How Does a Film Qualify for the Best Picture Oscar?

Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences Oscar award

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Considered by nearly everyone as the most prestigious award a film can win, the Academy Award for Best Picture is awarded once a year to the film judged to be the absolute best cinematic achievement of the year.

The Academy Award for Best Picture has been presented since the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, though at the time it was known as the Academy Award for Outstanding Picture (after several changes over the first three decades, the current name has stuck since the 1962 ceremony). However, of the hundreds of films released per year, less than one dozen films will eventually be nominated for Best Picture.

Official Criteria

Like any other contest, certain rules indicate what films are eligible for Best Picture. In fact, they are the same rules that any feature-length film must adhere to in order to qualify for most Academy Awards. These rules are the film:

  • Must have a running length of more than 40 minutes
  • Have been exhibited theatrically on 35mm or 70mm film, or in a qualifying digital format
  • Must open in a commercial theater, for paid admission, in Los Angeles County between January 1 and midnight December 31, and run for seven consecutive days, at least three screenings daily (one of which needs to be between 6 PM and 10 PM)
  • Be sufficiently advertised in Los Angeles media
  • Films that receive their first public exhibition or distribution in any manner other than as a theatrical motion picture release are not eligible for Academy Awards in any category
  • Official screen credit forms and copies of the main and end title credits must have been submitted to the Academy by December 1

These rules are to ensure that the films that qualify were properly exhibited in a movie theater and did not premiere on another platform (i.e., VOD, Netflix) or were not exhibited to empty theaters in the middle of the night.

Unofficial Rules and Traditions

Also, there are some unofficial rules that may not be on the books but are long-standing traditions. For example, no documentary has ever been nominated for Best Picture, and it's safe to assume that since there is a Best Documentary Academy Award that only narrative films will ever be nominated for Best Picture. It is also rare for animated films, foreign films, sequels, and remakes to be nominated, though they aren’t officially ineligible for the award. In fact, two sequels – The Godfather Part II and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – have actually won.

Naturally, certain genres are more successful than others in the Best Picture race. Dramas, and, to a lesser degree, musicals, have dominated the Best Picture nominees and winners since the 1970s. Action, comedy, science fiction, fantasy, and superhero films are rarely nominated for Best Picture.

Voting and Number of Nominees

All of the roughly 5800 members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences can vote to nominate movies for Best Picture once Oscar nomination balloting begins.

From 1944 to 2009, five films were nominated for Best Picture per year. In 2009, the Academy announced that the nominees would be increased to ten (prior to 1944, the number of nominees fluctuated from three to twelve). While the switch was initially popular with audiences, critics of the system saw it as more of an attempt to market a larger number of films as a "Best Picture Nominee" rather than making the field more competitive, and some selections were criticized for not being strong enough nominees. In 2011, the Academy changed the rules again: five to ten films would be nominated per year, though to secure a nomination a film had to receive at least 5% of the first-place rankings on nomination ballots. Since then, typically eight or nine films per year have received enough votes to warrant a nomination.

Once nominations are announced, final ballots are sent to Academy voters. The final votes are tallied and the Best Picture winner is ready to be announced in the final minutes of the upcoming Oscars ceremony. Of course, no matter what film wins the public will no doubt argue over the choice for years to come!