On Sunday night, “Birdman“ took home the top prizes at the Oscars, winning Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture, marking the third time in four years that a film about show business won Best Picture.
“Birdman” stars Michael Keaton as a washed-up movie star whose career tanked after he turned down the fourth installment of a superhero franchise. Later he tried to get back in the limelight with a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. This mirrored Keaton’s own gradual descent into obscurity after he refused to play Batman for the third time in the 1990s.
In 2012, the award went to “The Artist,” a silent black-and-white film about the comeback of a silent film star who had a career hiccup during the industry’s transition to “the talkies” in the 1920s. In 2013, Best Picture went to Argo, a panegyric to Hollywood’s role in smuggling six U.S. diplomats out of Iran during the hostage crisis in 1980.
From “All About Eve” to “Cabaret,” Hollywood’s long tradition of paying tributes to itself has often been fruitful, but the last few years have seen an unusual number of accolades for movies about movies. It’s not impossible that the members of the academy have become more prone to navel-gazing, but a more likely culprit is the reform in the voting system that paved the way for self-mythologizing works.
Since 2010, the academy introduced an instant-runoff voting system for the Best Picture award, a well meaning reform that incidentally made it much easier for films like Birdman to win.
In an instant-runoff system, voters give their choices for Best Picture to all the nominations. If no film receives a majority of the first-choice votes, the film with the least first-choice votes “drops” from the ballot, and the remaining works compete in an “instant” runoff round. The second-choice votes of those who voted for the dropped film gets added as first-choice votes in the second round, and the process continues in successive rounds until a film receives the majority of the first-choice votes.
The system ends up favoring middle-of-the-road endeavors that pander to the lowest common denominator of the academy’s voters rather than polarizing works. A great movie that received the most first-choice votes could be beaten out in later rounds as competitors rack up the second-choice votes from the eliminated films. This process is intrinsically biased toward films that explore the tragedies and triumphs of those working in the entertainment industry because the subject matter is one that has immediate poignancy for most of the people voting in the Oscars.
The voting structure’s bias toward movies about movies is only amplified by the accompanying change of putting 10 nominees instead of 5 in the Best Picture category, which further splits the votes for the first-choice in the first round of voting, giving ample time for a film to win by virtue of it gathering most of the second-choice votes.
Of course, because the Oscars doesn’t disclose the voting results, it’s impossible to know whether the runoff structure was responsible for “Birdman’s” victory. The movie had received a great deal of adulation in the run-up to the awards and was the favorite along with “Boyhood” to win.
Still, for three once-in-a-decade events to occur in such a brief period of time demands an explanation beyond deferring to “coincidences.” The academy has proven itself willing to enshrine film after film about films, and producers will surely respond in kind by making more of them. That’s good news for the purveyor of the mise-en-abyme, and for everyone else not in the film industry, at least we live in the Golden Age of Television.