the way to MoonlightThe Best Picture win at the Oscars may have been strange and shocking, but by ousting the long-awaited favorite la la country, Barry Jenkins’ film marked several milestones. It is the lowest-budget film to win the award since Delbert Mann. marty in 1955; if adjusted for inflation, it is the lowest ever. It is the first film centered on an LGBTQ character to be named Best Picture, and the first to be cast entirely by people of color. Other than that, it’s amazing that Moonlight defeat la la country simply because the latter seemed like a movie aimed at Academy voters: a well-done original musical about the art and dreams of Hollywood, shot through with nostalgia for the industry’s Golden Age.
But maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising that Moonlight took Best Picture. It’s a stunning movie, but also in some ways one that fits the mold the Academy has gravitated towards in recent years. For decades, it was highly unusual for the film with the most awards of the night to lose the Best Picture race. But in recent years, that’s been the norm. For decades, divisions between Best Picture and Best Director (as happened at last night’s Oscars) were a relative rarity; in the last 20 years, it has happened 8 times. Moonlight it’s a unique film, and one that tells the kind of story that the Academy Awards have largely ignored throughout its history, but it’s also the kind of smaller, more intimate story that voters have come to appreciate.
Moonlight it won three Academy Awards this year: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali) and Best Adapted Screenplay for Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney. Last year’s Best Picture winner stand out took only two trophies, and in 2015, bird man won four. The year before that 12 years a slave won three, just like argon in 2013. In all cases, there was another, more opulent production that won at least as many trophies, if not more: the revenant, The Grand Budapest Hotel, gravityand The life of Pirespectively (with all but budapest winning Best Director but not Best Picture). la la country seems to belong to this new norm of ticket division, where voters score a bunch of technical wins for the dazzling favorite, but give Best Picture to the smaller, critically acclaimed production.
Again, this is not to discount MoonlightThe triumph that changes the game. Although movies like stand out other bird man they were independent works, were made on a much larger budget, and were distributed by more established independent wings of the major studios (MoonlightA24’s distributor was a company founded only five years ago who has quickly become one of the most respected names in American arthouse cinema). Still, only one major studio has won Best Picture in the past decade: Warner Bros. (for argon other The dead people). As the major Hollywood production companies have moved away from prestige films to focus more on big blockbuster franchises, the Best Picture nominations list is filled mostly with independent and “midsize” companies (with the service streaming company Amazon making its own breakthrough this year to manchester by the sea).
If things had already been moving in this direction, then Moonlight it could be the start of an even bigger sea change. Of the nine Best Picture nominees this year, it is the lowest-grossing (having grossed $22 million in the four months since its release, behind the next lowest Against all odds with $27 million). The Oscars used to have a certain reverence for perfectly well-reviewed movies that broke out in a major way. It’s how consensus elections like An amazing mind, gladiator, brave heart, other Forrest Gump took the award for most acclaimed films. la la country it fits well into that mold, but that mold may have been broken.
help that Moonlight it was heralded universally, garnering the kind of rave reviews from critics that happen once in a generation, rather than once a year. It was also a beautifully made film on every level, drawing support from a broader swath of Academy branches (it was nominated for its music, cinematography, and editing along with the expected writing, acting, and directing nominations). That’s crucial to winning Best Picture, because people from every branch of the Academy get to vote for the winners, and it’s what had prevented smaller, less technically impressive independent films from winning in the past. Perhaps next year the trophy will go to some great epic that is a hit at the box office, like Christopher Nolan’s. Dunkirk, and this recent pattern will change. Either way, MoonlightThe victory of is shocking enough to be remembered forever. The thing to watch now is whether this is a magical Oscars anomaly or a sign of profound change for the Academy.