But one persistent myth isn’t really a myth at all. It’s just an observation, based purely on statistics. There is a definitive, undeniable link between the Best Director and Best Picture Academy Awards. Of the 89 films that won Best Picture through the year 2017, 63 have also won Best Director.
The longest stretch of Best Director and Best Picture linking up occurred between the years 1957 to 1966, though the phenomenon has continued steadily throughout Oscars history. From 1990 to 1997, a Best Director win seemed to automatically mean the movie would also win Best Picture (from Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves to James Cameron's Titanic). Another similar streak occurred between 2007 and 2011, beginning with Martin Scorsese's The Departed and ending with Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist.
So, in other years, and in other circumstances, one might automatically discount Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri from winning Best Picture on March 4, the day of the 90th Academy Awards. The movie's director, Martin McDonagh, is not nominated for Best Director.
Based purely on Oscars precedent, the odds of Three Billboards winning Best Picture without an accompanying Best Director nomination is improbable. Only two films have won Best Picture without its director being nominated as well, the most recent occurrence being in 2013, when Argo won, though Ben Affleck wasn’t nominated for Best Director.
But in actuality, the gap between Best Picture and Best Director is widening significantly — and people often cite Argo as the jumping off point of the gap. That year, Ang Lee won for Life of Pi, leading David Erlich of Indiewire to argue that “2012 was...the year when the Best Director trophy was somewhat rebranded as an award for technical achievement.” The Best Director Oscar, which only directors were eligible to vote for, started going to the most ambitious and innovative movie — though not necessarily the one that would win Best Picture.
In the Oscars that followed Argo-gate, Alfonso Cuaron won Best Director for the technically ambitious Gravity in 2013, and Alejandro Inarritu won for The Revenant in 2015, which was known for its strenuous shoot (neither Gravity nor The Revenant won Best Picture). Argo also set precedent for something called a "reverse Argo:" When a director is nominated, but not the movie he or she directed (see: Bennett Miller's 2015 nomination for Foxcatcher). The gap is the norm, now. Between 2012 and 2017, only one movie has won both Best Picture and Best Director: Birdman in 2015.
Erlich partly credits the growing gap between Best Director and Best Picture to the Academy’s implementation of a new voting system to select Best Picture. In 2009, the Academy switched from a popular vote to a complicated, weighted system of voting for Best Picture. The inclusion of more nominees for Best Picture than for any other category led to a growing discrepancy between Best Picture and Best Director — and the birth of a philosophical impasse about the distinction between the two awards. In an Indiewire article suggesting that the Academy eliminate the award for Best Director entirely, Erlich asks, “Can a bad movie be well-directed? Can a good movie be poorly directed? More to the point, can a supposed masterpiece — a cinematic experience deemed worthy of the year’s greatest honor — really be independent of the person most centrally responsible for its realization?”
Essentially: How can we separate art from the artist? What are we awarding the director for, that isn’t already encapsulated in Best Picture? This brings us back to the murkiness of separating McDonagh from Three Billboards, a movie that received seven Academy Award nominations. Isn't each nomination, in some way, a nod to McDonagh as well?
Given Three Billboards’ tremendous success in this year’s awards season, it’s reasonable to assume that the movie has a fair chance at winning Best Picture. The movie won three Golden Globes — Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Actress (Frances McDormand), and Best Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell) — as well as three SAG Awards. Should it “pull an Argo” and score Best Picture, Three Billboards will be highlighting the growing gap between the once-intertwined Best Picture and Best Director categories.
If Three Billboards’ chances for Best Picture are clouded, it’s because of backlash, and not because of a lack of a Best Director nomination. Since its release in October, Three Billboards has steadily generated criticism for its brash handling of sensitive topics like police brutality, racism, and racial slurs.
Should Academy voters look past the controversy and choose Three Billboards, the movie's Best Picture win will nonetheless honor McDonagh's work writing, directing, and — in general — creating the film. A Best Picture win is, in many ways, a Best Director win. But ultimately, the people who would collect the award for Three Billboards' Best Picture win are the producers, not the director, ostensibly the most important figure on set. Even if a Three Billboard's win might seem like a nod to McDonagh, the movie's financial backers would ultimately walk away with the trophy. The Oscars are a tricky beast in that way.