This year’s number of remakes has certainly been inflated by the recent surge to 10 best picture nominees, just as the 1936 record is likely the result of a drop in one of two years by a dozen contenders. Still, remakes are overrepresented this year. Historically, 11.5 percent of Best Picture nominees have been remakes by this broad definition, but this year that number is 40 percent. And since the academy expanded the best picture category a decade ago, it’s the first year with more than one remake nominated, let alone four.
Does a movie’s status as a reboot matter to voters? The numbers suggest not. Given the number of nominees and remakes each year, the probability rules suggest that we expect about 10 remakes to have won. In fact, the actual number of winning remakes is nine, pretty close to that statistical estimate, indicating a lack of bias for or against stories told before. Those nine rebooted champions: “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “Hamlet,” “Gigi,” “Ben-Hur,” “The Sound of Music,” “Oliver!”, “Chicago,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ and ‘The Departed’.
That said, a look at these winners one by one shows more cause for concern with this year’s remakes. Only “The Departed”, based on the 2002 Hong Kong thriller “Infernal Affairs”, is a real remake if we applied a much stricter definition. “Mutiny on the Bounty” had only been told once before, in a 1916 Australian film that is now lost. That film, along with ‘Ben-Hur’, had not yet been made as a sound film. The earlier version of “Lord of the Rings” was animated. Perhaps the most important: “Gigi”, “The Sound of Music”, “Oliver!” and “Chicago” transformed earlier non-musicals into musicals, which perhaps deserves a different categorization.
This year’s four contenders are a lot closer to “The Departed” than to the other eight champions, with there being nearly as much daylight between the current version and the earlier one. “West Side Story” in particular looks a lot like its 1961 counterpart and will have to defy history to become the first remake of a previous Best Picture nominee (let alone winner) to claim the top prize.