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Oscar directing omission loses stigma

With 10 film noms but 5 for helming, it's not personal

When the Academy upped the number of best picture nominations from five to 10 this year, it made for a broader race, inclusive of everything from smaller-budget indies to one of the biggest-budget films ever released. It also meant that — with still only five director noms available — some helmers would find themselves with an acclaimed film but no kudos in their own category.

John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”), Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”), Lone Scherfig (“An Education”), Ethan and Joel Coen (“A Serious Man”) and Pete Docter (“Up”) are the directors whose pictures were nominated without getting nods themselves. What that means for these helmers and their films is hard to say at this point.

“It’s definitely a different code than what was sent to the filmmaking community in the past,” says Tony AngelLotti, a veteran awards-season consultant with his own PR shingle. “In the past, (having a pic nommed without the director meant) you definitely had not been chosen by your peers for a nomination, but now my feeling is that with 10 best picture nominees and only five best director nominees that there is less stigma, because there’s simply no room for everyone.”

During the years of five noms in each category, there have been several high-profile instances in which a film got an Oscar nod but its director was left hanging.

“Historically it has happened on and off that a film that receives a best picture nomination doesn’t also get a best director nomination,” says awards consultant Ronni Chasen, who also has her own PR company. “It happened in 1989 on ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ even though the film went on to win best picture.” (The film was directed by Bruce Beresford.)

One awards season PR consultant who asked not to be identified says the new division in the list sends strong signals. “The Academy has tipped its hand by having 10 best picture nominations and only five best director nominees,” says the consultant. “The pictures without best director nominations are not the front-runners.”

Given the variety of experience and the diverse films made by this year’s spurned helmers, it’s hard to generalize about why they’ve been left off the list. Hancock directed “The Rookie” and “The Alamo,” among other films. The bulk of Blomkamp’s career has been in visual effects. Danish director Scherfig has written and helmed for European television for more than 15 years. Docter has had a lengthy career with Pixar, writing such films as “Toy Story” and “Monsters, Inc.” and helming “Monsters, Inc.” as well. The Coen brothers have been iconic indy filmmakers for more than a decade.

This group is also a mash-up of one-time nominees and Academy heavyweights. Three of them — Hancock, Blomkamp and Scherfig — have not been previously nominated. The other two have received multiple Academy nods. Docter earned two prior noms for original screenplay, one for animated short film and one for animated feature. Ethan and Joel Coen have each received eight noms that yielded four wins each.

Though many covet the golden statuettes, helmers don’t necessarily need the director nod or win to take their careers to the next level. Some believe a picture, actor or actress nomination can prove even more important in terms of box office as well as setting up the director up for his or her next success.

“John Lee Hancock is in a good position because ‘The Blind Side’ was nominated and Sandra Bullock was nominated, and he fought for her,” Angellotti says. “That means actors will want to work with him, which makes studios more interested in him. Not getting a best director nomination might be less important in his case.”

In the end, whether the helmer is individually acknowledged, it’s a plus to be attached to a nominated picture.

“It’s still a terrific honor for a film to be nominated, and there’s no way that can be reported as anything but good news,” Chasen says. “Films still in current release really benefit from a nomination.”

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