly a fault of the Academy, and not of the film itself. It feels like Eighth Grade more than it does to Lady Bird, in that it’s more comedy-leaning in both tone and style, despite having similar heart.
Avengers: Endgame is absolutely fascinating. The last two worldwide box office leaders, Avatar and Titanic, were both nominated for Best Picture. It’s both the end of Robert Downey Jr.’s tenure as Iron Man — a reason why I’m predicting him in Best Supporting Actor — and the end of a generation of superhero fare. The film is good and has its share of comedy, nostalgia, self-reflexivity, and genuine heart. And the Academy is actively trying to recognize good popular films.
But there seems to be that slight barrier left for superhero films. It’s the kind of barrier that’s small enough for Black Panther to jump, but perhaps too tall for an Avengers film, even the last one, to climb. I could very well eat my words come January, but I’ll remain a bit conservative for now.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood seems like a surefire nomination. Despite the fact that it comes up rather short in terms of its Rotten Tomatoes score and its domestic box office haul, those numbers are loose guidelines, especially the $100 million plus box office average.
The fact that this is a Quentin Tarantino film is a huge factor. Auteur films released between January and August have a much smoother path to a Best Picture nomination. Take a look at Christopher Nolan, who saw Inception and Dunkirk nominated. Spike Lee was recognized just last year with BlacKkKlansman. And Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was nominated, despite having the second worst Metacritic score of the 20 films and the worst weighted Metacritic score. And that this new film is about Hollywood is just more to munch on for the Academy.
Finally, I’m very torn on The Farewell. It has stellar critical reception and has performed exceptionally well at the box office for an indie film. It’ll likely compete in Best Original Screenplay, and I’m even predicting Zhao Shuzhen to be nominated in Best Supporting Actress. But I don’t know if it’ll jump into Best Picture.
For every factor working against it, there’s something counteracting each one:
- It’s grossed under the average domestic take of films that made below $100 million. But 7 out of the 10 nominees sit under that average too. The Farewell would rank 8th right now, is almost certain to move up into 7th, and could even climb to 6th.
- A majority of the film is in Mandarin, but just last year, Roma, a film in Spanish, nearly won Best Picture — and a Polish film, Cold War, was apparently close to a nomination.
- It released before Oscar season, but in July, which has seen the second most Best Picture nominations since 2009 — tied with May and June, but behind August. And it could have a full force campaign from A24 to carry it into awards season.
Right now, I’m going to leave The Farewell just outside of my predictions. But this is the choice I’m most unsure of, out of the entire experiment.
As I said last year: stats can tell us a lot, and they’re often an important aspect of the discussion, but they’re never the entire discussion. On top of understanding stats, predicting nominations takes an understanding of not only trends, but changing trends over time. And even then, you can end up very wrong.
But based on the numbers and the trends, I’m predicting Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to be the film released between January and August to earn a Best Picture nomination.
What’s even more interesting, though, is that, over the last 10 years, September has been a desert for Best Picture nominees, with only one film, Moneyball, making it through. So we’ll likely have to wait until October or even November to see another.
*All of the data used in this experiment is as of 09/03/2019.