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What Even Is an ‘Oscar Movie’ Anymore?

Eight months ago writer-director Barry Jenkins and his “Moonlight” team saw their historic moment botched in front of a crowd of thousands and a television audience of nearly 33 million. The circumstances were unfortunate — a mishandled envelope led to an infamous Oscars gaffe — but the import of the event was no less seismic: An LGBTQ film centered on the black experience from a black filmmaker won best picture in the face of one of the most dominant contenders the awards season had ever seen.

Was the win for “Moonlight” a reaction to a post-presidential inauguration sociopolitical climate that saw empathy and decency evaporating at a rapid clip? Was it a perception that frontrunner, Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” had become too big for its britches (winning a record seven Golden Globes and tying the overall Oscar record for nominations)? Was it an indication that Academy tastes are shifting, that diverse, international and cinephiliac points of view are managing to establish a foothold?

The answer is obviously somewhere in the middle of all that, but the latter point is the most fascinating one going forward: How does one confidently take the pulse of a Motion Picture Academy that has ballooned in recent years as leadership drags it kicking and screaming into a future of inclusivity over exclusivity?

In just the last two years, 1,457 new prospective members have been invited to join the Academy ranks. That’s a massive leap, propelling the annual average increase from roughly 300 to roughly 700. According to the organization, there has been a 359% increase in invitations for women between 2015 and 2017, and 331% for people of color. At some point, the usual thinking about what constitutes “an Oscar movie” has to be tossed out the window.

Take one of this year’s contenders, Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name,” which tells the story of a young man’s early-1980s homosexual awakening in sun-drenched Italy. In previous seasons, without becoming a box office story, it might have been considered a fringe player in the acting and screenplay races, while otherwise relegated to the critics and independent film awards circuits. Ditto, perhaps, Jordan Peele’s bold sociocultural satire “Get Out.” But the combination of an expanded best picture field (nine years on already) and drastically altered Academy demographics means these films have a better shot at succeeding in an arena where standard “Oscar movie” fare has long reigned.

How does one confidently take the pulse of a Motion Picture Academy that has ballooned in recent years?

This ongoing evolution raises questions beyond the realm of taste, too. Take Netflix: A traditionalist’s view might be that a company whose bedrock philosophy threatens the theatrical business is destined to crap out with Academy voters — particularly in the wake of a 2015 season that saw the streamer’s first big Oscars attempt, “Beasts of No Nation,” completely shut out. But Netflix is available in nearly 200 countries, giving it a particular leg up in outreach to the expanding, increasingly internationalized Academy. (The biggest hurdle for many consultants is not only getting screeners out to new members across the globe, but subtitled ones at that.)

This season will be a significant test for Netflix; the company has staffed up its awards consultancy and comes to the table with more legitimate contenders than ever, from Dee Rees’ Sundance hit “Mudbound” to Angelina Jolie’s Cambodian foreign film entry “First They Killed My Father.”

All of this is made more exciting by the fact that this year, there is no frontrunner to speak of. The early festivals have come and gone, yet there is no “Moonlight”-vs.-“La La Land” showdown expected to carry us through the next four or five months. Rather, there are countless contenders in search of a leader, from the filmmaking muscle of Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” to the dark comedy of Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” to the effortless charm of Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project,” distributed by reigning best picture champ A24.

With Oscar glory hanging in the balance, it will fall to a nearly 8,000-member voting body, one that numbered just 293 souls 90 years ago, to determine the best of them.

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