2018 Oscars: Will Best Picture winner be film with most overall nominations?

Since the earliest days of the Academy Awards, there was a general rule that the film with (or tied) with the most nominations usually won Best Picture. 1931’s “Cimarron,” 1933’s “Cavalcade,” 1935’s “Mutiny on the Bounty,” 1936’s “The Great Ziegfeld,” 1937’s “The Life of Emile Zola,” 1938’s “You Can’t Take It with You” and 1939’s “Gone with the Wind” all led in Oscar bids. And all took the top award, leaving the competition gone like the wind.

The trend largely continued until the 1980s got off to a surprising start. “Raging Bull” and “The Elephant Man” (eight nominations each) fell to “Ordinary People” (with only six.) Even “Coal Miner’s Daughter” contended for seven statuettes, making the win by “People” anything but ordinary. A year later, an impressive 12 nominations for the red-hot “Reds” couldn’t stop “Chariots of Fire” (with just seven) from racing off with the night’s biggest prize.

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But just as the early Eighties political turmoil (the Iran hostage crisis, the Reagan assassination attempt) faded, so did the Oscar anomalies. For the remainder of the decade, every film with (or tied with) the most nominations went on to claim Best Picture. That includes 1982’s “Gandhi,” 1983’s “Terms of Endearment,” 1984’s “Amadeus, 1985’s “Out of Africa,” 1986’s “Platoon,” 1987’s “The Last Emperor,” 1988’s “Rain Man” and 1989’s “Driving Miss Daisy.”

1990’s “Dances with Wolves” continued the pattern when it danced away with the most distinguished honor. One notable exception to the rule occurred in 1991, when the cannibal-centric “The Silence of the Lambs” devoured the competition. With seven nominations, it lagged behind both “Bugsy” with 10 and “JFK” with eight. Even the coolly received “The Prince of Tides” came in with seven. I foolishly predicted “Bugsy” based on its double-digit bids and its Golden Globe victory (not to mention the grisly nature of “Silence.”) Indeed, I felt like a lamb in the slaughterhouse when “Silence” swept the big five. (No fava beans and Chianti for me that night.)

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It was then show business awards history as usual the rest of those gay Nineties. 1992’s “Unforgiven,” 1993’s “Schindler’s List,” 1994’s “Forrest Gump,” 1995’s “Braveheart,” 1996’s “The English Patient,” 1997’s “Titanic,” 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love” and 1999’s “American Beauty” all saw Oscar beauty after leading in total nominations.

However, there has been a titanic shift in recent years. Since 2011, only once has the film with (or tied with) the most nods nabbed the top trophy. (That was when 2014’s “Birdman” flew off with the Academy Award.) Other champions — 2011’s “The Artist,” 2012’s “Argo,” 2013’s “12 Years a Slave,” 2015’s “Spotlight” and last year’s “Moonlight” — all triumphed despite being behind in the nominations tally. The victories by “Spotlight” and “Moonlight” are especially noteworthy. The former had six bids compared to 12 for “The Revenant,” and still managed to prevail. Similarly, the latter had eight compared to a record-tying 14 for frontrunner “La La Land.” I argued against “Spotlight” and underestimated “Moonlight” due to their nomination deficits. But now I see the light.

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The reintroduction of the preferential ballot in 2009 explains this profound change in the Best Picture dynamics. It isn’t necessarily the film with the most number one votes that prevails; it’s the film with the most overall high-ranking votes. It’s conceivable that under the former single-vote system, “Avatar” could have hurt “The Hurt Locker,” “Lincoln” could have been inaugurated instead of “Argo,” and “Gravity” could have pulled down “12 Years a Slave.”

So how does that rule change impact this year’s race? It’s good news for smaller films expected to receive lower nomination totals. “Lady Bird”  could soar. “Get Out” could get it. “Call Me By Your Name” could be Oscar-bound.

Or maybe the old rule kicks back in. “The Post” or “Dunkirk” could deliver. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” could score across the board. “The Shape of Water” or “Darkest Hour” could sail away with the gold.

It’s shaping up to be a most fascinating Oscar race.

Be sure to make your Oscar nomination predictions so that Hollywood studio executives can see how their films are faring in our Academy Awards odds. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before nominees are announced on January 23.

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