This is the big one, the prize they’re all aiming for. After extensive analysis we’ve come up with a few handy guidelines for you.
1. Don’t sweat the whole brevity thing
Best Picture nominees and, especially, winners tend to be lengthier than your average film. Gone With The Wind, Ben Hur and Lawrence of Arabia all tip the 3-and-a-half hour mark if you include intermissions; Return of the King is just under it at 3 hours, 21. The shortest Best Picture winner, Marty, was only 91 minutes, but that’s very much the exception that proves the rule. A minimum running time of 2 hours is a good rule of thumb.
2. Don’t be animated
Three animated films have been nominated for Best Picture in the award’s entire history: Beauty and the Beast, Up and Toy Story 3. At the time of writing, none had won. It’s also probably significant that the latter two were nominated only after the number of Best Picture nominees was expanded to ten: they might not have made a list of five, despite their self-evident greatness. If you’re animated, go off and get comfortable in the Best Animated Picture
ghetto category, because there looks to be little chance you’ll escape it.
3. Think Epic – But Emphasise Acting
The single biggest voting block at the Oscars is comprised of actors, so you can generally count on a film with impressive performances beating the one with great effects. Hence The Hurt Locker beating Avatar, for example. It’s possible to win Best Picture without having Acting nominations – see Slumdog Millionaire or Return of the King for instance – but you still need to have a really quality ensemble in there.
4. Make a crime drama or a socially-important literary adaptation
It is no longer the 1950s, so don’t make a musical. Don’t even think about sci-fi or even fantasy (only one has ever won, and that was Return of the King). One arguable-horror has won, and that was The Silence of the Lambs, so best cut out the scares too. Even biopics are no longer a sure-fit winner: the last to take the big prize was A Beautiful Mind a decade ago. Don’t do a remake either: The Departed is the sole ever remake winner. So crime dramas, original (but weighty) dramas or literary adaptations are the way to go. Beware those Pulitzer Prize adaptations, however: only two have ever won. Sequels rarely win too, so don’t focus your efforts there.
5. Don’t be foreign
The Academy only considers English language films for its Outstanding Picture winners. If your native language happens to be something else, take your nomination, or your Best Foreign Film prize, and consider yourself lucky.
6. Don’t have a female director
Only one film directed by a woman has ever won this prize: that was The Hurt Locker last year. You probably shouldn’t really focus your story on a woman either. The last female-focused film to win was Chicago (Million Dollar Baby was seen from Eastwood’s character’s point of view, not Swank’s) and the winners before that are few and far between. At the very least, you’ll want a really major male star as co-lead. It’s fine to have an all-male or almost-all-male cast though.
7. Watch the rating!
Careful of that nudity and violence there, sailor! On the other hand, make sure you have a little of each. Best Picture winners these days are either PG-13 or R-rated. The last PG (or lower) winner was Driving Miss Daisy in 1989; obviously NC-17s don’t get a look-in because nowhere in the US will screen them. So pepper in a few swear-words and maybe some boobs to increase your chances.