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‘Moonlight,’ 'Spotlight’ and the shadow of a new best-picture era

‘Moonlight,’ 'Spotlight’ and the shadow of a new best-picture era
A scene from best-picture winner "Moonlight." (A24)

The Oscars' best-picture winners tend to come in waves, sometimes in keeping with the culture but certainly in tune with trends in the movie industry. Its denizens, after all, are the ones who vote for them.

The early 1970s saw "The French Connection," "The Sting" and two "Godfather" movies win over a four-year period. Those are the kinds of finely tuned, character-driven genre films that marked the era, and they were rewarded by Oscar voters at the time.

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Then there was the upscale commercialism — call it art-house-lite — of the late 1990s and early 2000s. These were the movies most epitomized by Miramax — "The English Patient," "Chicago," "Shakespeare in Love" and "American Beauty." OK, the last one isn't actually a Miramax film. It's an honorary one, though.

A similarly distinct chapter seems to be upon us now. We already appeared to be there in the wake of last year's Oscars. But after the surprising events of this past Sunday, with "Moonlight" shocking front-runner "La La Land," we're really in the thick of it: an era in which small, gritty dramas with a certain conviction of purpose almost always seem to prevail.

The past four best pictures have been, in order, "12 Years a Slave," "Birdman," "Spotlight" and "Moonlight." These winners have more than a few elements in common. All deal with difficult subjects. All are very much the result of the singular vision of a director; swap in another and they look almost entirely different. And none (this is very much a product of the first point) cost much more than $20 million to make.

"Challenging" movies, in Hollywood parlance. Or just indie movies, even though technically that's true for only some of them. (Indeed, two of the four come from Brad Pitt's production company, which speaks volumes about how far ahead of this trend he's been.)

In nearly any other Oscar era, just one of the above four movies winning would be a triumph. Heck, if you go back a few decades, even getting one of these movies nominated would have been a huge victory. And now we have a four-year streak in which those films have all won, and almost always defeating a movie with far more resources and commercial appeal — your "Gravitys," your "Revenants" your "La La Lands." The lone exception was the year of "Birdman" — that season there were actually two small movies at the finish line, with "Boyhood" also right there. It's clearly a sea change.

Here's the most telling stat: In the first quarter-century of the Film Independent Spirit Awards, that ceremony's best movie won Oscar's best picture just once. In the past six years, it's happened five times.

In explaining this shift, you could talk about a lot of factors: the fact that studios these days tend to go for hyper-commercial, globally appealing, effects-driven franchises that don't tend to win awards, for instance, leaving the field open for these sorts of smaller pictures.

You could talk about a Motion Picture Academy of shifting demographics, which is why best-picture winners tend to be more socially aware now, filled with people of color, dealing with issues of race and sexual politics. Even "Birdman," the player in the quartet that least fits this definition, was made by a Mexican-born director and confronted issues of white privilege and identity.

You could even talk about the generation that grew up in the salad days of independent film — those who were in college when Tarantino and Soderbergh and various Andersons (Wes and Paul Thomas) were making their mark a couple decades back — now having a larger foothold in Hollywood.

But the biggest factor may be how the academy chooses best pictures — using a system called preferential voting, or ranked voting. That system, it turns out, is very kind to small, gritty movies.

First, some quick math. Before 2010, when the academy just had five best-picture nominees, it used a straight up-and-down vote, as it does for all other major categories. But when it expanded to 10 (later changed to be a variable number that went up to 10), it also switched to preferential voting.

In essence, it works like this: Voters rank their best pictures from 1 to 8 or 9 (however many nominees there are that year). Votes are then counted through a series of staged runoffs: Each ballot is placed in a pile according to which film is ranked first.

But that's only when the fun starts.

If one stack doesn't nab 50% of the total votes (this almost never happens), the shortest stack is thrown out and its ballots redistributed to the pile of those ballots' second choices. If the 50% threshold isn't reached for any stack after this process (again, rare), tabulators go to the next shortest stack and do it again — going to the second choice and, if that's already been discarded, to the third, and redistributing it there. And so on, until one stack reaches 50% and is declared the winner. (This post explains it well.)

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There are various theories about the effect this has, but almost all experts agree that under this system you're better off being liked by many than loved by a few — or, in numerical terms, you're nearly always better off being everybody's second favorite and getting no top votes than being No. 1 with, say, a third of the voters and the middle of the pack with everyone else.

The reason is simple: By the time you're working your way down to the third or fourth choice in the short stacks, one pile almost certainly gets to 50%.

This is a major shift from when the race was about just five best-picture candidates and a straight up-or-down vote. Then, if you were a producer with a movie that snagged a third of people's choices, you'd have a pretty good chance of winning, since the other four nominees would be left to split the remaining 66%, and what single movie was going to get more than half that? But with ranked voting, you can neutralize a solid amount of No. 1 votes with a plethora of No. 2 and No. 3 votes.

That's why smaller gems do so well in this system. Because you don't need to be a lot of people's favorite — you don't need to be a juggernaut. You just have to be sure you're close enough with a wide swath of people to neutralize the favorite's advantage.

Put another way, you don't want to be the broader, more front-runnery movie, with all the divisiveness that often entails. You want to be the smaller movie that almost everyone has fondness for. They may not put you No. 1, but they sure as heck will put you No. 2. And that's enough.

You'd rather be "Moonlight" or "Spotlight," in other words, than "La La" or "Revenant."

It's why, in 2010, the first year of the system, one of the smallest, grittiest movies ever to win best picture, "The Hurt Locker," took the prize — defeating the behemoth that was "Avatar."

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There were a few years when things reverted, in large part because those smaller, widely liked films weren't much in competition. But in 2014 this trend asserted itself with a vengeance. In a pretty clear two-way heat between "12 Years" and "Gravity" — essentially that season's version of "Hurt Locker" and "Avatar" — the smaller, grittier film won. In the last two years, it's happened again.

(It is, of course, no guarantee that a smaller film won't be divisive, and a big commercial movie can build consensus. Generally, though, smaller films, more serious films, less 800-pound gorilla films, tend to garner more goodwill, and thus more No. 2 and No. 3 votes, than the bigger-budgeted, lighter-minded commercial beasts, which tend to generate a decent-sized Oscar backlash.)

Let's look more specifically at how that plausibly played out this year. We'll never know for sure, of course — not unless the Pricewaterhouse gatekeepers start tweeting a lot more selfies — but this is a reasonable scenario.

At more than $300 million globally, "La La" was clearly a favorite. But it wasn't everyone's favorite. Were the academy folks who weren't putting it first putting it second? I've talked to a lot of voters in the past few weeks, and if they didn't like "La La" — whether because it was a juggernaut or it was too light, or for whatever reason they didn't like it — they weren't putting it No. 2. They were very likely dropping it down to 6, or 7, or 8. A movie is almost never getting counted on those ballots.

Alternately, I talked to a lot of voters about "Moonlight." Plenty didn't put it at No. 1. But so, so many of them put it at No. 2. A bunch more put it at No. 3. No one I talked to was putting it lower than four. Literally, no one. There was simply too much good feeling for this small, intimate indie. That means its stack kept growing. It also means it actually may well have scored best picture (again, we'll never know for sure) even though it had fewer No. 1 votes than "La La Land."

And, of course, the system perpetuates itself. The more of these smaller, hard-nosed films win, the more get made. (The luckiest person in town Monday morning was the producer trying to get funding for a tender and subtle drama.) And the more that get made, the deeper the pool; the deeper the pool, the more likely they are to win best picture in future years.

It remains to be seen where this goes. Some Oscar eras manage to endure. The Miramax/Harvey Weinstein era lasted a long time — and then recurred again nearly a decade later with "The King's Speech" and "The Artist." Other patterns are blips. Eras change; trends fade.It's hard to know where the "Spotlight"/"Moonlight" period will take us.

But this much is known. After the last couple years, it makes sense to follow the light. Or at least the smaller, handmade auteur movies into it.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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