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Monday, December 16, 2013
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Best Original Score Winners in the 21st Century: Do they Influence The Best Picture Race?

By Mark Pinkert

When I began research for this post, I assumed there would be a noticeable correlation between Academy Award Best Picture winners and Best Original Score winners. A safe assumption, I thought, because of how important music is to cinema (have you ever watched a scene before music was added?). Music provides emotional thrust to a film. It creates suspense, amplifies poignant moments, and brings settings to life. Additionally, music can shape our memory of a given film. How many iconic movies—The Godfather (1972), Star Wars (1977), Jaws (1975), Psycho (1960)—have themes that we automatically recall as soon as the movie’s title comes up?

Yet in the thirteen Academy Awards since and including 2000, only three Best Picture winners also took home Best Original Score and of the eighty-five films that were nominated for Best Picture in this time period, only about one third of them were even nominated for Best Original Score.

One explanation for this disparity is that some Best Picture nominees are not even eligible for Original Score. Because the Academy deems a film eligible only if its “score is a substantial body of music that serves as original dramatic underscoring and is written specifically for the motion picture by the submitting composer,” films such as Chicago (2002) or There Will Be Blood (2007) are ineligible. First of all, the music is not technically original in either film: though the composers John Kaner and Fred Ebb did write the music for Chicago, they initially composed it for the 1976 musical, and much of Jonny Greenwood‘s score for There Will Be Blood came from pre-recorded tracks. Chicago would not have been eligible regardless because it is a musical. Musicals are ineligible because characters perform the songs, which therefore do not “underscore” the film.

There is also the instance of No Country for Old Men (2007), which won Best Picture, but barely has any music at all. (There is some music, composed by Joel and Ethan Coen‘s longtime collaborator, Carter Burwell, but most of it is played during the ending credits). This palpable silence is, in itself, inventive and eerily minimalist, but still not worthy of Best Original Score.

Another, perhaps better, explanation for the absence of Best Picture/Best Score overlaps is the makeup of the voting Academy. Only the music branch of the Academy can vote for music categories (including, of course, Best Original Score), but this branch is a minuscule 3.9% of the entire Academy voting body. There are only 240 music votes and a total of 6,028 active voting members; therefore, a less than impressive score won’t necessarily hurt a film’s Best Picture chances, especially the film excels in other categories.

Because the Academy allows studios to send CDs of eligible scores to the music branch (see rule 9 in the Academy’s “Promotional Regulations”), many music voters listen to scores as separate entities–probably on their iPods without the movie playing. As such, they likely have different criteria for judging musical scores than would the general Academy populace, which can only hear the scores in the context of the movies. The Academy does specify that a criterion for Best Score must be its “effectiveness, craftsmanship, creative substance and relevance to the dramatic whole,” but if music voters are listening to the music separately, they probably have distinct, non-cinematic music criteria in mind. For instance, music voters have in the past been swayed by originality. In 2010 Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor‘s score for The Social Network beat out Hans Zimmer‘s score for Inception, even though the latter was an orchestral tour de force, much more complex and masterful than its competitor. Ross and Reznor’s score was well-executed, but seemed to have gotten an extra edge for being unorthodox and mostly electronic.

2010 is another example in which an inventive, award-winning score (for The Social Network) could not tip the scales in a close Best Picture race. That year, The Kings Speech–a universally great film, but one perhaps more appealing to the older bulk of the Academy–beat out the modernistic Social Network. It would interesting to see what percentage of voters in the music branch voted for either film that year. I would bet there was a large distinction, in percentage of total votes, between how the Academy as a whole voted and how the music branch voted.

Could music tip the scales this year? It’s very difficult to say, but we can be sure that several competitive Best Picture films are officially not eligible for Best Score. Last week, the Academy released its list of 114 scores in contention for the 86th Oscars and notable omissions included Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, August: Osage County and Lone Survivor. Two scores in the Oscar race that will elicit attention are Hans Zimmer’s score for 12 Years a Slave and John Williams‘ score for The Book Thief. Zimmer’s score on the 12 Years soundtrack is complemented by a number of songs written and performed by famous musicians, like John Legend, Gary Clark Jr., and Alicia Keys, which will likely give it a notable boost in voting. John William’s score will receive extra attention from voters because it is the first time in eight years that he worked with a director not named Steven Spielberg. If one of these two films take home Best Picture, we can conclude that music was at least an important factor; if Llewyn Davis takes home Best Picture, we can again attribute the Best Picture/Best Score disconnect to eligibility rules; and if a film like Gravity wins, then acting, directing, and cinematography will have proved to be the larger determinants. Still in this ten-film Oscar race, with a massive variety of variables, a number of social issues at hand, and a hoard of great performances, I think it’s safe to say that music will get lost in the shuffle.


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  • Johnson

    When it comes to Best Picture, music has rarely played a major role.