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Questions of Diversity Inform the Awards Race for Score

Gender and race remain obstacles to joining the ranks of elite composers who typically vie for Oscar

New voices, new musical approaches?

Last year, five of the six nominees in Oscar’s original score category were first-time nominees, and one was a woman, seeming to demonstrate that doors to the traditionally white male realm were finally opening to others.

Will this year be different? It may be too early to say. An informal late-November survey of Academy music-branch voters showed that many are just now starting to watch screeners, and few have made any firm decisions about what the year’s best scores might be.

One trend that insiders have spotted is a gradual return to the concept of melody and memorable thematic material. Recently, “moody, atmospheric, less-melodic music was definitely a much larger presence,” says Michael Giacchino, who scored Pixar’s “Coco” (pictured above) and Fox’s “War for the Planet of the Apes.” “We’re now seeing a rebalancing, the idea that there’s room for all kinds of music. I do see more of the old-school style starting to return.”

Along those lines, expect this year’s two John Williams scores to figure prominently in the coming debate: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (Williams’ eighth in the series that has earned him one of his five Oscars) and “The Post” (his 28th film for director Steven Spielberg). Williams has a record 50 nominations and has won five times.

Similarly, two other composers who generally offer tuneful scores, French composer Alexandre Desplat and American Thomas Newman, have films in contention: Desplat with “The Shape of Water” and Newman with “Victoria & Abdul.” Branch voters tend to nominate them almost every year; last year it was Newman’s little-seen “Passengers,” his 14th nomination without a win. Desplat won for 2014’s “Grand Budapest Hotel.”

In addition to “the usual suspects,” music-branch voters also consider the year’s high-profile films that everyone is talking about. That means automatic consideration of Hans Zimmer’s music for “Dunkirk,” his sixth score for Christopher Nolan; Rolfe Kent’s score for “Downsizing,” his fifth for Alexander Payne; Dario Marianelli’s music for “Darkest Hour,” his fifth for Joe Wright; and Carter Burwell’s score for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” his third for director Martin McDonagh. Burwell also has “Wonderstruck,” his fourth collaboration with Todd Haynes.

Those kinds of long-term director-composer ties generally mean that music-making can begin long before post-production, a relatively recent development. Composers used to be hired at the end of the process, often with just three or four weeks to write and record a score.

“Joe [Wright] calls me even before the script is finalized,” Marianelli says. “I read an early version of the script and started writing music straightaway. There were ideas flying around over a year ago.”

The “diversity” issue continues to be debated: Will a woman, or a person of color, be nominated? Two key possibilities are Tamar-kali for her intimate score for Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” and Michael Abels for his orchestral and choral music for the Jordan Peele horror satire “Get Out.”

Last year, Mica Levi became only the fifth woman nominated in a score category, and the topic of women composers — and how rarely they are hired — has become an issue.

“People have this theoretical, mathematical approach to it like it’s a numbers game, when, really, as a society there is a major blind spot when it comes to women in certain industries,” says Tamar-kali. “A first step would be to expand your horizons and have a more diverse knowledge of the people you’re trying to hire in those positions. If you know about more women, then you’ll hire more women.”

Genre titles are tricky, and not always taken seriously by the branch, although Rupert Gregson-Williams’ “Wonder Woman” score could be an exception, and Benjamin Wallfisch’s terrifying score for “It” was among its most talked-about elements.

Animated scores are another matter. Never count out the Pixar films, which are often nominated (this year, it’s Giacchino’s “Coco” and Randy Newman’s “Cars 3”). Add to the mix the work of Mychael and Jeff Danna for the acclaimed “The Breadwinner.”

Documentary scores are an even bigger crapshoot, although Philip Glass has received positive notices for “Jane” and Jeff Beal has gotten considerable attention for his score for the marathon documentary “Boston.”

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