Oscar: Big Studios Dominate the Awards–When and How?

During the studio era, smaller companies had more limited opportunities in getting their productions see and thus considered for Oscar nominations.

Rising director Frank Capra assured his Columbia boss, Harry Cohn, that he would get nominations for his 1930 Barbara Stanwyck comedy, Ladies of Leisure. He was therefore vastly disappointed when the film was ignored by the Academy. Quickly realizing the “disadvantage of working at Columbia,” Capra learned that “the major studios had the votes. I had my freedom, but all the honors went to those who worked for the Establishment.” The first Columbia movie to be nominated was Capra’s 1933 comedy, Lady for a Day, and the first Columbia film to win the Best Picture Oscar was Capra’s It Happened One Night, a year later.

For two decades, the Academy was controlled by the big studios, with nominations dominated by a few powerful cliques within the studios. “The trick,” as Capra observed, “was to get nominated by the clique of major studio directors who had achieved membership–and those Brahmins were not about to doff their caps to the “untouchables” of Poverty Row,” as the small studios were then labeled. “Making good pictures was not enough,” Capra quickly realized. “I would have to gain status with big name directors to get them to nominate me.”

Under the leadership of Adolph Zukor, Paramount was also strongly represented in the Best Picture category during the Depression. In the first year, four of the five nominated films were produced by Paramount, including the winner, Wings. A large number of these movies were produced and/or directed by Paramount’s prestige filmmaker, Ernst Lubitsch.

Columbia’s participation in the Oscar race in the 1930s can also be described in terms of the output of its star director, Capra. Six out of Columbia’s eight nominated films were directed by Capra, who won three directorial Oscars (in 1934, 1936, and 1938) over a period of four years.

By contrast, the few RKO nominees were based on the strength of their performers. Three of Katharine Hepburn’s vehicles were nominated–Little Women, Alice Adams, and Stage Door–and two were Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat.

Similarly, two of Universal’s four nominated films featured its biggest bankable star, Deanna Durbin, who helped save the studio from bankruptcy during the Depression.

In the 1940s, MGM’s domination of the Best Picture category declined. The studio produced only ten of the seventy nominated films, most of which were Greer Garson vehicles. RKO and Paramount followed, each with seven nominated films. RKO gained prestige from the Orson Welles films, two of which were nominated, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Paramount also benefited from the work of one writerdirector, Billy Wilder. Three of Wilder’s movies received nomination: Hold Back the Dawn, which he didn’t direct but cowrote with Charles Brackett; Double Indemnity, which he wrote and directed, and The Lost Weekend, which won Best Picture.

Up until the late 1940s, most of the nominations and awards were restricted to the big studios. In 1948, seventy’two out of the 102 nominees contending for awards were featured in movies released by the major studios: MGM, Warner, TwentiethCentury Fox, Paramount, and RKO. The rest were in movies distributed by smaller companies, such as Universal, Columbia, and Republic. Universal’s nominations were for the Britishmade Hamlet, which it distributed in America.

The studio that gained unexpected power in the 1940s was TwentiethCentury Fox, producing thirteen of the seventy nominated films, two of which won the Best Picture: How Green Was My Valley and Gentleman’s Agreement. By comparison, the best decade for Columbia was in the 1950s, in which three of its movies won the Best Picture: From Here to Eternity, On the Waterfront, and The Bridge on the River Kwai.

United Artists was fairly represented in the first two decades, though it distributed only one Oscar winner, Rebecca. However, from 1960 to 1990, no fewer than nine of the winners were distributed by UA, including: The Apartment, West Side Story, and Tom Jones. UA also holds the record for being the only studio to win three Best Pictures in a row: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, Rocky in 1976, and Annie Hall in 1977.

In the studio era, artists were expected to be loyal to their home companies, upon which their livelihood depended. As Joan Crawford once noted: “You’d have to be a ninny to vote against the studio that has your contract and produces your pictures.” This meant that the employees placed in the nomination films and performers of their own studios. To assure nominations for their colleagues, their names were listed as first choice, followed by unlikely candidates from other studios, thus guaranteeing that there would be no serious competition.

Now a days, when studios no longer exist in the same way they did, there are other problems. As Peter Bart wrote in Variety: “If you were an Academy member, do you vote for what you really believe represents the best work in each category, even if it’s an Australian or Italian movie, and, as such, a blunt indictment of Hollywood–and your employer”