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Oscar Music Contenders: Will Scores From Spring and Summer Be Left in the Cold?

Why is it that so few scores from movies released early in the year seem to be noticed at awards time?

Over the past decade, only six of 50 original-score Oscar nominees – 12% – were for movies released prior to July 1. The one notable recent exception, Alexandre Desplat’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which won the 2014 score Oscar, was released March 7.

What might that mean for this year’s composers? Are they wasting their time entering music from films released earlier in the year? And what about the ever-growing crop of awards consultants and marketing people being paid to call attention to worthy work?

Nominees are chosen by the 293-member Academy music branch and are generally thought to be a strong overview of the best scores of the year. The winner, chosen by the entire membership, is not necessarily the “best,” most composers agree. The nomination, because the choice is made by their professional peers, is considered the real “win.”

Yet last year, two of the year’s top box-office hits, Michael Giacchino’s “Inside Out” (released in June) and Patrick Doyle’s “Cinderella” (released in March) missed out on score nominations despite excellent reviews specifically for their music. And the year before, “Maleficent” (released in May) was also overlooked despite raves for James Newton Howard’s score.

A Variety survey of the past 10 years shows that 82% of the films nominated for original score — 41 of 50 films — were released in the competitive October through December period.

Does that suggest music-branch members have a short memory or pay little attention to films released prior to awards season?

Says one veteran: “Not only do voters forget something that impressed them eight or nine months ago, but the studios don’t promote those projects because they’re spending all of their advertising dollars on the year-end releases. It’s a purposeful strategy: not to discriminate against the good stuff that came early in the year, but to capitalize on the attention span of the voters.”

Another defends the choices by pointing out that the “cynical and cold-eyed” studios tend to release their best product during the last quarter of the year and that first- or second-quarter releases often simply don’t measure up.

A longtime Oscar consultant points out that branch members don’t just listen to the scores, but also size up the movies themselves. “Oftentimes they’re looking at the movie itself. You rarely see a score nominated if they didn’t like the picture,” he says.

Another veteran marketer faults the branch for its short memory, noting “they tend to only look at all the important films that come out in the fourth quarter; they’ll consider something when it seems ‘important.'”

So what does this mean for the ballyhooed musical scores from early 2016, notably Giacchino’s “Zootopia” (March 4), John Debney’s “The Jungle Book” (April 15), Bear McCreary’s “10 Cloverfield Lane” (June 2), or Thomas Newman’s “Finding Dory” (June 17)? Are they, too, out of luck?

All of these will appear on the Academy’s “reminder list,” generally issued in mid-December and consisting of approximately 100 scores (everything that’s been entered and passes muster, rules-wise, with the music-branch executive committee).

But if history is any judge, look for this year’s nominees to come, by and large, from the last quarter of 2016.

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