How to Win an Oscar

By Darius Thornton

So, you want to win an Academy Award? Maybe you’re a young up -and-coming director with nothing to your name, maybe you’re an industry veteran churning out wildly successful comic book films left and right, or maybe you’re a washed-up, one-trick pony who makes films with more explosions than character moments. Whatever the case, you want to capture that elusive golden statue. Well, get in line. You’re walking the path of many great directors that came before you and spent years honing their craft. It can take you decades, numerous projects to finally break through and impress the Academy enough to be graced with cinema’s highest honor. Alfred Hitchcock, widely considered to be one of, if not the greatest filmmaker of all time, never received an Oscar, even with his expansive body of work. But what if I told you that you didn’t have to work so hard? That after just five easy steps, you will be guaranteed to have an Oscar-worthy film on your hands. Of course, you will still have to accomplish the herculean tasks that go into actually crafting a film, but that’s the easy part, I can get you there.

Step 1: Make It a Period Piece

Never forget, the answers always lie in the past. What should your film be about? Start in the past and go from there, it really doesn’t matter. No seriously, it doesn’t. Where? When? Doesn’t matter, just not now. Anywhere but now. Why would anyone want to see anything about stuff happening now? We’re alive now: that’s dumb. There’s absolutely nothing a director can do to make the modern world interesting. Nothing. You don’t see any movies called Back to the Present, do you? Didn’t think so. The future sucks too though. Why would anyone ever speculate about something that hasn’t happened yet? What if you’re wrong and it doesn’t happen? The audience sees through it and you look like an idiot. Remember when Blade Runner said there would be flying cars in 2019? Last year was 2019, and I didn’t remember seeing any flying cars. That didn’t age too well. None of us will even live to see the future anyway, so why would the audience care? Screenwriting 101. 

If your film is set in the past, you can’t be wrong, it already happened. Just pick an event, any historical event and retell in a very straightforward and by the book fashion, with absolutely zero personality or distinction. If bio-pics or historical films aren’t your forte, just make something up, but set it in the past. As I said, it doesn’t matter where ,doesn’t matter when. Victorian England? Check. Ancient Greece? Check. Jurassic Period? Check. And then, of course, there’s the obligatory 70s and 80s nostalgia scenes. Get some bell-bottoms on screen. Some disco or dated pop, obnoxiously bright colors,  to evoke the totally not overused aesthetic. The costumes and dialect and set design just have to be on point, and you’re all set. If you feel like being really original, have a major war act as the backdrop of your film. Hollywood does not do this enough, it’s really baffling. Everyone knows mankind can only learn about itself from its distant past. The present is irrelevant. I just don’t think we’ve seen Vietnam enough on the silver screen. Bonus points to you if you use one of the World Wars, especially World War II, it’s never represented for some reason.

Step 2: Make It a Depressing Drama

Here’s the thing about the Academy and audiences as a whole ; hey crave drama, and if you want to win an Oscar, you’re going to give it to them. The drama genre will almost always be the one for you. Film buffs will tell you the genre is all about realism, realistic characters working through realistic struggles, usually painted in a more serious light. Well, grasshopper, they’re wrong. Very wrong. Drama is exactly what it sounds like. Drama. Well, that and depressing your audience. All you have to do is create a cynical, soul-crushing, and emotionally demoralizing film that makes your audience ponder their own meaningless existence. If there is an opportunity to have your characters go through something horrible, take it. You can never have enough suffering. If it escalates the tension, do it. Don’t think about it, don’t dwell on it, just do it. Be sure to include as many scenes of characters crying and in explicit emotional distress as you can. That’s the real key here: Be explicit. Subtlety gets you nowhere. In fact, your characters should just tell the audience exactly how they’re feeling at all times. No one wants to see a movie full of crying, so to spare them the waterworks, just have a character say they’re sad or upset from time to time.

If there is a golden rule on how to craft a drama, it’s to eliminate levity. If there are any moments that de-escalate the tension or provide a break to the angst your characters are feeling, get rid of them. There can be no low point in the story, no moments of humor, light-heartedness or peace. That takes away from the point. The only downtime a character should have is to somberly reflect on everything wrong with their lives and how the story will continue to ruin them next. This mood has to leak its way into the camera work and soundtrack as well. The duller and more lifeless the color palette, the better. I’m talking dark blues, greys, whites, shots of cloudy skies, shots in the rain, dutch angles, over the shoulder shots, as bland and melancholy as you can get, The movie doesn’t have to have personality, it just has to be deep and depressing. A study of the complexities and contradictions of life and mankind’s nature. Oooo, maybe include that line in some dialogue or opening narration. You’re on the fast track to success.

Step 3: Make it a Musical

Now, I know what some of you are probably thinking when you see the title of this section. You’re right, Cats was a deeply horrifying cinematic experience: trauma I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But we won’t be CGI-ing any human faces to feline bodies, so don’t worry about that. The Academy loves music almost as much as it loves depression. So if you want to forego the drama route, this is your next best option. You don’t even have to write the musical, in fact, it’s probably better that you don’t. There’s plenty of musicals on Broadway for you to shamelessly rip o–uhh….adapt. Yes, adapt. Find one, then find yourselves some actors and actresses with decent sets of pipes, throw them the bag then hire a choreographer for all the elaborate dance numbers that are sure to come. Go absolutely nuts with the color palette and costume design, like neon bright. If it’s a historical musical, make it somewhat historically accurate, if historically accurate means looking like people who shop at Hot Topic. The plot has to center around romance; preferably, a forbidden one, in which two people from opposing or opposite sides try to make it work. But of course, their friends and family don’t approve and sing a ton of songs about why they don’t approve and how boujee their lives are, until through the power of love, the grudge is squashed and the groups are united. The more grandiose and over the top, the better the chance you walk away with that glittering hardware.
Step 4: Make it Stylized

Okay, so you’ve already thrown everything at the wall, but you don’t quite know if it will stick. Consider this step, insurance. Hey, I only said that you would get an Oscar, I never specified which. There’s value to be had in costume and set design and best score. If you’re unsure of how to make your film stand out from the crowd, even more, dress it up in style. Don’t be afraid to use gimmicks. Use slow-motion shots, shoot the film in black and white, shoot it in reverse. film it upside down, inside out, whatever you need. Don’t stop adjusting the lighting until the movie resembles a rave or disco rolling rink. Go big or go home. You can never be too ambitious, as long as it’s different and new it’s a good idea. You’ll be hailed a visionary, a true filmmaking pioneer. For good measure, spice up the soundtrack a bit too. A movie set in feudal Japan? Throw some Drake or Travis Scott in there to capture the mood. It needs to be incredibly out of place and off-putting for the Academy to understand the point you are trying to make. Doesn’t the Jackson Five fit the vibe of the Old West so well? Well that, or you bring John Williams in to work his magic and do your orchestral score. The man is practically a wizard as a composer and his place in cinema history will intimate the Academy into giving you the best score award just by reading his name in the credits. The man’s music made the Star Wars prequels watchable, which says a lot. Exhaust all possible gimmicks to really make your film “unique” in the eyes of the Academy, which basically means they haven’t seen it in a few years and likely won’t for another few wheels. It’s not as much reinventing the wheel as it is keeping it turning.

Step 5: DON’T Make an Action Movie

This is it, the curtain call. You’ve followed my advice so far and it is likely that you have an Oscar-worthy film already. Whether it be a period piece, drama, musical, stylized film or some weird hybrid of the four, the Academy will eat it up. However, now that I’ve told you everything you should do, there are still two things that will almost certainly get your project tossed into the proverbial garbage bin as far as they’re concerned. The first one is casting Leonardo Dicaprio. I get it, great actor, great guy, but don’t do it, under any circumstances. The man is a certified Oscar-curse. For whatever reason, the Academy just seems to hate him. That’s the only way to explain having the kind of career he’s had and only bagging one Oscar. He’ll single-handedly tank your entire production harder than the Titanic with his mere presence. Your heart will go on. The other mistake to avoid is even more simple, yet even more important: just don’t make an action movie. Simple. Everyone knows modern action movies are high-octane explosion-riddled, hyper-violent romps with nothing to say. What’s deep about watching people shooting at each other or aliens or robots or doing karate? If it’s not a war movie with a message about the horrors of war, it’s simply nothing but shock-value and entertainment value and that’s not what makes a movie. Action movies are the industry’s dinosaurs, bloated, outdated and in need of an extinction-level event. The Academy will never elevate them to the platform of the Oscars. Their time has long since passed; the 80s and 90s were an era of absurdity and shallowness, this is an era of realism and depth. Comic book movies aren’t much better. Comic books are for kids, so movies that are based on them are as well, nevermind the sheer amount of character development, heart, CGI and gorgeous setpieces you put in. All the final product will end up being is a thrill ride, full of fanservice with nothing of substance to offer. Heck, you could even make the highest-grossing movie of all time and you still wouldn’t get the nod because according to the true greats, they’re not cinema, so don’t even bother trying.

Assuming you’ve gotten this far and followed these steps, you’ve gone from a  wide-eyed, ambitious, novice, to a seasoned, crafty-veteran who knows how to please the committee. It can be a bit intimidating, trying to craft an award-winning film, but I assure you this list is fool-proof. Be sure to thank me in your acceptance speech.


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