Oscar's secret ingredients for cooking up awards gold

05:00 AM, Oct 19, 2013

Ron Howard's 'Rush,' starring Chris Hemsworth, was once considered an early Oscar frontrunner due to its critical acclaim, but it may be hurt by it's weak box office. Jaap Buitendijk, Universal Pictures/


Written By by Scott Bowles, USA TODAY

LOS ANGELES — And the nominees are … already crowding Oscar’s dance card. But do they know the steps?

Just last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences could fill just nine of its 10 slots for best-picture nominees. This year, analysts say, it could be tough to winnow the list to 10. And many of the films likely to contend are already out, weeks before studios traditionally roll out their awards bait.

From Fruitvale Station to Gravity to Captain Phillips to 12 Years a Slave, which opened this weekend, Academy Awards observers say Oscar’s cup already runneth over — with more than two months of movies to come. Like summer, awards season is starting earlier than ever to get a jump on an increasingly crowded release slate. Theaters have been brimming with movies that have critics raving and fans tweeting. Vanity Fair posited that 2013 may be “the greatest year for movies since the Gone With the Wind” era.

Though that may be overstatement, “this is one of the most suspenseful seasons we’ve had,” says Tom O’Neil, editor of the awards site Goldderby.com. “No movie is screaming that it’s tailor-made for Oscar.”

Not that figuring out academy tastes is a piece of cake. If Oscar has a recipe for Academy Award success, he’s playing it as close to the vest as Colonel Sanders.

Still, analysts say there are common characteristics of most best-picture winners: a combination of commercial and critical success, Oscar pedigree and, well, experts aren’t sure what to call it.

The best way to describe it is the ‘warm and fuzzies,’” O’Neil says. “It’s that feeling academy members love to have when they leave a movie, that they’ve gotten an uplifting story, or a socially conscious message. Something that makes them feel the movie has something important to say.”

If the award prospects of 2013 share a trait, however, it’s that none appears precooked to academy taste. “All of these appear to be missing something,” O’Neil says of the early contenders. “You couldn’t point to one movie that’s obvious Oscar bait. The good news is the movies are as different as could be.”

Steve Pond of the industry site Thewrap.com says the buffet already is dividing the academy: Two of the race’s top early contenders, the studio-backed Gravity and small-budget 12 Years a Slave, underscore a split among members who prefer art-house fare and those who favor “box-office hits and pop-culture phenomena.”

At the very least, he notes, “the race get more confusing — and hey, more fun — before it gets any clearer.”

USA TODAY takes a look at the early Oscar hopefuls and grades them on experts’ four criteria: critical success, box-office reception, Oscar pedigree and the movie’s message:

Already out

Gravity

• Reviews: A

• Box office: A

• Pedigree: A

• Message: C+

• Assessment: There’s no getting around the puns, and Gravity has hit the stratosphere on three of four Oscar counts. Reviews are great, revenue is huge (more than $128.5 million heading into the weekend), and Sandra Bullock and George Clooney know their way around a podium. But the film’s straight-ahead plot about a crippled space shuttle may not be sweeping enough for academy voters.

Captain Phillips

• Reviews: A

• Box office: A-

• Pedigree: A

• Message: B

• Assessment: Were Gravity not such a box-office shocker, the true story of a freighter hijacked by Somali pirates would be seen more favorably by oddsmakers. Alas, it has remained stuck in Gravity’s orbit, opening to about half of the sci-fi thriller’s debut. Still, star Tom Hanks is a favorite son of Oscar, so expect this to contend.

12 Years a Slave

• Reviews: A

• Box office: N/A

• Pedigree: B-

• Message: A

• Assessment: If any film has critics talking, it’s this true pre-Civil War story of a free black man from upstate New York who was abducted and sold into slavery. The film already took the People’s Choice Award from the Toronto International Film Festival, and it leads many analysts’ top 10 lists. But after Fruitvale Station and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the film’s stirring but brutal message about race and freedom could be a challenging sell to the masses.

Rush

• Reviews: A-

• Box office: C-

• Pedigree: B+

• Message: B+

• Assessment: Many critics hail the true-life racing story as Ron Howard’s finest film, and praise the thriller for going beyond a sports film. But America’s race car fans apparently prefer the race track to the theater, because the $38 million film has stalled at $22 million after three weeks of release and is dropping quickly from the field.

Blue Jasmine

• Reviews: A

• Box office: B+

• Pedigree: A

• Message: B

• Assessment: The academy traditionally plucks one or two films from the summer slate to show that it has a common touch. But voters will still likely go with this drama from art house favorite from Woody Allen, who scored some career-best plaudits (as did star Cate Blanchett). Allen’s an Oscar darling, so he may have to decide if he wants to leave New York for a city he loathes, to pick up an award.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

• Reviews: B

• Box office: A

• Pedigree: B-

• Message: A

• Assessment: At first glance, Lee Daniels’ The Butler would seem to have The Help’s Oscar playbook down pat: Both films were surprise civil rights hits in late summer. The Help would land four Oscar nominations, including best picture. Slave could trip up Butler, which lacks much Oscar lineage, if the academy recognizes only one movie examining race relations.

Coming soon

Inside Llewyn Davis (opens Dec. 6 limited; Dec. 20 nationwide)

• Reviews: A-

• Box office: N/A

• Pedigree: B+

• Message: B-

• Assessment: You can usually reserve a seat at Oscar’s table when Joel and Ethan Coen have a film. Their latest story follows a week in the life of a young folk singer navigating the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s. Davis already captured the Grand Prize at Cannes, though the brothers’ taste can run too quirky for academy members, and most won’t know lead star Oscar Isaac.

American Hustle (Dec. 13 limited; Dec. 25 nationwide)

• Reviews: N/A

• Box office: N/A

• Pedigree: A

• Message: B-

• Assessment: Hustle stands as the early potential dark horse of the season. Directed by David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter) and starring Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro,Hustle has the kind of résumé that makes the academy drool. Problem is, no one has seen the Mafia story, which has eschewed the traditional festival run.

Saving Mr. Banks(Dec. 13 limited; Dec. 20 nationwide)

• Reviews: N/A

• Box office: N/A

• Pedigree: A-

• Message: B+

• Assessment: Another wild card. This story of the making of Mary Poppins could prove a real spoiler, with Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as Poppins author P.L. Travers. As Argo and The Artist demonstrated, Hollywood loves stories about Hollywood. But Banks, like Hustle, remains a mystery to critics and box-office forecasters.