A wide variety of films have taken home the coveted Best Picture Academy Award since Wings way back in the 1920s – when it only had to defeat two other films to win. But are they really that varied? Or does the Academy just like to reward certain types of film, whether or not the public agrees? With this in mind, let’s take a look at the films that have won an Oscar for Best Picture since 2000, and play spot the trend.

In reverse chronological order, the Oscar went to…

2015Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
201412 Years a Slave
2012The Artist
2011The King’s Speech
2010The Hurt Locker
2009Slumdog Millionaire
2008No Country for Old Men
2007The Departed
2005Million Dollar Baby
2004The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
2002A Beautiful Mind
2000American Beauty
How To Win a Best Picture Oscar
Birdman, soaring above the 2015 competition.

There are some real gems on that list, but also quite a few movies that are likely to make you wonder what the Academy were thinking. But when we take a closer look at what unites this apparently eclectic film collection, it might become clear – or clearer, anyway! So with this in mind, I’ve put together some handy tips on how to win a Best Picture Oscar.

Warning: this method is not fool-proof and your film still has to be good quality! But why not give it a go yourself? All you need is some expensive equipment, a well-chosen and talented cast and crew, and money to burn…

How To Win a Best Picture Oscar
You need to struggle more, Russell!

Rule 1: Make a film about “one man’s struggle”

Look at Russell Crowe in Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind, two extremely different movies that seem to have nothing really in common except the lead actor… on the surface. But they’re both about a male protagonist struggling – whether that’s using his mathematical knowledge as a cryptographer while battling paranoid schizophrenia or fighting to survive against dangerous animals and crazed Joaquin Phoenix in an Ancient Roman arena. It’s one man’s struggle. And more recent films have been successful too by exploring the same idea. Birdman is about Michael Keaton’s washed-up actor struggling to make a comeback. The King’s Speech sees King George VI (Colin Firth) trying to overcome his speech impediment. In Slumdog Millionaire, Dev Patel’s character Jamal Malik wants to escape his impoverished background through a well-known TV show. 12 Years a Slave does what it says on the tin.
Even Million Dollar Baby is about one person’s struggle – it just happens to be a female boxer (Hilary Swank) on this occasion, but she sure is fighting – as you might expect.
The lesson? The Academy want to see a man brought low. They want to kick him while he’s down (maybe an exaggeration). And then they want you to make a Best Picture winner out of his story. It’ll help if you can get Russell Crowe to play him, but is not essential.

How To Win a Best Picture Oscar
It puts the Oscar in the basket.

Rule 2: Don’t make a “genre” film

The Academy very very rarely gives the Best Picture prize to a science-fiction or horror film. And unless you’re Lord of the Rings, fantasy films don’t get much love either. Even Peter Jackson had to wait until his third instalment to get the award for Return of the King. You wouldn’t call most of the films on the above list comedies either, unless you’ve got a particularly twisted sense of humour, although some of them do have funny elements (the witty backbiting dialogue in Birdman, the jazzy songs in Chicago, the idea of Russell Crowe as a maths genius – sorry Russell!). So if you want this award, its pure drama all the way. The Academy seem to love a bit of high-stakes thrilling action, like The Hurt Locker and No Country for Old Men. I guess they’re a bloodthirsty lot…

How To Win a Best Picture Oscar
Call your good friend Alejandro, he’ll make your film. But only in daylight hours.

Rule 3: Get a well-respected director on board

The majority of the films on our list of Best Picture winners in the 2000s were made by directors who’ve made plenty of other great movies too. So while you might want to attempt directing your own picture, it’s probably a safer bet to get your good friend Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg, or a Coen brother, to do the hard work for you. The glaring exception to the rule is the 2013 winner Argo, but who directed that? A little-known actor by the name of Ben Affleck, you say? Never heard of him. (Sorry Ben!) This is also why many of the directors’ names being bandied about for potential nominations for this year’s Oscars are familiar: people like Alejandro González Iñárritu (who won just last year for Birdman) and Danny Boyle (director of 2009’s victor Slumdog Millionaire. What can we say? The Academy knows what it likes.

How To Win a Best Picture Oscar
Almost as dramatic as beating Avatar for Best Picture

Rule 4: Beat the audience favourite

A couple of times in Oscar history, nominated films have been taken truly to the hearts of the Great Movie-going Public, only to be pipped at the post by a less popular option. It happened with Argo, which defeated Django Unchained, musical fan fave Les Misérables and Silver Linings Playbook. And most notably The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s intense war drama, beat her ex-husband James Cameron’s special effects laden behemoth Avatar back in 2010 – as well as coming out victorious against Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and my all-time top Pixar film, Up. Controversial! The Academy sometimes go for the obvious Best Picture winner, but not always, and the most popular doesn’t have to mean the best.

How To Win a Best Picture Oscar
Please sir, can I have some more… awards?

Rule 5: Win one other major award (or none)

You’d think that if you’d made the so-called “best film of the year”, you should generally be able to grab all the awards you’re nominated for in other categories too. But it seems the Academy don’t think the same way. It’s rare for a movie to sweep the boards at the Oscars – although Return of the King managed a whopping 11 awards from 11 nominations! – and far more common for the Academy to spread the love, and give a Best Picture winner one or two other major prizes (and maybe some smaller ones like Best Editing) instead. If you’ve seen James and Todd’s video on their Oscar predictions for 2016 (if not why not?), you’ll know we’re anticipating a similar situation this year, as there isn’t really a stand-out Best Picture nominee from what we’ve seen so far. Let’s have a look:

  • Birdman got 2 major awards: Best Picture and Best Director.
  • 12 Years A Slave netted 2 major awards: Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (for Lupita Nyong’o)
  • Argo‘s only major award was Best Picture.
  • The King’s Speech took home 3 major awards: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor in a Leading Role (Colin Firth)
  • The Hurt Locker won Best Director for Kathryn Bigelow as well as Best Picture.

So does this mean the acting is usually rubbish in a Best Picture winner? Not at all. The acting performances (or some of them) are often nominated but don’t win, because the Academy likes to award fantastic acting in non-Best Pictures. But unless you’re Slumdog Millionaire, don’t expect to find your trophy cabinet full by the end of Oscar night.

So there we are – all the inside info you need to get your movie to the top of the industry at the 2017 Oscars. Good luck!