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Big Breakthroughs Seen in Below-the-Line Categories

As major studio films get more awards love, their artisans are enjoying the limelight more than ever

RYAN GOSLING as Neil Armstrong in
Daniel McFadden

Is 2018 an anomaly, or is it a harbinger of things to come?

The awards derbies of recent years have seen a predominance of indie films at the expense of big studio features — resulting in a slate of Oscar contenders devoid not only of genuine blockbusters but also of more modest mid-budget crowd-pleasers. This has dampened the ratings of the Oscars telecast, much to the consternation of the Academy.

But this year feels different, with studio pics including “Black Panther,” “First Man” (pictured above) and “A Star Is Born” definitely in the running.

And along with this rise in the fortunes of studio pictures, many artisans who have worked on them — from cinematographers to costume designers to visual-effects supervisors — are seeing their projects attain a new level of acclaim and respect.

But before the distribution of the top prizes Feb. 24 at the Dolby Theatre, these artisans will have to run the gauntlet of the guild awards in January and February, competing for multiple trophies at events organized by such Hollywood stalwarts as the American Society of Cinematographers, the Art Directors Guild and American Cinema Editors — where they’ll be judged by their peers.

Of course, success in this arena is no guarantee of an Oscar win, or even a nomination. Nonetheless, guild nods are fairly good prognosticators of what’s to come from the Academy, so everyone will be watching those races.

Many other questions remain. Could “Roma” helmer and DP Alfonso Cuaron be nominated in both categories, and will that film overcome its limited theatrical distribution window to join the other contenders on an equal footing? Will the director/DP duo of Barry Jenkins and James Laxton both score nominations for “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the way they did with “Moonlight?”

Could Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” garner accolades not usually showered upon stop-motion works, realizing a breakthrough for the genre? And what about films with lackluster reviews such as “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.” Can they surmount pundit opinions and gain recognition from artisans purely for their crafts merits? And will the music-heavy offerings vying for trophies this year — “A Star Is Born,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Mary Poppins Returns” — be acknowledged below the line for more than just their tunes?

And what about past winners repeating their successes? From DP Linus Sandgren (“First Man”), who won an Oscar for his work on “La La Land,” to editor Chris Dickens (“Mary Queen of Scots”), who got the prize for “Slumdog Millionaire,” and composer Michael Giacchino (“Incredibles 2”), winner for “Up” — many contenders could receive a second or third trophy to grace their mantelpieces.

And — finally — in this dawning era of #MeToo, to what extent will peers and voters recognize the burgeoning number of women and people of color with major impact in the below-the-line community? They include cinematographer Rachel Morrison, production designer Hannah Beachler, costume designer Ruth Carter, composer Terence Blanchard, costume designer Marci Rodgers and editor Joi McMillon.

Suspense, suspense.