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Academy Taxonomy

With the Golden Globe nominations behind us, breaking down the Oscars' biggest voting blocs to understand who wins and why

With this morning’s announcement of the Golden Globe nominations, we are now at the end of the frenetic two weeks during which, traditionally, the Oscar field narrows. The Hollywood foreign press and the Screen Actors Guild have weighed in, and so have critics’ groups — not just in New York and Los Angeles, but in Boston, Washington, D.C., Phoenix, Detroit, and San Diego, with honors from more than a dozen other localities to come (even small cities have in recent years taken to announcing their own epic-length nomination lists of stuff that 12 guys in a borrowed conference room really like).1 Such relentless, concentrated awards jabber usually winnows the herd. But 2013 has proven to be atypical, with such an extraordinarily deep roster of contenders that even an observer as unhyperbolic as the New York Times‘s A.O. Scott has justly called it “a year of superabundant quality.”

This year, all the preliminary prize-giving has functioned like a hierarchical sorting hat. Nothing’s out yet, but a lot is undeniably down. It’s now possible to partition this year’s contenders into two groups. Let’s start with a given: 12 Years a Slave and Gravity are both going to be Best Picture nominees. The division between them — a socially conscious, modestly budgeted movie about an ugly and painful aspect of America versus a technologically breathtaking entertainment that takes us where real life cannot — is as old as the Oscars themselves, and completely legitimate grounds for a good debate about what makes a great movie. Short version: They’re in. Which leaves three to eight spots for the movies that are vying to join them. They are:

American Hustle
August: Osage County
The Butler
Captain Phillips
Fruitvale Station
Her
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nebraska
Saving Mr. Banks
The Wolf of Wall Street

The second group — the group of downsized dreams — consists of movies that once harbored aspirations to compete for the top prize; instead, they’ll have to settle for recognition in the acting or writing categories, and in some cases, nothing at all. They are:

All Is Lost
Before Midnight
Blue Is the Warmest Color
Blue Jasmine
The Book Thief
Dallas Buyers Club
Enough Said
Philomena
Prisoners
Rush

By January 16, when the Oscar nominations are announced, as many as half a dozen movies from the first group will have fallen to the second group. It’s less typical for a second-tier movie to rise, but now and then it does happen (most recently two years ago, when the universally written-off Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close unexpectedly cracked the top category). So, barring a surge by the likes of Dallas Buyers Club (rewarded with a surprising three nominations, including best cast, by SAG), you can assume the remaining Best Picture contenders will be culled from the 10 “Division I” movies. And what’s remarkable about those 10 is that as of this moment, a mere three weeks before the eligibility cutoff, half of them — American Hustle, August: Osage County, Her, Saving Mr. Banks, and The Wolf of Wall Street — have yet to open.

That matters: Even though some screeners have been mailed to Academy members, and critics’ groups (though not individual critics) have weighed in via group votes, what happens to a movie once it actually opens is a crucial and tough-to-quantify element of its Oscar fate. A couple weeks of marination, of written reviews and public and private arguments, general discourse and cultural noise, will help some of these films and hurt others. The temperament of a votership that will have a ton of catching up to do between Christmas Day and January 8, when the (largely electronic) ballots are due, is currently the biggest and most determinative unknown in the race.

So, as a means of guesswork, right now it makes more sense to look at the voters than at the movies. The Academy is divided by branch — actors, writers, producers, sound people, composers, and so on — but thinking of Oscar voting as tribalism-by-profession often leads to fallacies like “Editors like movies with a lot of editing in them,” and it doesn’t tell you much about how Best Picture nominees emerge. Think of the Academy instead as a group of about half a dozen voting blocs divided by taste and predilection.2 This is who they are — and who’s targeting them:

Saving Mr. Banks

Traditionalists

These are the voters who wonder why Spike Jonze spells his name that way, who aren’t sure Fruitvale Station is American or even a movie, and who don’t have a whole lot of interest in lending their approval to a film in which Leonardo DiCaprio orally inserts cocaine into a woman’s … well, kudos to editor Thelma Schoonmaker and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto for leaving exactly which orifice it is to our imagination, but suffice it to say that blow really is the warmest color.

This year, the alpha dog for this group is Saving Mr. Banks, a self-adoring valentine to studio culture about the making of Mary Poppins that explains patiently that great movies are possible only if uptight screenwriters agree to take notes from all-knowing executives and, for good measure, hard-sells the flattering bromide that all artists learn to turn childhood unhappiness into the thing that makes them special. This should hit a large portion of the Academy right in the sweet spot, but despite the expert performances of Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers and the apparently paid-per-twinkle Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, Banks might be a little too low-stakes even for this demographic. The man who would desperately like to get in its way is Harvey Weinstein, who would prefer to sell this group on both August: Osage County (many, many actors in a dressed-up, cut-down version of a play that comes pre-certified with awards) and The Butler (a fine, shrewd film that, despite any number of subversive flourishes, also plays as Important History for those in the Academy — and they do exist! — whose appetite for American history tends more toward The Help than toward 12 Years a Slave). If all of these movies get in, we can call it a reactionary year; if none do, it’ll be a jaw-dropping sign that the Academy is changing faster than even it has realized.

Anti-Traditionalists

These are the voters — New Yorkers, Londoners, Europeans, writers, documentarians, younger filmmakers and actors — who sneered at the hidebound and stodgy Academy until they were invited to join and then thought Free screeners?! Maybe I can change the system from within! They are the fastest-growing and most underestimated demographic of the Academy, and every year they are responsible for at least one and sometimes more than one Best Picture nominee that was thought to be too strange, arty, young, or dark for the Oscars. You can thank these voters for Amour, for The Tree of Life, for Beasts of the Southern Wild. This year, the studio that will try to work this piece of turf is Warner Bros., for Spike Jonze’s Her. It’s an R-rated movie about the intersection of romance and modern technology, and Best Picture wins from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review notwithstanding, it’s likely to be a tough sell to a votership that had trouble even logging on to the AMPAS website last year, so the movie needs all the help it can get from any voter who feels like an Academy outlier. Having those prizes in the ads will help, but Warner’s big mission is to make sure the movie is seen as mandatory viewing by Academy members. If the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, a critics’ favorite with an East Coast vibe and, in Oscar Isaac, an unflashy (though ideal) leading man, is to gain any traction in the Best Picture race, it will have to over-deliver within this group. And any hopes for recognition of the Cannes hits Blue Is the Warmest Color and The Past also reside here.

American Auteurists

This group is, in a way, the modern core of the Academy — people who believe that the Best Picture roster should be filled out by big directors taking big swings at big, or at least challenging, material. Her and Inside Llewyn Davis also want in here, as does Alexander Payne’s Nebraska — but for this segment of the votership, all three of those screeners will have to wait, because the two at the top of their pile will be David O. Russell’s American Hustle and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.

Pairing them may be artificial and arbitrary; on the other hand, if you don’t want your movie discussed in the same breath as the other guy’s rich-people-are-assholes slice of American economic history, maybe don’t open the two of them within 10 days of each other. The Academy may well prove big enough for both of them, but Scorsese’s three-hour, hard-R take on the subject is going to get ejected from family-room DVD players over the holiday season a lot faster than Russell’s is. The embarrassment of riches for this sector of voters is the primary reason that Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine and Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, both of which could have been Best Picture contenders in quieter years, probably won’t be this time around.

Underdog Fetishists

There are voters who love Davids more than Goliaths, just probably not enough of them. Fruitvale Station, a marginalized movie about a marginalized man that has won (and earned) a slew of rookie of the year awards for its writer-director, Ryan Coogler, is the one to back here. Its surprise inclusion on the older/establishment-skewing American Film Institute list (full disclosure: I was a juror) indicates that the emotional impact of this tough, contemporary American story should not be discounted, even among the “old white guys” so often used as a reductive signifier that the Oscars are out of touch. Expect some support among this group for Nebraska and All Is Lost — which are not only underdog stories onscreen but, in a way, behind the camera — and for Enough Said; these voters seek out anything that might be overlooked, although by definition they like only dark horses, and this year they could end up without a Best Picture candidate to call their own.

Spectacle Guys

Some voters — by reputation they’re in the technical branches, but really they’re threaded throughout the Academy — want their movies big, brawny, and mainlined, not routed through Sundance, Cannes, or a writer-director’s quivering, sensitive soul. If you’re wondering why I’m not even calling Gravity a question mark at this point, it’s because Alfonso Cuarón’s movie is made for them. These are the members who nominated Avatar and Inception, and they’re always hungry: Paul Greengrass’s thinking man’s action movie Captain Phillips will also play well for them, and if The Wolf of Wall Street can find the muscle to get into the Best Picture race, this group will help to provide it. You can also credit them with any recognition that goes to Ron Howard’s Rush, which could end up with half a dozen nominations and still miss Best Picture.

Actors

Not all Academy constituencies are hard to identify — this one’s pretty simple. It’s the largest branch (around 20 percent of the total votership), and while it’s not true that they only go for movies with large casts, 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle will play very well with them. So should August: Osage County and The Butler, both of which are hoping to end up like The Help, which used actors’ branch support to pull off a Best Picture nomination, rather than like Doubt, which managed to get four acting nominations and still couldn’t crack the top category. If Enough Said and Prisoners, both huge long shots, have any hope for Best Picture nominations, they’ll require a massive show of support from this branch; that’s probably not forthcoming given the stiffness of the competition.

Message Voters

It’s easy, in the wake of recent wins for The Artist and Slumdog Millionaire, to imagine that voters who want Best Picture nominees to be about something that matters don’t count anymore. In fact, they count more than just about anyone, especially in the nomination process, when they are the closest thing the Academy has to a silent majority. This is where the heart of support for 12 Years a Slave lies, and even if the film didn’t have backing from any other Academy constituencies (and it will have plenty), this group alone could put it through. One measure of how important these voters are is how hard campaigners try to work them. Remember that ridiculous phase of last year’s campaign when the Weinstein Company tried to convince everyone that Silver Linings Playbook was a really serious drama about mental illness prescribed for America by Dr. Oz rather than just a smart romantic comedy? This group of voters is why that happened — and it’s why you will, in the next few months, be told that Captain Phillips, American Hustle, and The Wolf of Wall Street are all searing condemnations of American capitalism even if, when you see some of the movies, you might think that the “searing condemnation” part flies by rather quickly. Weinstein will be manhandling these voters again this year: Fruitvale Station and The Butler are both up their alley, and he has already planted seeds with them that a vote for Philomena is essentially a vote for Catholic Church reform. Dallas Buyers Club will also play very well with this group, and, although it’s a dark horse, I can’t completely discount The Book Thief yet; it would not be the first time in history that a Holocaust-related drama over-performed with Academy voters.

Filed Under: Academy Awards, Awards, Golden Globes, Movies, TV