Lone Survivor

Universal’s “Lone Survivor” faces two big tests: reception by general audiences and by Oscar voters. The film begins a qualifying run on Dec. 25, then opens wide Jan. 10. Despite being short-changed in awards handouts so far, the film could do well when Oscar noms are announced Jan. 16.

Some year-end films start awards buzz even before production starts. “Survivor” was not one of those. Universal saw the film as primarily an audience-targeted movie and a passion project for writer-director Peter Berg. A kudos consideration was a possibility, but not inevitable.

At early industry screenings, the reception was enthusiastic, and that continued at subsequent screenings. So the question has been asked more than once: “This film is terrific, why isn’t it getting more awards attention?” The answer is that it’s a crowded year, but there are other factors.

December awards from critics (and nominations from the Golden Globes) are often an indication of what films are hot. Oscar voters are human, despite what the media seems to think. Their choices may overlap with critics, HFPA members and so on, but they are rarely identical.

For one thing, half of the Academy’s 16 branches are devoted to below-the-line workers, who can appreciate all the expert BTL work in “Survivor” (editing, sound editing, sound mixing, cinematography, music). So this and Universal’s other awards hopeful, “Rush,” seem likely to gather more attention from Oscar and the guilds than from critics, if only because most of the December awards don’t recognize below the line.

This is not to short-change the above-the-line work in “Survivor.” In terms of acting, it’s uniformly good, but it’s a real ensemble and hard to single out one performer. As for Peter Berg, he has stiff competition in the writing and directing categories, yet there is hope there and in the best-pic race, which has more categories.

Oscar history is filled with films that scored multiple nominations — including best picture –after being ignored by most of the earlier-season awards: “A Serious Man,” “The Blind Side” and “District 9″ in 2009, or, a decade earlier, 1999′s “The Sixth Sense” and “The Green Mile.”

After “Blackhawk Down,” “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” there is no telling how Oscar voters will react. “Survivor” is certainly an offbeat film to open in the holidays. So was “ZDT,” but that one had the pedigree of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal following on the success of “The Hurt Locker.” And its early critics prizes and its headline-making attacks from D.C. made it a box office hit and high on the radar of Oscar voters.

Berg, star Mark Wahlberg and the “Survivor” team have been working hard to spread the word. The next few weeks will offer evidence of how successful they’ve been.

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