Will sci-fi find Oscar?

Expansion of best picture field could aid genre films

When the Academy opened up the best picture category to 10 films, the hope was that the final list would broaden beyond the usual high-minded dramas (often low-budget indie fare) to the occasional comedy, foreign film, documentary or big-budget hit like “The Dark Knight.” But Academy executive director Bruce Davis cautions, “It’s not just about trying to get the biggest comicbook of the summer on the list.”

Will an expansive 10-best list mean that the 6,000 Academy voters — many of them over 60 and thus hardly the primary age group that gravitates to such fare — open up the possibilities to more genre material? This year offers several well-reviewed sci-fi titles, from J.J. Abrams’ successful “Star Trek” reboot to summer sleeper “District 9,” produced by Peter Jackson with rookie Neill Blomkamp directing a cast of unknown actors and CG aliens.

James Cameron’s far more costly ($300 million) 3D epic “Avatar” also pits humans against aliens. Two arty dystopian visions are the long-delayed film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road” (starring Viggo Mortensen as one of the last surviving humans on Earth) and Shane Acker’s animated “9” (which envisions a planet inhabited by humanoid robots).

The question is whether doubling the number of best picture contenders means the Academy will change its tune on genres. With a few notable exceptions, voters thus far have strictly relegated sci-fi fare to technical categories. One could argue that Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” was more heart-tugging family fantasy than sci-fi fare. And George Lucas’ “Star Wars” was such a notable game-changer that it had to be taken seriously. But both Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” failed to land best picture nominations. The Academy also overlooked “Children of Men” and “I, Robot.”

“Historically science fiction and comedy have been overlooked for best picture,” says Oscar campaigner Tony Angellotti. “And Academy voters have likewise not favored ‘monster’ films.”

Oscar-winning genre films “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Silence of the Lambs” are exceptions that prove the rule. But while “LOTR” fell into the fantasy genre, it was boosted by a literary pedigree: J.R.R. Tolkien. Likewise, Jonathan Demme and Ted Tally adapted their horror film from a bestselling novel by Thomas Harris. Top-tier actors Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins also helped to elevate the film.

For its part, “Star Trek” faces an Academy bias against sequels. Unless the first movie in a series has been nominated, follow-ups never are — or at least not to date. Academy voters are unlikely to give credit to a movie like “Star Trek,” even if it is a wildly successful reboot of a revered franchise, because it is based on a familiar world and characters. No matter how excellent Paul Greengrass’ “Bourne” sequels may be, the first one had to score in order for the others to have a chance.

Three factors will make the difference for sci-fi this year: preferential ballots, film critics’ votes and game-changer status.

The final best picture nominations list will reflect the preferential ballots of the Academy. That means the movies that are given the highest-place votes on voters’ ballots will wind up on the nominations list. If too many people vote for “Star Trek” or “District 9” as their ninth or 10th choice, that movie won’t make the final list. That’s because the PricewaterhouseCoopers folks start with 10 piles for best picture, keeping the titles with the most first-place votes and throwing out the films with the fewest first places. Then they go through the second-place choices, getting rid of the titles with the least votes. And so on through eight rounds.

In order for this year’s sci-fi titles to make the final 10, many voters will have to feel passionately enough about them to put them at the top of their ballots. Many Academy voters adore James Bond movies but they don’t tend to vote for them for best picture. Lower-ranking titles may fall off ballots as viewers finally see the big holiday films. Alternatively, if some late-breaking titles disappoint, voters may add “Star Trek” or “District 9” in order to fill out their lists. But will they rank them as their favorites? That will tell the tale.

Because the sci-fi genre has not been taken seriously in the past by Academy voters — who tend to be high-minded at the time of balloting — sci-fi films will need to gain credibility with help from critics’ year-end 10-best lists and critics’ group awards, which serve to remind voters of the best that the year had to offer. Critics’ cred could push into serious contention a sci-fi title like “District 9,” for example, which earned raves. Historically, reminds one producer, “Critics’ favorites are given more Academy consideration than the well-made studio movie, the ‘Spider-Man’ or ‘Iron Man.'”

In order for Cameron’s “Avatar” to get beyond some Academy members’ resistance to its blue, flat-nosed aliens, the pioneering effects film will have to break out as a game-changer, the way “Star Wars” did 30 years ago. 1997’s “Titanic,” which won 11 Oscars, was more than a disaster film with eye-popping special effects. It was a historic-period epic romance as well. Thus “Avatar,” which by all accounts moves the art of performance capture and 3D filmmaking to new levels and could change the way movies are made, needs to work as a tragic romance as well as a sci-fi adventure and register as a major event film.

In the end, for sci-fi to break out of the technical Oscar ghetto this year, it will need to change its status as mere genre fare.