When It Comes To Winning The Oscar For Best Original Song, Location Matters

Niko Tavernise
Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum in 'The Greatest Showman'

Where the song appears in the film may affect its chances at taking home the hardware.

In real estate, the most important factor is location, location, location. Does the same hold true for tunes nominated for the Academy Awards’ best original song? 

If the last 30 years are any indication, the answer is yes. Since 1988, approximately two-thirds of the winning songs played during the film, while the remaining trophy takers didn’t appear until the end credits. However, experts say the most important factor remains how the song reflects the story and emotionally resonates with the listener regardless of placement.

Heading into Sunday’s 90th annual Academy Awards ceremony, three of this year’s finalists — “Mystery of Love” (Call Me By Your Name), “Remember Me” (Coco) and “This Is Me” (The Greatest Showman) play at least once during the film’s narrative, while “Mighty River” (Mudbound) and “Stand For Something” (Marshall) provide moving codas as the end titles roll. 

“I don’t know if there’s a bias against end-title songs,” says Universal Pictures president of film music and publishing Mike Knobloch, “But there’s a big difference between a classic end-title song that sets the standard like [Titanic’s] ‘My Heart Will Go On’ that is authentic and organic to the film and something that just zaps you back to real time and tells you to put on your coat and leave the theater.” 

As Knobloch also notes, by the time Celine Dion trilled the first notes of “My Heart Will Go On,” movie goers were already well acquainted with James Horner’s haunting melody that had played throughout the film. Similarly, the melodic themes in 2003 end-title winner, “Into the West” from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King were prominent during the movie. “There’s a lot of ways you can leave those bread crumbs throughout the film,” Knobloch says.

For documentaries, songs may seem out of place if they are inserted into the film, yet they serve an essential function as a punctuation mark at the end of a true tale.  Composer J. Ralph, who has received three Oscar best original song nominations for his documentary work — most recently last year for Jim: The James Foley Story’s “The Empty Chair,” which he co-wrote with Sting— knows some judge end-title songs more harshly. 

“If it’s just solely in the credits, people can feel that it’s not as central. I don’t agree,” he says. “I feel these songs help people relate and understand the importance of the story. The end title gives you a full song that’s born from and supporting the movie. I’ve always worked with my directors to create immersive end-credit sequences that bring the viewer in. It doesn’t have to be credits over black. The goal is to create something that works seamlessly with the film with the end title as an encapsulation or meditative moment."

Since handing out the first best original song Oscar to “The Continental” from The Gay Divorcee at the 7th Academy Awards in 1934, Oscars' ruling body, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has made several changes to the voting process. (The music branch selects the finalists, while the entire membership can vote for the winner, which must be written expressly for the film).

Up until 2008, music branch members were expected to meet in person to screen movie clips of the eligible songs showing how the tune was used in the film. In 2008, a DVD viewing option was introduced for the members unavailable to attend the screenings. For the first time in 2008, AMPAS stipulated that the submitted song clip be no longer than three minutes.

In 2009, in an unpopular move, AMPAS governors changed the rules so that if no eligible song achieved a minimum average score of 8.25 from the music branch voters, no best original song Oscar would be awarded. If only one song reached that watermark, it and the next highest ranked song would be nominated. Previously, as least three songs, but no more than five, could be nominated. The rule, which was later dumped, resulted in only two songs being nominated for the 2011 ceremony. 

In 2012, the screenings were discontinued with all voters receiving DVDs with the eligible songs. Campaigners are not permitted to send the song to voting members separately from the DVD. 

In the last few years, AMPAS has allowed submissions to include one edit which can help provide context if the song is used more than once in a film. 

For example, when Costa Communications’ Ray Costa, who has worked as an awards consultant on more than 30 Oscar campaigns, was hired to push “Til It Happens To You” from The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault, the initial plan was to submit footage of the Diane Warren/Lady Gaga composition played over the end credits only since the song was heard in its entirety. Instead, Costa had the submission re-edited to include a segment from the body of the film  where the song softly plays in the background while a co-ed describes her attack so voters could get a better sense of the song’s impact. It ended up being nominated for song of the year in 2016. 

When asked if he’d rather work a song that is in the body of the movie or an end-title track, Costa diplomatically says “I’d rather work a song that summarizes the story.”

2018 Academy Awards