This Year’s Split Between Best Picture and Best Director Could Be the Ideal Equivalent of a Tie

By  · Published on February 16th, 2014

It’s not definite that this year’s Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director will go to different movies. But it is very likely that Alfonso Cuaron is going to win the latter and that his movie, Gravity, is not going to be crowned the former. Odds in favor of Gravity for the top Academy Award are increasing of late, but I still see us having the first back-to-back split since 1953. Last year, of course, Picture went to Argo while Director went to Ang Lee (Argo’s director, Ben Affleck, wasn’t nominated for the latter). This year the film that may trump Gravity for Best Picture is itself split between two contenders, American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave.

Both of those movies won their respective Best Picture categories at the Golden Globes earlier this year. Hustle for comedy/musical and Slave for drama. Not that this means either has to follow with the Oscar (only 4 of the past 10 Oscar BPs were Globe BPs). Hustle also won the top award at the SAG Awards, that honor being for Outstanding Performance By a Cast in a Motion Picture. Not that this really means anything either (only 6 of the past 10 Oscar BPs were SAG Best Casts). Slave, meanwhile, tied for the top award at the PGA Awards – with Gravity. This is where it might mean something. The Producers Guild is currently six for six in predicting the Oscar BP, and in its history they’re 17 for 24. If they go seven for seven, though, which of the two makes it count?

This was the first tie for the PGA Award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture in a quarter of a century. And if it’s an indicator of how the Academy will go, the Oscars will also be a kind of tie. Because in a way, the Best Picture/Best Director split is a tie. It’s like saying that both The Godfather and Cabaret shared the honor of being the best of 1972 or that Argo and Life of Pi were in a draw for the favorite film of 2012. Of course, in most years one or the other movie is despised by a great deal of the cinephile population. Should we really say that Crash tied with Brokeback Mountain or that Giant tied with Around the World in 80 Days?

However, if we get Gravity for Director and Slave for Picture, that does seem like a fair deal. Two amazing films of different sorts, hardly comparable to each other. The worry, then, is that Hustle will take the final award and we’ll have another case of backlash. A lot of people do like David O. Russell’s movie, but those who think it’s bad think it’s just downright awful. Gravity and Slave both have their detractors, sure, but not nearly as many, and of those they aren’t nearly as passionately against the idea of giving it Best Picture. Also in Hustle’s favor might be that PGA tie. Perhaps the Academy votes will split enough between Gravity and Slave to allow Hustle to slip through and win.

I should address the typical complaints about a Best Picture/Best Director split, those wondering how it can be that the year’s best director isn’t the director of the best film of the year or that the best film of the year wasn’t directed by the year’s best director. That kind of questioning should have the askers really wondering why the Academy would even bother with separate awards if they should always go to the same movie. The reason is that the Academy Award for Best Picture honors the best producers of the year. At times the distinction of the best producer being equal to the best film seems like an antiquated measure going back to the early studio days. It’s worth noting that the decades with the fewest splits are when auteurism was strongest in cinema, i.e. the ’60s, ’70s and ‘90s.

Just because the Academy Award for Best Picture is supposed to be about which movie was produced the best doesn’t mean all the voters go with that concept or even understand what it means. It’s not that we don’t know what a producer does so much as we don’t know every detail of what the producers did for the end product versus what the director did. I tend to look at those Best Picture nominees where the director and maybe a star are producers (this year that’s Gravity, Slave, Her, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street) as being more equals to the Best Director nomination, in that the creative talents were also on the management team. That can fuel the confusion.

A lot of times when there is a split, the Best Picture winner is something big that had to be wrangled together by a higher power than the director. Epics like Around the World in 80 Days and Gladiator. This year we don’t have any really epic nominees among the nine Best Picture nominees. They’re all pretty small in story or limited in locations, no casts of thousands or a ton of tech elements that have to be managed outside of the actual film shoot. Even Gravity, which is the closest to a blockbuster contender is pretty tight in scope, and even Slave, Hustle, Her and WOWS with their period or futurist detail look mostly like translations of directorial visions. Therefore it’s difficult to see a producer’s hand, let alone two to five producers’ hands.

Again, that isn’t to say the producers were not very important to the nominees. Hopefully the voters have more detail on their individual involvement and work than we do. There are two names among the nominated producers that I think are worth acknowledging, at least. One is David Heyman, the only recognized producer besides Cuaron for Gravity and someone that some should want to celebrate following his decade of steering the Harry Potter franchise. Another is Film School Rejects filmmaker of the year for 2012 Megan Ellison, who was increasingly significant in 2013 and is nominated as a result for both Hustle and Her. The just-turned-28-year-old will likely continue making Oscar-worthy movies and show up in the category again, but why not give her her first statue now?

Well, the answer might be as simple as the fact that Her won’t win Best Picture and Hustle is not the movie she deserves it for. Instead, it has to be her former Killing Them Softly collaborators, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Anthony Katagas, who along with Steve McQueen and Jeremy Kleiner produced the most powerful and most flawless (yet still imperfect) Best Picture nominee of the year: 12 Years a Slave. I believe that if the split is between that and Cuaron for Best Director for his astonishing, spectacular and emotionally driven work piloting Gravity, we should have a relatively happy Oscar ceremony audience this year.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.