Without a juggernaut hogging kudos, sound noms get chance to be heard

In many years, just getting noticed at award season is a challenge for a film that excels in only one or two areas. But this year, tech nominees can breathe easy. There’s no “Titanic” or “Lord of the Rings” heading for a top-to-bottom sweep.

That’s good news for sound mixers and editors, who are often nommed for pics that aren’t competing in the most glamorous categories. Such films have to work especially hard to be noticed.

“It definitely is the case that a big film like a ‘Ben Hur’ would just sweep through all the categories,” says Chris Jenkins, senior VP, sound services, at Universal, a 1992 Oscar winner for the sound on “The Last of the Mohicans.” “People would think that if the film was the best picture that year then that meant that they had to vote for it in all the other categories.”

Timing and visibility are even more essential in steering a smaller film to the podium. “It seems that if your release date is close to the Oscars and close to the holidays, that can help you,” says Ben Burtt, supervising sound editor and sound designer for “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith.”

Year-end movies also benefit from studio tubthumping, says Wylie Stateman, a sound editor who worked on “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

“There’s always going to be a lot of press and publicity around a film like ‘King Kong’ because the studio is supporting it so strongly,” he says. “Being a good movie that gets good reviews can also set you apart from the tide of a big movie.”

All is not lost when a film bows earlier in the year, though. A re-release, like U’s holiday re-issue of “Cinderella Man,” can renew interest in a film.

Still Jenkins believes sweeps are not as prevalent as in the past because Academy voters are more sophisticated now. “There was a time when there was confusion about the difference between best score and best sound,” says Jenkins. “The more people know about sound the more likely they are to consider sound work in smaller films.”

“War of the Worlds” sound designer Randy Thom concurs. “There’s no reason why a great dialogue-editing job in a less-known movie shouldn’t get noticed, and education is a big part of that,” says Thom. “We don’t just do breaking glass and explosions.”

The Academy has made more information available to its members over the years. “We’re offering symposiums and trying to reach out so that there’s a deeper understanding of what we do,” says J. Paul Huntsman, a governor in the sound branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

More than anything, a small film needs to be seen — and heard — to become part of the race. “Nothing can replace people actually seeing the movie, and that’s more difficult if it’s a less popular film that’s in and out of the theaters,” says Burtt. “This was more difficult in the days before screeners, but I think it’s leveling things off.”

In the end, sound artists are as beholden as anyone else to that certain something that makes people respond to some films and not others. If people don’t see their pic and like it, then whatever they do — no matter how good — will likely go ignored.

“You have to remember that there’s a very subjective element to all of this,” says Cece Hall, senior VP, post-production sound, Paramount Pictures. “A film that endears itself to the public is going to be seen, and it’s going to get buzz and it’s going to get awards.”

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