Thursday, June 13, 2024

How Often Are Directorial Debuts Nominated For Best Picture & Best Director?

Few things are more exciting than a dynamite directorial debut from a new filmmaker. When a first-time director takes the film world by storm, in some ways, it reinforces our hope for cinema’s future. Every year brings us new, fresh voices, but it’s not every year that those newcomers are part of the awards season conversation. Exactly halfway through 2023, we at Next Best Picture have already found ourselves head over heels for one such film: “Past Lives” directed by first-time feature director Celine Song. A delicate, wistful, profoundly emotional exploration of fate, choices, and unexpected paths our lives take, “Past Lives” is a critical darling and already one of the best films of 2023. But of course, just because a film is beloved and worthy doesn’t mean it will be nominated, less win an Oscar.

So how often are directorial debuts nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards? As it turns out, in the Academy’s 95-year history, 37 films from first-time directors have been nominated for Best Picture:

“Citizen Kane” (1941)
“The Maltese Falcon” (1941)
“In Which We Serve” (1942)
“Watch on the Rhine” (1943)
“Henry V” (1944)
“Marty” (1955)
“12 Angry Men” (1957)
“Room at the Top” (1958)
“Auntie Mame” (1958)
“The Alamo” (1960)
“West Side Story” (co-director Jerome Robbins’ first feature) (1961)
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1966)
“Rachel, Rachel” (1968)
“Heaven Can Wait” (1978)
“Terms of Endearment” (1983)
“My Left Foot” (1989)
“Ordinary People” (1980)
“Chariots of Fire” (1981)
“The Killing Fields” (1984)
“Children of a Lesser God” (1986)
“Dances With Wolves” (1990)
“Beauty and the Beast” (1991)
“The Shawshank Redemption” (1994)
“Babe” (1995)
“The Full Monty” (1997)
“American Beauty” (1999)
“In the Bedroom” (2001)
“Chicago” (2002)
“Little Miss Sunshine” (2006)
“Michael Clayton” (2007)
District 9” (2009)
Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012)
Lion” (2016)
Get Out” (2017)
A Star is Born” (2018)
Promising Young Woman” (2020)
The Father” (2020)

And to take things a step further, 25 directors have been nominated for Best Director for their first film:

Orson Welles – “Citizen Kane” (1941)
Delbert Mann – “Marty” (1955) (Won)
Sidney Lumet – “12 Angry Men” (1957) 
Jack Clayton – “Room at the Top” (1959) 
Jerome Robbins – “West Side Story” (1961) (Won – Shared with Robert Wise)
Frank Perry – “David and Lisa” (1962) 
Mike Nichols – “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966)
Warren Beatty/Buck Henry – “Heaven Can Wait” (1978) 
Robert Redford – “Ordinary People” (1980) (Won)
James L. Brooks – “Terms of Endearment” (1983) (Won)
Roland Joffé – “The Killing Fields” (1984)
Kenneth Branagh – “Henry V” (1989)
Jim Sheridan – “My Left Foot” (1989)
Kevin Costner – “Dances with Wolves” (1990) (Won)
Chris Noonan – “Babe” (1995)
Peter Cattaneo – “The Full Monty” (1997)
Sam Mendes – “American Beauty” (1999) (Won)
John Singleton – “Boyz N the Hood” (1991)
Spike Jonze – “Being John Malkovich” (1999)
Stephen Daldry – “Billy Elliot” (2000)
Rob Marshall – “Chicago” (2002)
Bennett Miller – “Capote” (2005)
Benh Zeitlin – “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012)
Jordan Peele – “Get Out” (2017) 
Emerald Fennell – “Promising Young Woman” (2020) 

In a year that’ll introduce new films from established auteurs such as Martin Scorsese, Sofia Coppola, Todd Haynes, Luca Guadagnino, Greta Gerwig, Alexander Payne, Denis Villeneuve, and Christopher Nolan, it may seem impossible to catapult such a small film from a newcomer into the Best Picture category but “Past Lives” has all the makings many of the films mentioned above did to not only crack the lineup but even contend for a win. With over $6 million in the bank so far from the specialty box office, an enthusiastic response from audiences and a smart release strategy from A24, expect Celine Song’s directorial debut to join the list. 

While getting a Best Picture nomination for a directorial debut is undoubtedly a special achievement, it’s not quite as rare as one might think. A first-time feature was nominated every few years throughout the Academy’s 95-year history, starting as early as 1941 and happening as recently as 2020. While looking over the list of nominated films, one thing is clear: for a directorial debut to get a Best Picture (or Best Director) Oscar nomination, it usually goes beyond being a high-quality piece of filmmaking. These films were often part of the cultural zeitgeist in some way and had a sort of universal passion enveloping them that made them near impossible to ignore. Some of the most recent examples of this – “Get Out” and “Promising Young Woman” – were wholly original works that seemed to connect with the younger generation in a way that is difficult to describe. Be it the themes exploring the “Me Too” movement, race relations, or just millennial musings that utterly hit the spot, these films connected with audiences in a rapturous emotional way.

Past Lives” seems to be hitting audiences with similar feels, so much so that I’m not only saying that I think Celine Song’s directorial debut can snag a Best Picture nomination – I think it’s probable. Past that point, the next conversation topic will be discussing a possible win!

What do you think? Do you think “Past Lives” stands a good shot at being nominated for both Best Picture and Best Director or do you think its status as a directorial debut will hold it back in either category? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and be on the lookout for our new Oscar predictions for the 2023-2024 awards season coming soon!

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Lauren Cohen
Lauren Cohen
Director of Programming at the Miami Film Festival. Lover of all things movies, books, Broadway and awards season.

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