Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Why “Barbie” Is Leading The Oscar Race For Best Production Design

Jaws collectively dropped in December 2022 when the first teaser dropped, and the world got its first glimpse at the incredible pinkalicious design of Barbieland in Greta Gerwig’s historic summer hit, “Barbie.” Constructed with careful homage to the Barbie Dream Houses of old (and new!) that have occupied children’s bedrooms and basements around the world, along with a healthy dose of the iconic mid-century modern influence of the American West, the panoramic glimpse into Barbieland was enough to flag “Barbie” as a major contender in Best Production Design for many folks months before its release. The film’s earliest marketing materials and promotions focused a great deal on the production design, including the widely reported global shortage of pink paint. Trailers also shone a spotlight on shiny and rigid oceans, rolling sets and scenescapes behind Barbie’s cars (rocket ships, boats, and horses), and sleek and bubbly real-world architecture in the “real world.” As the 2024 Oscar race starts to take shape, the miraculous design in “Barbie,” at the hands of six-time Oscar nominees and frequent duo Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer, sits fairly comfortably as the consensus pick at the top of the pack in Best Production Design.

The roads that lead to the Best Production Design Oscar are roughly tripartite, and the road that “Barbie” will take is the toughest- films are sorted by genre in the major guild awards: Period, Fantasy/Sci-Fi, and Contemporary. These three are not created equal when translating guild success into Oscar glory; most of the time, the eventual Oscar five consists of Period and Fantasy/Sci-Fi films, and only very rarely does a Contemporary film make the cut. To put some data to these claims: in the last ten years (since the 2014 Oscars), 66% of nominees (and 60% of winners!) in Best Production Design have been Period films, 24% have been Fantasy/Sci-Fi films, while only 10%- five out of the fifty nominees- have been Contemporary.

The main guild precursors for the Oscar category are the Art Designers Guild Awards, which have been handing out genre-split awards since 1996, and the Set Decorators Society of America Awards, which just launched in 2021. The category in which a film is nominated in these two precursors is the metric I use to distinguish genre here.

The dual settings of “Barbie“- from the play-place wonder of Barbieland to the heightened design of modern-day Southern California- would presumably place it among the batch of contemporary films in the running. While the film contains elements of other genres, like old-Hollywood Technicolor-era colors, sets, and practical effects, as well as sci-fi elements of multidimensional travel across the Barbie/”Real World” divide, “Barbie” seems undeniably contemporary when it comes to the category (looking at you, heavily-fronted 2024 Chevy Blazer EV SS).

As shown above, this avenue can be a steep road towards the Oscars. Securing a nomination as a contemporary film is no sure thing, and translating it into an Oscar win is even more elusive. The five Oscar-nominated contemporary films in the last decade include the near-future world of “Her” in 2013 and “The Martian” in 2015, present-day Los Angeles in “La La Land” the year after, and the contemporary design of “Parasite” and “The Father” consecutively in 2019 and 2020. Of this batch, only “La La Land” went on to win the Oscar, achieving the extremely rare feat. Just how rare? By my research, the last truly contemporary Best Production Design winner before it was “Heaven Can Wait” at the 51st Academy Awards in 1979, nearly two full decades before the Art Directors’ Guild (ADG) awards even existed! Because of this, specifying genre in the category becomes admittedly a little bit hairy before 2000, when the ADG first started awarding their Contemporary Film award. “La La Land’s” Oscar win broke history over 35 years in the making, and “Barbie” looks well-positioned to join this exclusive group.

In this age of abundant precursors, including the input of two large genre-split guild awards in the category, there is a possibility that a contemporary film can get something of a boost as long as it sweeps within its genre. As other films duke it out and possibly split precursor awards, winning solidly in your category can be a great way of maintaining the frontrunner status quo for a film like “Barbie.” This far out, it looks like the Period side of things, as usual, will be a bloodbath, with huge contenders like “Oppenheimer,” “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “The Color Purple,” “Asteroid City,” “Napoleon,” “Maestro,” “Ferrari,” and others all fighting for spots. From what I can tell, “Poor Things” may enjoy a smooth ride at the head of the Fantasy/Sci-Fi categories on its way to the Oscars. It’s important to note that this is not necessarily a guaranteed route. Remember, just last year, Fantasy/Sci-Fi sweeper “Everything Everywhere All at Once” failed to secure an Oscar nomination despite wins at both ADG and SDSA, as well as a Critics Choice Award nomination and meaningful critical support- making for a 98% chance of being nominated in the current version of my mathematical Oscar Predictions Model! Meanwhile, “Barbie” has a real chance of cleaning up in Contemporary, keeping it on winners’ podiums and voters’ minds going into nomination voting.

This is not at all to say that the race in Best Production Design is sewn up for “Barbie“- heavy hitters like “Oppenheimer,” “Poor Things” and “Killers of the Flower Moon” would be extremely tough competition in an Oscar five, especially if one of them (or another!) can carry the two guilds and become a consensus frontrunner for Best Picture. A win against these at a genre-blended competition like the Critics Choice or BAFTA awards would be the true test for Greenwood and Spencer’s iconic work. For now, “Barbie” is in a good position, with no consistent alternative challenging it. Should it keep a grip on its lead, “Barbie” would be a historic winner in the category- just the second Contemporary film since the late 1970s to claim the coveted prize. It’s far from a guarantee, but “Barbie” has all the makings of a strong Contemporary entry, just like “La La Land” in its year. The radical pink-ness, water-less showers, and dreamy horse art may just have Academy voters seeing their ballots through Pantone 219-tinted glasses.

Do you think “Barbie” will win the Oscar for Best Production Design or will it go to something else? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account and check out their latest Oscar predictions here.

You can follow Cole and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @CurtissOnFilm

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