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Numlock Awards: Are the downballot craft prizes getting less interesting?
Where are the weird nominees?
Numlock Awards is your one-stop awards season newsletter, and it’s back! Every week, join Walt Hickey and Michael Domanico as they break down the math behind the Oscars and the best narratives going into film’s biggest night. Today’s edition comes from Walter.
Joe Reid: Bardo got the weird nomination, but Bardo was Darius Khondji, so that was really cool. That movie looks like dynamite too.
Griffin Newman: That was the kind of nomination I thought Nope was going to get, where that branch just goes, “Well, obviously.”
Reid: But remember when cinematography for a while there was getting real weird and they would nominate stuff like the Black Dahlia or—
Newman: Yes. This is what I'm saying!
Reid: — even like Passion of the Christ, which is not a movie that I like, but like what? Good. Love a swing. All of the crafts categories have gotten a lot narrower I think in the last 10 years, which is a little bit of a bummer. Which is why I appreciate even Empire of Light, a movie I didn't like, step out of the top 10 for a while. Like that's nice.
Really good points! I don’t collect a ton of downballot data — the model we use doesn’t factor it in like some other models do, I don’t think it’s useful for predicting Best Picture wins much at all — but I had some time and pulled the craft awards going back to 1970.
Then I figured out the five-year rolling average of the percentage of films nominated for that given craft award that were also nominated for Best Picture. A chart with all 11 of the awards I grabbed would be way too sloppy, so I split them up into three sections that I think you’ll find make sense.
Heading into it, if indeed we find that the craft awards were pulling more heavily from Best Picture, I can think of three reasons that might be why, which I think apply in different amounts to different categories:
The 2009 decision to expand the field of Best Picture from five nominees to more.
The expansion of the Academy and branches making it so that more well-known contenders can better edge out weirder choices that have factional support in the nominating process.
The nature of campaigning meaning that studios yank support from the kind of contenders that might only succeed in the crafts to dump more resources behind their leading contenders.
Writing and Directing
The gist with these categories is that the Directing category has always been very, very linked to Best Picture. The writing categories were somewhat linked to Best Picture, but recall that up until 2009 there were ten writing nominees and just five Best Picture nominees so as a result even in the maximal case only half of the best writing awards could also be nominated for Best Picture.
I made the y-axis divided into 20 percent divisions because you can also look at this chart and see how many nominees in each category each would expect to be also up for Best Picture. For instance, basically 80 percent of Best Directing nominees from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s were nominated, which means that in a given year you’d expect four out of five nominees also up in Picture and one off-the-beaten-path nomination.
Now, however, over 90 percent of nominees in direction are up at Picture too, so you’d get an interesting offbeat choice only every other year or so.
Among the writing awards, you see a big jump after 2009 when the number of Best Picture nominees goes up, but still about now you’d expect that two out of five Adapted Screenplays and like maybe one out of five Original Screenplays are not also represented in Best Picture. That’s down vastly from the seventies when you’d bet that three in each category weren’t also up for Best Picture.
The trend is absolutely up, and steadily, and it’s not only because of 2009. Here’s a quick linear regression showing the trends of each line.
In general, these branches are getting a little more typical. But a few of the crafts were fundamentally changed as of 2009.
Best cinematography, editing, production design, and sound
These branches got much, much more likely to nominate Best Picture winners after 2009’s expansion of Best Picture. It’s actually kind of shocking to behold.
This is wild. The change in 2009 fundamentally changed the nature of these categories.
Just to hammer home the point, I made a version of this chart with the pre-2009 average and post-2009 average lines dropped in.
This means that in editing you’d expect the number of Best Picture nominees in a given year to jump from three out of five before 2009, up to at least four out of five after 2009. Then in Cinematography, Production Design and Sound you’d expect three Best Picture nominees, up from two before the change.
I think what this implies is less that the branches are getting more conventional, and more that they recognized lots of the movies that were on the bubble before 2009 and nominated into the fold when the field expanded. Either way, it is surprising, and I am really curious if this means that it’s harder to win the craft prizes in the absence of a Best Picture nomination as well. That would be a loss, I think.
Best Costume, Hair and Makeup, VFX and Song
Before I get into this, I didn’t include the shorts, docs, and animated films for the obvious reasons — they don’t get nominated for Best Picture with any real regularity — and I left off Best Score.
Longtime readers of my work know that I’m no wimp when it comes to data cleaning, but the Score category — which was first broken into Original Score and Adaptation Score up to the end of the seventies, then Best Score in 1980, then back to Original Score and Adaptation Score in ’82, then back to just Best Score in ’85, then split back to Original Dramatic Score and Original Musical or Comedy Score in ’95, then back to Best Score in ’99 — you know what, screw that, I got stuff to do.
Anyway, these four categories have been more generally disentangled from Best Picture compared to the categories in the previous section. But still, they’re following that trend to get more and more from Best Pictures. Take a look:
These categories are interesting, because we don’t see a huge spike in 2010 like we saw in the categories that were drastically affected by the expansion of the Best Picture field.
Instead, the increases tended to happen in the mid-2010s, which is when the Academy began to expand very quickly. The jump in Best Costume Design is especially interesting, and with Best Song. I would argue that the changes in these categories is less related to the expansion of Best Picture than it is in the expansion of the Academy and its branches. However, I’d still consider that just a theory and we’ll need a few more years of data to confirm it.
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