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« Best Oscar Night Tweets | Main | La La Moonlight, an Unexpected Finale to Oscar Night »

The New Norm of the Picture / Director Split

Chris here. Now that the Oscar closing shock has worn off (oh, wait it still hasn’t) let’s take a second to discuss the growing frequency of the Best Picture / Director split. This is now the fourth time in five years two different films have taken home the two biggest prizes - with 25% of all instances occurring in the past decade. Has a Best Picture / Director split become an Oscar new normal?

But the recent prevalence of the split might be more symptomatic of an Academy more bent on spreading the wealth. In fact, La La Land ties Fury Road as the most awarded film since Gravity - also rewarded on the Director side of the equation... 

Of the past five years, no Best Picture winner has won more than four Oscars. Maybe Best Picture is starting to carry more weight, or perhaps the preferential ballot is the key here. Or are Academy members actually beginning to vote for the two categories with separate criteria that used to go hand-in-hand?

The split is now as common as it has been since the 30s, with a few more years left this decade for it to happen again. My money is that it will. A few short years ago, it was a foolhardy prediction to not pick the same film for the big two, but now it’s becoming commonplace enough that we should pay attention to how the split happens. If we’d known this were coming, I think many would assume the opposite prizes would have been awarded - La La Land joins Cabaret as the only musicals on the Director side of the split. Lots will be written and pondered about how we should have seen Moonlight’s win coming (and probably way too much credit given taken from La La Land’s dissenters), but this remains one of the most surprising even without the finale snafu.

As Best Picture / Best Director splits become the new normal, the Moonlight / La La Land duo certainly just became the most memorable - and possibly the first between real-life pals. Here is Oscar’s history of splits:

  • 1927 - Director: Frank Borzage (7th Heaven) and Lewis Milestone (Two Arabian Knights) Director TIE
    Picture: Wings
  • 1929 - Director: Frank Lloyd (The Divine Lady)
    Picture: The Broadway Melod
  • 1930 - Director: Norman Taurog (Skippy)
  • 1931 - Director: Frank Borzage (Bad Girl)
    Grand Hotel
  • 1935 - Director: John Ford (The Informer)
    Mutiny on the Bounty
  • 1936 -  Director: Frank Capra (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town)
    The Great Ziegfeld
  • 1937 - Director: Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth)
    The Life of Emile Zola
  • 1940 - Director: John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath)
  • 1948 - Director: John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)
  • 1949 - Director: Joseph Mankiewicz (A Letter to Three Wives)
    All the King’s Men
  • 1951 - Director: George Stevens (A Place in the Sun)
    An American in Paris
  • 1952 - Director: John Ford (The Quiet Man)
    The Greatest Show on Earth
  • 1956 - Director: George Stevens (Giant)
    Around the World in Eighty Days
  • 1967 - Director: Mike Nichols (The Graduate)
    In the Heat of the Night
  • 1972 - Director: Bob Fosse (Cabaret)
    The Godfather
  • 1981 - Director: Warren Beatty (Reds)
    Chariots of Fire
  • 1989 - Director: Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July)
    Driving Miss Daisy
  • 1998 - Director: Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan)
    Shakespeare in Love
  • 2000 - Director: Steven Soderbergh (Traffic)
  • 2002 - Director: Roman Polanski (The Pianist)
  • 2005 - Director: Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain)
  • 2012 - Director: Ang Lee (Life of Pi)
  • 2013 - Director: Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity)
    12 Years a Slave
  • 2015 - Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant)
  • 2016 - Director: Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
    Picture: Moonlight

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Reader Comments (27)

Ok, I know this is another thread, but the ridicoluos gaffe last night had some kind of poetic justic: LLL gets her "waht if" final heartbteak and Moonlight its "I can't win this" ackward momenth of thruth and revelation after all the struggles.

Fitting. And Hawcksaw Ridge's awards were OK! I'd rather see Hell or High Water's editing win than Gibson's, but the "battle scene" compensates and it's a marvel of editing, no matter what you think of that film.

Isabelle, of course, should have won best actress. THAT would have been my ideal outcome.

Splitting director: GOOOD!! Why not? The most serios critics groups around the glob do it! Every high profile festival (Cannes, Berlin, Venice) do it! Even if those are the rules; more often than not they've done it!

This is the typical shepher, sweeping mentality of the Americans. John Hughes pretty much summed it up on Brakfast Club to the Emilio Estevez jock stereotype: you must win all or you worth sh***. Bingo! But that mentality has tio change once and for all. There's no perfect movie in any given year. There are years with so much strenght, the wisest thing to do is spread the wealth.

Welcome to the rest of the world, America.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterchofer

"Or are Academy members actually beginning to vote for the two categories with separate criteria that used to go hand-in-hand?"

Clearly they liked Moonlight though, why would they give it to Chazelle over Jenkins (and superior direction) if this were true?

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterArlo

Note the 70's - the decade of auteur-driven cinema, where the split only happened once. Very interesting.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRob

The expanded best picture list is helping this happen more often. Votes are being diffused leaving the film with the most passionate base as the winner. But it could also be the Academy distinguishing between a well-made or technically difficult film to make versus their favorite film.

On another note, Damien Chazelle is the first white male American directing winner since the Coen Bros nine years ago.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

I'm fine with the split because you can love films in different ways. Sometimes a director may have overcome some incredible challenges and come up with a good but uneven film. (LLL)

But you may honestly feel that a different film is an achievement in a more well rounded way. (Moonlight) Why not acknowledge both achievements ? It seems to be a feature of the preferential ballot and one I like very much.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

As is probably intuitive, films rarely win Best Picture or Best Director unless they're nominated for both.

Of the Best Picture winners, only four weren't nominated for Best Director:
1927 - Wings (dir. William A. Wellman)
1931 - Grand Hotel (dir. Edmund Goulding)
1989 - Driving Miss Daisy (dir. Bruce Beresford)
2012 - Argo (dir. Ben Affleck)

Of the Best Director winners, only two weren't nominated for Best Picture:
1927 - Two Arabian Knights (dir. Lewis Milestone)
1929 - The Divine Lady (Frank Lloyd)

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPercy

It's clearly a case of preferential ballot changing the way Best Picture turns out compared to, say, Best Director. We'd probably get the same winners in both categories in recent years if both used the same criteria.

Chazelle obviously won because only #1 votes are cast in his category, whereas the preferential system helped Moonlight, a film which hardly anyone disliked and a lot of people also loved a great deal (as opposed to LLL which had passionate support, but also had a significant amount of naysayers). Same with Spotlight as well.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSid

I still haven't landed.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

One only can assume that the best film is inextricably the best directed film if he or she believes in the director's exclusive authorship of the work. Considering that cinema is a collaborative enterprise, there are many things that can contribute to a movie's greatness that aren't solely due to the director's efforts. This is precisely why multiple categories exist honoring different aspects of the process. I felt more emotionally connected to Moonlight, but I fully recognize that, for me, La La Land succeeds to the extent that it does primarily because of Chazelle.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Repost from the other thread, but I can't argue with the results of the preferential ballot. The four biggest beneficiaries are, IMO, the four best BP winners since 2008: The Hurt Locker, 12 Years a Slave, Spotlight, and Moonlight.

Applying the preferential ballot retroactively and hypothetically, which films would have benefited? My guesses for the relatively recent years would be Saving Private Ryan, Traffic, and There Will Be Blood. Each of these, to a varying degree, would have been an improvement over the true outcome.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPercy

I was thinking the exact same thing last night. I agree with Sid that preferential voting certainly is affecting this trend, allowing films with small but passionate fans to no longer be pushed into a best picture win. However, the other trend to go with this is the fact that the movie winning the most Oscars is not Best Picture. In a vast majority of years in history, the Best Picture winner either wins the most Oscars that night or ties for most Oscar wins. Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Spotlight and Moonlight have changed that.

What impresses me the most about the Spotlight/Moonlight wins of the past two years is that both are bold selections, the type of movies Oscar likes to nominate but can lose to more MOR fare. Both are also films, while successful at the box office due to lower budgets, didn't make it to the $100 million mark (another reversing trend).

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBGK

Loved the acting clips this year,loved ,Meryl's deserved standing ovation,loved the host i'm from UK and had never heard of him,good job,back for 2018.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMARKGORDONUK

One thing I hope comes of this is that they actually start releasing the vote counts.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

I'm pleased with the split, especially this year. I think it reflects the quality of the two frontrunners, and spreading the wealth is generally good. I wish LLL had cleaned up a little more in the tech prizes vs Hacksaw Ridge.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBD

The Picture/Director split is often a Picture/Director/Film Editing split, especially in the 20th Century, fwiw.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

The trend is to honor careers in Best Director and individual achievements in Best Picture.

You're not gonna pick La La Land for Best Picture because you really loved Whiplash because Whiplash has nothing to do with La La Land, as a film. But Whiplash might be kicking around in the back of your mind when you consider Chazelle as a director.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHayden

And let's not forget that lots of us were envisioning a Linklater/Birdman or vice versa for 2014, so I think this may just be the "new normal"!

In other news, my constant thought since was how, had ANY other actress won, the finale fail couldn't have happened. None of the others were in a Best Picture nominee. Dunaway couldn't have read out Elle or Florence Foster Jenkins or Jackie or Loving without anyone knowing that something was off.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRobUK

The two winners from 1927 weren't a TIE as listed here; there were two separate directing awards that year (and that year only); Frank Borzage won the Best Direction award and Lewis Milestone won the Best Comedy Direction award.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

It's so unfortunate that there couldn't have been splits in 2010 or 2014. Those years will go down in history as missed opportunities for the Academy.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Too bad this couldn't have been true in 2014 (when a lot of us *were* predicting a split between Birdman and Boyhood, which, alas, was not to be).

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

lylee, I so agree with you about 2014. It broke my heart that BSA was Boyhood's only Oscar win. It deserved to win both picture and director, IMO, but should have at least taken one of them.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMike

Both films has strong directorial vision

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjaragon

I think it's a mixture of two things. Firstly, the preferential ballot, which is clearly helping these admired films overcome a more broad challenger (films like LLL and The Revenant). But secondly, and perhaps more important and which nobody seems to be discussing, I would hypothesise that part of it has to do with the culture we're in right now with online discourse. Films are getting SO MUCH written about them, the talent are getting their faces out there SO MUCH, that I think it's a case of voters having a greater understanding of who the filmmakers are and what the crafts are as well and aren't just blindly putting the same film down for everything. I think maybe they want to see more of the films that they've spent the last six months being thrust in their faces take home awards now that it's such an industry.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

I also think tt preferential voting is what propels Moonlight to victory. Had it been the old ballot sys, Best Pic wld have been LLL.

I just kinda wish the wins wld reverse. Jenkins takes Best Dir n LLL, Best Pic. I'm glad tt Moonlight got recognised but oso feel so bad for LLL. It was set so high up to win + this Brian Cullinan fiasco.

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

With both Steve McQueen and Barry Jenkins losing director in recent years despite their films winning, we're still waiting for a first black winner in that category, correct?

February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEllen

All I know is my personal Oscar ballot has tanked for the past four years because I can't seem to guess Best Picture correctly!

I almost put Moonlight down for BP -- thinking about the preferential ballot and the overall mixed reactions for La La Land, which usually implies it won't be at #2 and #3 on enough ballots to push it over the preferential top. But I still have this old-school idea that you don't predict a picture/director split. I guess I need to retire that notion.

February 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

I think it has do with expanded best picture lineup. Think about director still only has five nominees to choose from while best picture had 9 this year. If a voter's favorite film of the nine best pic nominees is Hell or High Watet or Hidden Figures, they can't pick their favorite film for director. So if someone has a ballot that has best pic as :
1. Hidden Figures
2. Moonlight
3. Hell or High Water
4. Lion
5. La La Land
And director
1. Jenkins
2. Chazelle
That's a secon place vote in director but 5th in picture for La La Land without changing the voters preferences from director to picture.

March 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMike Troutman

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