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John Scalzi – Five Ways a SciFi Movie Could Win Best Picture

Hey! It’s Halloween on Saturday! So naturally this is going to be a science fiction-related Halloween column, right? Wrong! Yes, Halloween, love it, mmmm, candy, etc. But, you know, I just don’t feel like writing one of those. You want a scary science fiction movie? Fine: Alien. We’re done. Go and have a spooklicious Saturday.

What I really want to talk about this week are the Oscars, which I talked about briefly a couple of weeks ago when I said I think the chances are low for a scifi movie to make it on an Oscar ballot. It’s difficult to get one nominated in the best of years, and even with the Best Picture slate doubling, this hasn’t been the best of years for science fiction. But thinking about getting scifi on the ballot made me think of the next step: winning the Best Picture award. What would it actually take for a science fiction flick to win it all?

Well, a lot. I don’t think it’s any secret there’s an Academy bias against scifi. This is not an open hostility (which wouldn’t make sense considering how well the genre performs for studios and how many people a typical effects-laden scifi flick employs) but an assumption that science fiction, like fantasies, action movies and comedies, are “light” entertainments as opposed to dramas, historical epics and other such serious work. Any of the movies in the “light” categories have to work extra hard to even get on the Best Picture ballot, so taking home the big prize requires Herculean effort.

Fortunately, there is one closely-related model that gives an indication of what it might actually take for a science fictional Best Picture: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which took home the award in 2003. Fantasy, like scifi, is a genre that rarely climbed up into the Best Picture nomination slate. So what can scifi learn from the King?

1. Be Huge
And by huge I don’t just mean “epic” — although having an epic scope couldn’t hurt. No, I mean be a physically massive undertaking. The Lord of the Rings movies employed thousands of professionals for years across a range of Oscar categories. The Academy isn’t just made up of big stars and directors; it has sound people and cinematographers and set and costume designers and effects people and so on, who will see a big movie as a vote of confidence in the industry. Is this something that will actually get a nomination? Possibly not, but once it’s on the ballot I think it could be part of the background thought processes of those folks when it comes to voting.

2. Be Unspeakably Financially Successful
Science fiction already knew this from Star Wars and E.T., both of which got onto the Best Picture ballot in no small part because they were simply too financially successful to ignore. King reconfirmed it by being the number one box office draw of 2003 and being the number two most successful movie worldwide (unadjusted for inflation) after Titanic. The whole LoTR series banked just under $3 billion worldwide, which didn’t hurt, either.

3. Do Everything Right
It wasn’t a huge surprise King and the other LoTR movies looked great — they had spent enough money on them, after all. What was a surprise to many was that the movies were also very well written, very well-acted, and had an emotional resonance that caught lots of critics (and Academy voters) off-guard. King fired on all cylinders, not just in the technical categories where such things are expected of effects-laden flicks.

4. Have the Genre Prove Itself
King did its own heavy-lifting in this category by having its two predecessors nominated for Best Picture as well. This isn’t something you can plan for, quite obviously (and if you do plan for it as a producer, man, are you egotistical), but what you can hope is that in the few years running up to your movie’s release, there are some highly regarded and successful scifi movies nominated in non-technical Oscar categories. It reminds the Academy voters that they are allowed to nominate “outside the box.”

5. Be in a Weak Best Picture Slate
No offense to the other 2003 Best Picture nominees, but none of them were actual competition to the King juggernaut; the closest was Mystic River, but no one expected it to pull off the upset. Essentially, the road was clear for King to rule. As with the above point, this is not one that the filmmakers have any control over — it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

So that’s what I think it will take for science fiction to finally win. Your thoughts?

Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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