This year’s remake count is surely inflated by the recent increase to 10 best picture nominees, just as the all-time mark set in 1936 is likely a consequence of falling in one of the two years with a dozen contenders. Still, remakes are overrepresented this year. Historically, 11.5 percent of best picture nominees are remakes by this broad definition, yet this year that number is 40 percent. And since the academy expanded the best picture category a dozen years ago, this is the first year with more than one nominated remake, let alone four.
Does a movie’s status as a reboot matter to voters? The numbers suggest not. Given how many nominees and remakes there are from each year, the rules of probability suggest we would expect about 10 remakes to have won. In fact, the actual number of winning remakes is nine, quite close to that statistical estimation, suggesting a lack of bias for or against stories that have been 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 among this year’s remakes. Only “The Departed,” based on the 2002 Hong Kong thriller “Infernal Affairs,” is a true remake if we were to go by a much stricter definition. “Mutiny on the Bounty” had been told only once before, in a 1916 Australian film that’s 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 most important, “Gigi,” “The Sound of Music,” “Oliver!” and “Chicago” transformed earlier non-musicals into musicals, which perhaps deserves another categorization altogether.
The four contenders this year are a lot closer to “The Departed” than to the other eight champions, without nearly so much daylight between the current version and the earlier one. “West Side Story,” in particular, is quite similar to its 1961 counterpart, and will need to defy history to become the first remake of a previous best picture nominee (let alone winner) to claim the top prize.