Changing Film Technologies Reflected in Best Picture Nominees

If either The Artist or Hugo wins the Best Picture Oscar, it will say something interesting about how the Hollywood community accepts the technical changes around them. If Hugo wins, it will be the first 3D movie, and the first shot digitally, to win the prize. If The Artist wins (which would please me far more than Hugo), it will be only the third black-and-white film to win Best Picture since 1956, and only second silent to ever win.

That will be an anomaly, of course, but there’s no question that a digitally-shot film will one day win Best Picture. Each of the last two years, a digitally-shot motion picture was considered a likely winner: The Social Network for 2010, and Avatar for 2009. Each lost to a movie shot on film. But the 2009 winner was another technical record-breaker; The Hurt Locker was the first movie shot in a low-budget, small-gauge format–in this case Super-16–to win Best Picture.

No one who loves cinema views the Best Picture Oscar as a sign that a movie was actually the best picture of the year (although that has happened). But it has always been a sign of what makes Hollywood employees proud of their industry.

Here are some similar Best Picture technical firsts–and lasts.

  • First Best Picture winner and last silent (so far): Wings, 1927/28
  • First talkie winner: The Broadway Melody, 1928/29
  • First color winner: Gone with the Wind, 1939 (three-strip Technicolor)
  • Second color winner: An American in Paris, 1951 (also three-strip Technicolor, but a long wait after the first)
  • First color winner to immediately follow another color winner: The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952 (yes, it was also three-strip)
  • Last black & white winner to follow another black & white winner: Marty, 1955
  • First widescreen winner, first single-strip color winner, first winner shot in large format, and first winner presented in 70mm: Around the World in 80 Days, 1956
  • First winner shot in Cinemascope: Bridge of the River Kwai, 1957
  • Last black & white winner for more than 30 years, and only b&w winner shot or shown in scope: The Apartment, 1960
  • First shot in anamorphic scope and blown up to 70mm: Oliver!, 1968
  • Last winner shot in a large format: Patton, 1970.
  • First winner released in Dolby Stereo: The Deer Hunter, 1978
  • Last winner shot in black & white: Schindler’s List, 1993 (The Artist was actually shot on color film, and digitally converted to b&w.)
  • First winner shot in Super-35, and the last released in 70mm: Titanic, 1997

Moving from technological information to censorable material, the rating system replaced the Production Code in 1968, making Oliver! the first Best Picture with a rating. It was rated G.

The next year, Midnight Cowboy became the first X-rated Best Picture winner.

Those were the last films with those ratings to ever win Best Picture. No NC-17 film has ever won.