The Academy’s push to expand the Oscar best-picture race has paid dividends again. In the second year in which contenders number 10 instead of the traditional five, the field includes more films with proven mainstream appeal.
Just as last year’s lineup of nominees, led by Fox’s juggernaut “Avatar,” dominated the box office, 2010’s contenders have earned more than $2.5 billion, with Disney-Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” and Warner Bros.’ “Inception” among the top five worldwide grossers last year. Even the specialty films in best-pic contention have found wider audiences, with the Weinstein Co.’s “The King’s Speech” currently closing in on the $100 million mark.
The contenders offer a decided contrast to a few years ago, when darker-themed, less widely seen films dominated the Oscar race. The more mainstream vibe should prove good news for producers of the 83rd Academy Awards, who are hoping to attract younger viewers to ABC’s Feb. 27 kudocast (they’ve already set James Franco and Anne Hathaway to serve as co-hosts).
Sony’s “The Social Network” had been the presumptive favorite based on other kudos-season wins heading into Tuesday’s nominations, which were presented by Academy prexy Tom Sherak and last year’s supporting actress winner, Mo’Nique. But the filmmakers behind the story of Facebook’s launch now find themselves facing renewed competition from “Speech,” which leads the Oscar race with 12 noms.
The film with the most noms has won the best picture prize in 14 of the past 20 years. But recent results — the top noms earner has won only twice in the past five years — suggest that this year’s race is far from over.
Oscar voters spread the nominations across a mix of films from the majors and indies — and not just titles that bowed during the fourth quarter of 2010. “Inception,” “Toy Story 3” and Focus Features’ “The Kids Are All Right” were released during the summer sesh, and “Alice in Wonderland” bowed in March.
Studio tallies of nominations numbers are always tricky, thanks to split rights, overseas deals and production partners. But in terms of domestic distribution, Paramount has 20 nominations, spread among “True Grit,” “The Fighter” and “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Iron Man 2.” “Fighter” also bears the Relativity brand, “Dragon” was produced by DreamWorks Animation, “True Grit” with Skydance Prods. and “Iron Man 2” with Marvel. Sony earned 17 (counting its Columbia, Classics and Screen Gems labels), while Warner Bros. and Disney came up with 12. Universal scared up one for the makeup work in “The Wolfman.”
Among the indies, the Weinstein Co. led with 13 noms, for “King’s Speech” and “Blue Valentine,” followed by 11 for Fox Searchlight, seven for Sony Pictures Classics, six for Roadside Attractions and four for Focus Features. Lionsgate garnered one for “Rabbit Hole,” while Magnolia Pictures landed one for “I Am Love.” Miramax’s “The Tempest” was released by Disney.
Either way, the noms should help smaller films like toon “The Illusionist” and docu “Inside Job” get discovered by a broader audience “in a major way,” said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.
“The Kids Are All Right” producer Celine Rattray expressed a similar sentiment. “It took seven years, 13 financiers, and a 23-day shoot to make our film a reality,” Rattray said. “By recognizing ‘Kids,’ the Academy has not only honored us but has given hope and inspiration to the independent film community.”
“Kids Are All Right,” Fox Searchlight’s “Black Swan” and Roadside Attractions’ “Winter’s Bone” were femme-dominated films that managed to hold their own among a more testosterone-heavy lineup of pics that muscled their way into the major categories, with boxers (“The Fighter”), cowboys (“True Grit”), a rock climber (“127 Hours”), mind-bending businessmen (“Inception”) and nerds (“The Social Network”) duking it out with the stuttering monarch of “The King’s Speech.”
Focus Features chief James Schamus was among those to point out the male-dominated year in film kudos. But, he said, “In a macho year, there were extraordinarily accomplished creative women driving the engine for ‘Kids.'”
Echoing last year’s race in which the toon “Up” made it into the best-picture race, Disney’s “Toy Story 3” made the final cut for the main category this year, but the Academy has yet to include a documentary or foreign-language film in its top 10.
As always, the awards season stirs buzz as to how films will perform at the Oscars, but voters of the Academy Awards always have surprises up their tuxedo sleeves.
Notable among the twists this year are the noms for Javier Bardem and John Hawkes in the acting categories for “Biutiful” and “Winter’s Bone,” respectively. There were also some surprise omissions, such as “Inception” helmer Christopher Nolan’s exclusion from the directing category (see separate story).
Scott Rudin is a double nominee in the picture race, for “The Social Network” and “True Grit.” It’s the first time since Francis Ford Coppola and Fred Roos enjoyed that status for 1974’s “The Conversation” and “The Godfather Part II.” (Before 1951, individual producers weren’t cited in the noms.) Among the year’s other double nominees are Nolan (as producer and co-screenwriter), Danny Boyle (“127 Hours”), Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”) and Skip Lievsay and Craig Berkey (“True Grit”). Joel and Ethan Coen are triple nominees, as writers, directors and producers of “True Grit.”
Of the 10 best-picture nominees, nine include at least one producer getting his or her first nom in that category. Only the trio of Rudin and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen are all vets with previous best-film bids.
The acting races also include a long list of first-timers, such as Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”), James Franco (“127 Hours”), Christian Bale (“The Fighter”), Mark Ruffalo (“The Kids Are All Right”), Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”), Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”) and Aussie thesp Jacki Weaver. Weaver’s perf in “Animal Kingdom” first made a splash at Sundance last year.
“I’m in Sundance right now, and everything comes full circle,” said Sony’s Barker. “A year later, she is getting nominated.”
Nine of the top 10 best picture nominees also nabbed writing nods. The only pic left out of the original or adapted screenplay race was “Black Swan,” which lost out to “Another Year.” Last year, eight of the 10 best pic contenders nabbed screenplay noms.
Greg P. Russell scored his 14th nom, with the “Salt” sound team. He’s aiming for his first win this year.
The animation category wound up with just three pics — “Toy Story 3,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and “The Illusionist” — because the Academy ruled in November that just 15 pics were eligible. Five films fill out the category when 16 films or more are considered eligible. This year marks the third year that a toon is competing for the best picture prize, after 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast” and “Up.”
Music from toons took up half of the four song slots, with “Toy Story 3’s” “We Belong Together” and “Tangled’s” “I See the Light” up against “Coming Home” from “Country Strong” and “If I Rise” from “127 Hours.”
Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and collaborator Atticus Ross are first-time nominees for their score for “The Social Network.” However, this is Randy Newman’s 20th nomination and Alan Menken’s 19th. Each were nominated for animated films.
“Salt,” “Hereafter,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1,” “Unstoppable,” “Tron: Legacy” and “Iron Man 2” received bids in various tech categories.
Franco’s “127 Hours” best actor nom and official duties as Oscar host put him in rare company. The last person to be both an honoree and host in the same year was Paul Hogan, who was a contender for original screenplay for 1986’s “Crocodile Dundee.”
Final Oscar ballots will be mailed Feb. 2 and are due back at PricewaterhouseCoopers’ offices Feb. 22.
The Oscarcast is set for Feb. 27 at Kodak Theater.