You’ve written an outstanding American period drama based on a poignant true story that serves as a stark commentary on current social issues, and I bet you’re pretty darn proud of yourself, aren’t you? Well you can wipe that smirk off your face, because you have only just begun your long and painful journey to the Dolby Theatre. In order to turn your script into an actual film you need actual people to make it, and if you want to win an Oscar it is imperative to pick the right cast and crew.
PART II: CAST & CREW
To illustrate my first point I draw your attention to this LA Times article from February 2012 (just before the last awards). The Academy do not publish membership statistics so this is the most thorough and recent breakdown of its kind that you will find. You can see that roughly 20% of the 6,000 voting members are actors. What this suggests, and as history supports, the films that tend to win Best Picture are those with strong acting. This is due to how the nominations work.
For each category the respective branch select the nominees, so directors nominate directors, editors nominate editors and so on, and only the final ballots are voted on by all active members. However, Best Picture nominees are voted by all, therefore weighting judgement towards the preference of actors. Contrary to this, Best Picture winners more often win Best Director than acting awards. Sixteen of the past twenty Best Pictures also won Best Director, whereas only twelve won any of the four acting awards. So if you want to win an Oscar you need the right director.
You might think Spielberg would be the ideal choice with thirteen nominations and an honorary award over thirty four years. But seven of those were for Best Picture, only six for Best Director, and his relationship with the Academy over the years has been turbulent, often being nominated for either directing or producing and not the other. He will almost certainly be nominated in both categories for Lincoln, but the current favourite for directing this year is Ben Affleck. The Oscar-winning writer of Good Will Hunting has many factors in his favour, but most importantly a string of prominent films without a single other nomination makes him due a nod. And Argo is a strong film, though Les Miserables is current favourite for Best Picture.
This brings us to Tom Hooper, who won Best Director just two years ago with his last film The King’s Speech and now he’s back with a big, bold musical. He has momentum, he will get nominated, and he could sneak the win except the Academy do love an underdog and it may just be too soon for a second. Spielberg probably has a greater chance on the basis that he hasn’t won the award since 1999 (Saving Private Ryan, if you’re asking). Another hopeful this year is Ang Lee, who won the award in 2006 for Brokeback Mountain, but he may well end up on the campaign fringes with The Master’s Paul Thomas Anderson. The last seven Best Directors have all been first time winners, and the last four were all first time nominees. So if you want to win an Oscar, hire a Hollywood director with a profitable but artistically credible back catalogue and strong Academy ties, preferably no previous nominations. You need Michel Gondry – Oscar-winning writer for Eternal Sunshine, no other nominations, commercially successful and critically acclaimed, good connections, and one strong film away from Oscar glory.
Your cast is still mighty important, for the reasons above. A character-driven narrative built around an ensemble cast and full of strong performances should at least get you nominated for Best Picture and one or two acting awards, even if you don’t win all of them. Now when it comes to Oscar-winning actors/actresses there are two golden rules:
- The Academy loves versatility.
- The Academy hates comedy.
Your ideal cast will be those who are rising up the Quigley’s Top Ten list by working on several varied but high-profile roles. Comedy films and comedy actors in comedic roles do not get nominated. Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids is the exception. The leading character must be a seasoned Hollywood performer in their prime, while the supporting cast should balance youth with experience. And once again, if they have had previously unsuccessful nominations they could get a sympathy/lifetime achievement vote – Joaquin Phoenix has two previous nominations and is one of the Leading Actor contenders this year along with Hugh Jackman and Bradley Cooper, though two-time winner Daniel Day-Lewis is currently favourite. Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, and Marion Cotillard are the three Leading Actress favourites at the moment. The supporting categories are very strong, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anne Hathaway, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, Robert De Niro, and Leonardo DiCaprio all potential nominees.
Here’s one thing you need to know about the acting Oscars – voters decide which category to nominate someone for, so it is very important that you promote your cast in the right way during the campaign, but more on that in a few weeks. There are many complexities that influence acting categories that I cannot cover with you, but if you want to win an Oscar you must have a cast that are making other movies, your leading character should be in their prime, while the supporting cast should integrate the rising star with the veteran. And remember, pick a few who can win the sympathy vote – look at Sandra Bullock in 2010 or Morgan Freeman in 2005.
So if you really want to win an Oscar, you need Michel Gondry to direct Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Amy Adams with Richard Gere, Frances McDormand, Whoopi Goldberg, and Chris O’Dowd in your American period drama based on a true story. Don’t worry, Hollywood agents are notoriously affable.