Essays · Movies

How ‘The Shape of Water’ Won Best Picture

The Academy’s preferential ballot voting system landed Guillermo del Toro’s fish-man romance the top prize of the night.
Shape Of Water Best Picture
By  · Published on March 6th, 2018

For the longest time, this year’s Academy Awards seemed like a wide-open race. Predictions early on bounced back and forth between Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water, but as we geared up to the big night, hope began to spring for outsiders like Lady Bird and Get Out, as well as the once upon a time safe-bet of Dunkirk. The only thing that was certain was that Call Me By Your Name, Darkest HourPhantom Thread, and The Post should all just be happy they were nominated.

Right from its debut at the Venice Film Festival and its impressive acquisition of the Golden Lion, The Shape of Water personally shocked me with its mainstream acceptance. Guillermo del Toro used to be one of these fringe directors who appealed to likeminded weirdos with a passion for monsters over humans but confused the old guard with his clockwork kinks and sympathetic horrors. The Shape of Water doubled down on its monster love asking you to believe in the romance between a mute woman and a very animalistic fish man.

Del Toro was probably just as surprised as I was by the adulation building around his 10th film. He has always been a director admired by the fan community, and despite some positive award response for his Spanish language pictures, old Hollywood simply had no interest in geek heavy genre ventures like Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak. As The Shape of Water started to collect awards (the Producer Guild victory led to the Directors Guild win) its chances of Best Picture seemed more assured.

With the gold in sight, del Toro hit the awards circuit hard. Not only did he appear at one Q&A screening after the other, pushing The Shape Of Water into a flood of advanced engagements, but he made himself available to anyone who wanted to talk. The director is famous for his infectious enthusiasm, and once he got in on that Academy luncheon, he was going to win over any doubtful voters through his sheer love of cinema.

The Shape of Water was not only about the fish-man romance. It was a tremendous technical achievement as well. Earning those crucial award nominations in Best Cinematography, Costume Deign, Film Editing, Production Design, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing proved that all the branches of the Academy were paying attention. The Shape of Water was going to land high on a lot of craft voter’s ballots.

Since the nomination announcement, del Toro seemed like a shoe-in for the Best Director win, and when he was awarded the DGA, he became a lock in that category. However, in the last couple of years, the Best Director winner and the Best Picture winner have not aligned. In actuality, since the Academy reinstated the preferential ballot in 2009, only four other films have won both categories.

Overthinking the preferential ballot system is what lost me my own Oscars pool. This method of voting was originally instituted between the years 1934 and 1945 when the Best Picture category was frequently packed with 10 nominations. When The Academy reduced that number down to five, the preferential ballot went away, and the majority votes named the victor.

When The Dark Knight failed to be nominated as Best Picture in 2008, a mini public outcry bemoaned the Academy for not including populist entertainment. Opening up the possibility for 10 nominations in Best Picture saw films like Avatar, District 9, and Up gain access, but the box office titans haven’t really returned since the old rule was made new again. In fact, with a $57.4 million domestic haul, The Shape of Water is the top-grossing Best Picture winner of the last five years (Argo being the previous box office hit).

So, while wins in the regular categories of Best Director and Best Actress equal the majority vote from the Academy, that’s not the case with Best Picture. In that top category, voters are told to rank the nominated movies from favorite to least favorite. The accountants over at PricewaterhouseCoopers then eliminate the film with the fewest first-place votes, and actually give those votes to each ballot’s second-ranked film. This process continues with each least-voted film being eliminated and the votes redistributing to the next rank down until one film has more than 50% of the vote. Got it? No. It’s confusing.

Thankfully, the good folks over at Gold Derby have a handy video to help explain it all with a little visual flourish.

So, del Toro didn’t need to get every Academy voter to fall in love with his film or even the majority. The Shape of Water just needed to come out at 50.1% after everyone’s least favorite films were eliminated. The film achieved this probably by being the majority’s number two or three favorite film instead of their number one film.

Loosing your mind to this process is how Vanity Fair contributor Daniel Joyaux was convinced that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk would win the night. Analyzing all the various award shows leading up to the Oscars, and attempting to determine what film falls at the second place on most voter’s ballots. After Get Out took the Independent Spirit Award the night before, I was convinced that Jordan Peele’s film was the movie sitting pretty in the number two spot, and I put all my hard earned cash behind my own favorite film of the year. After all, the winner of the Independent Spirit Award has matched the last fours years of Best Pictures. Oh well, another stat broken.

At the end of the night, del Toro is a much loved filmmaker who has been gathering many fans inside and outside of Hollywood since Cronos screamed his vision onto the scene. As with James Ivory, Roger Deakins, and even Gary Oldman, the 90th Academy Awards had a sense of paying off creatives who have been toiling away unrecognized for far too long. I thought del Toro was doomed to a life of Hitchcock. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

With a stacked category of good to great films, The Shape of Water was the one that won because the majority agreed that it was the best, or the second best, or the third best.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)