What it takes to win a Oscar

All film-makers are searching for the secrets of Oscar success. But the formula is pretty straightforward, as Daniel Bettridge explains...

Daniel Bettridge
Saturday 25 February 2012 01:00 GMT

The 84th Academy Awards are almost upon us. Tomorrow night, months of suspense, debate and discussion will give way to smiles and speeches as a lucky few are chosen to etch their names on to 13.5 inch pieces of cinema history.

In all, 24 awards will be handed out during the Oscars ceremony, which will be beamed live to an audience of millions around the world from its familiar home in Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.

The showpiece of the near four-hour event will be the announcement of this year's Best Picture, chosen from a shortlist of nine nominees. It's the mantelpiece filler that all filmmakers dream about; but it's also one of the most predictable prizes in the industry. In fact, if the past few decades have taught us anything, it's that there is atried-and-tested recipe for Oscar success; a specific formula to follow in order to stake a claim for a Best Picture gong.

Or is there?...

Make a biopic

To say the Academy has a soft spot for biopics would be an understatement. It's got a full-blown gooey centre for any film about a famous face. Nothing says ''potential Oscar winner'' like a heart-warming true story, particularly if it reveals the human side of a well-known public figure. Whether that's in the form of a monarch (The Last Emperor, Elizabeth, The King's Speech), a sports star (Rocky, Chariots Of Fire, Million Dollar Baby), or a politician (All The King's Men, Milk, Frost/Nixon). All of which should have meant that The Iron Lady and Clint Eastwood's J Edgar should have been a shoo-in for the Best Picture gong. They weren't. But Moneyball's presence among the nominees still shows the Academy has a soft spot for stardust-sprinkled true stories.

Man up

Meryl Streep holds the all-time Oscars record for nominations – she landed her 17th nod this year for a turn as the titular metallic matriarch in the Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady – and she's also got the distinction of starring in no fewer than three Best Picture winning movies. But Streep's something of an exception when it comes to the showcase category. The Academy has always had its favourite faces and over the past 83 years, 126 actors have had the distinction of starring in two or more Best Picture winners. But just 10 per cent of these Oscar magnets were women. All of which means that you can exclude The Help from this year's potential winners and instead focus on Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close and The Descendants, which in Tom Hanks and George Clooney have actors who are flypaper for awards recognition.

Hire a famous and/or male director

Female directors are conspicuous by their absence in the history of the Best Picture category. In fact, if you're a woman, you might as well start practising your humble congratulatory face for the cameras now – unless of course you're Kathryn Bigelow, of The Hurt Locker fame. According to other previous winners, any Oscar-worthy Best Picture should have a man behind the camera that's as famous as those in front of it. Step forward Academy favourites Alexander Payne, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, all of whom have released Oscar bait in the form of The Descendants, Hugo and War Horse to tempt the voting members this year.

Know your audience

The exact roster of the 5,765 Academy members who'll be voting for this year's winners is a closely guarded secret. But recent research by the Los Angeles Times revealed that they are distinctly less diverse than the movie-going public they aim to represent. The study found that Oscar voters are nearly 94 per cent Caucasian and 77 per cent male, with an average age of 62, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why success at the box office rarely translates to Academy Awards.

Silence isn't necessarily golden

The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius' love letter to silent cinema, is making a big noise ahead of this year's red carpet event; the French flick, having been lauded by critics and audiences alike, is up for an impressive 10 awards. Backed by Harvey Weinstein, a master of the dark arts of Academy Award success, it's firmly among the Best Picture contenders and is even the bookies' favourite. Then again, the Academy hasn't handed the Best Picture honour to a silent film since the rise of the talkies. The last and only silent film to scoop the Best Picture gong was Wings in 1927-28; even Charlie Chaplin's masterpiece City Lights failed to make the critical cut, proving that silence isn't always golden.

Give it a snappy title

Sixty-one of the 83 Academy Awards handed out for Best Picture have been given to films with titles that are three words or less. Since the turn of the century only an errant preposition in the Cohen brothers' No Country For Old Men and the breathlessly monikered conclusion to Peter Jackson's Middle-Earth meander The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, have exceeded the three-word rule. All of which is good news for the likes of The Help, The Descendants and War Horse. But it could be a body blow to the hopes of films like Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close and Terrence Malick's The Tree Of Life; which may have scuppered their chances by adorning their boilerplates with a mouthful of unnecessary expressions.

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Make it long

It can be hard for directors to condense their Oscar-worthy, emotion-rending genius into a film that is under two hours long. Indeed, just five of the past 30 winners have come in with a running time of less than 120 minutes. That won't make pleasant reading for Midnight In Paris, which at just 94 minutes is the shortest of this year's hopefuls. It's better news for the likes of Moneyball (133 minutes), The Help (146 minutes) and Tree Of Life (139 minutes).

Spielberg's War Horse has its nose in front on this criteria, coming in just 60 seconds shy of the buttock-numbing two hours and 27 minutes that Best Picture winners have averaged over the past three decades.

Don't make 'em laugh

Comedy is perennially undervalued by the Academy when it comes to Oscars night. While the genre has received a gaggle of nominations down the years – 60 in total, peaking in the 1930s with a swathe of screwball comedies – only a handful of side-splitters has scooped the Best Picture gong. Even Stanley Kubrick's brilliant Dr Strangelove famously failed to woo the voters. In total nine comic movies have won the top prize including the likes of It Happened One Night, Going My Way and Annie Hall. The last laugh-a-minute movie to strike Oscars gold was 1999's bard-based romcom Shakespeare In Love. It doesn't look good then for Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris nor comic-drama The Descendants, which will have to fly in the face of history if they're going to win big tomorrow night.

Keep the British end up

British involvement is considered a hallmark of quality by the rest of the world, and is a sure-fire way to attract the interest of Academy members. More than half (53 per cent) of the past 30 Best Picture winners have been about, directed by or starred Brits. That will be patriotic music to the ears of Best Picture nominee War Horse, set in Devon, as well as the much-fancied Hugo, which also has a gaggle of British actors on its cast list.

Go to war

In answer to Edwin Starr's chorus, war is, in fact, good for plucking awards from the clutches of the Academy's voters, as nearly half (41) of the 83 Best Picture winners will testify. Animals are also a big favourite: Uggie in The Artist, Joey in War Horse; as are people that have to overcome a disability, social prejudice or some form of addiction as part of an uplifting moral tale. In other words, the only way that Spielberg's War Horse could be a firmer favourite for this year's Best Picture gong would be if its equine protagonist was a colour-blind mule trying to raise a family and hold down a steady job while struggling to cope with a ketamine addiction.

Make it period

If you can't make your film about Britain then at least set it some time in the past. The Academy has a habit of mistaking sepia-tinged subject matter for quality film-making. More than half of the 83 movies to have been crowned top dog at the Oscars pound have been period pieces of some sort. In recent years it has become even more predictable, with 20 of the last 30 winners being set in the past. Nominations for The Help, War Horse and The Artist, all of which delve into theannals of history, mean that this year might well be no different.

And the Oscar goes to...

So there you have it. This year's Best Picture Oscar will go to a film probably based in Britain, and almost definitely set in the past. It will take place during a time of war and the action will revolve around some kind of animal or at the very least a child. It will contain an uplifting moral tale, which a famous director will refuse to edit below the two hour and 27 minute mark. While the smart money seems to be on The Artist, Steven Spielberg should probably clear a space on his mantelpiece, just in case.

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