The awards season has its usual blend of old traditions, including online predictions, Q&A screenings and parties “in honor of” a film. However, the race is very different from last year, when “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” were declared the front-runners by early September.
With only two months to go in the calendar year, there is no clear leader at this point. Some pundits seem to think this is a failure of the 2014 crop, but in fact, there are four basic scenarios in the Oscar best-pic race, and they rotate. And while this year is unlike 2013, there are a lot of past precedents.
SCENARIO 1: The best-picture winner gains its stronghold only in retrospect. In 2000, “Gladiator” opened in May and was much admired but nobody was talking about its Oscar chances as best picture. It was only as the year-end films opened and were underwhelming that “Gladiator” looked even better after the fact. Other movies that opened in the first six months of the year, and gained later power, include “Crash” (bowing in May 2005) and “Hurt Locker” (June 2009).
SCENARIO 2: The year-end hope. The industry knew some December launches would be big, but Oscar was not guaranteed until the films were seen — and exceeded expectations. Examples: “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003) and “Titanic” (1997).
SCENARIO 3: The year-end surprise. Nobody was predicting an Oscar for these films far in advance of their year-end openings. And they didn’t win a lot of attention in the awards handouts from critics and other pre-Oscar voting groups. But once the industry started seeing the films, enthusiasm built: “Shakespeare in Love” (1998), “Chicago” (2002) and “Million Dollar Baby” (2004).
SCENARIO 4: Festival buzz. These films were barely on the radar of folks until they opened to rapturous receptions at the fall festivals: “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), “The King’s Speech” (2010), “12 Years a Slave” (2013).
There are a few variations of these scenarios. “The Artist” (2011) and “No Country for Old Men” (2007) debuted in Cannes, so they’re sort of a hybrid between scenarios 1 and 4. And “The Departed” and “Argo” were fall debuts that gained momentum as the December launches fizzled. As one pundit fretted when each of those two films opened, “I wonder if it’s too entertaining to win an Oscar.”
So the big question is: Which scenario will 2014 follow?
A team of Variety editors gathered predictions for The Contenders. The criteria was that a film should have a strong possibility in at least two of Oscar’s “money” categories: best picture, director, the four acting races, and the two screenplay contests.
Variety’s Contenders issue lists 25 films in an attempt to shed some light on the mysterious race. All the Contenders, listed in a separate photo gallery, are live-action narratives; Variety has separate lists for animation, foreign-language and documentary.