To win Best Picture at the Oscars, you usually need to pick up nominations in directing, writing and editing: few films win the top prize without them, though there have been very recent exceptions: "Argo" (2012) prevailed without a directing bid, and "Birdman" won despite its editing snub. Nevertheless, those categories are often telling, but they're not the only ones to watch out for.
Consider 2010, when "The King's Speech" swept the nominations, including an unlikely bid for Sound Mixing. Sound categories tend to favor thrillers, action movies, epics, and musicals, so the inclusion of a smaller character-driven drama indicated how much support there was for the film across the board.
The same year, "The Social Network" did well, earning eight nominations, but its canary in the coal mine was probably Andrew Garfield, who had received Best Supporting Actor plaudits throughout the season – including nods from the Golden Globes and BAFTAs – but was left out at the Oscars. Maybe that should have been our biggest clue that the academy just wasn't that into it.
Who was helped and who was hurt? Let's consider their respective nominations.
We had forecast eight nominations for this survival drama, but it landed 12, more than any other film, so relative to our expectations it overperformed by a full 50%. That includes nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Tom Hardy), Best Production Design and Best Visual Effects. So does that mean it's now the frontrunner to win? Perhaps, but it did miss one crucial nomination: Best Adapted Screenplay. No film since "Titanic" (1997) has won the top prize without a writing nomination, but that was also a lavish, director-driven epic, so we mustn't rule out the possibility.
The Best Director nomination for Lenny Abrahamson puts "Room" among this year's top Oscar films. With only four total nominations, I'm not sure this makes it a contender to win the top prize, but if nothing else it makes Brie Larson's Best Actress candidacy look even stronger.
Even though it's only nominated six times, it actually overperformed in the nominations. After weeks of struggling to secure acting noms at precursor events and the worrying snubs at the ACE Eddie Awards and for director Tom McCarthy at the BAFTAs, the journalistic drama managed to score in every category where it was considered a strong contender, including those where it seemed to be on the borderline for a nomination: Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), Best Supporting Actress (Rachel McAdams) and Best Editing, to go along with Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.
"The Revenant" may have twice as many nominations, but there is recent precedent for a smaller-scale film to overcome a behemoth with a hefty nominations tally. Remember that "The Aviator" (11 nominations) lost to "Million Dollar Baby" (seven) in 2004, and that "Lincoln" (12) lost to "Argo" (seven) in 2012. Also, "Crash" (2005) won Best Picture with just six nominations, and "The Departed" (2006) prevailed with only five. "Spotlight" is hardly a lock, but it did everything it needed to do to secure its place in this contest.
Ridley Scott was considered a frontrunner to win Best Director as a kind of de facto lifetime achievement award for his decades of work, including Oscar-nominations for "Thelma & Louise" (1991), "Gladiator" (2000) and "Black Hawk Down" (2001). But Scott was shockingly snubbed, which means he'll have to wait for hopefully another chance at the title, and also likely dashes any hope that the film might have gone along for the ride as Best Picture.
ABOUT THE SAME
"The Big Short"
We predicted five nominations for the surging Wall Street satire, and it got five nominations, in exactly the categories we were expecting: Best Picture, Best Director (Adam McKay), Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing. However, those nominations for directing and acting were far from sure things, so when you consider those bids in conjuction with other Oscar tea leaves (SAG nom for Best Ensemble, Golden Globe bid for Best Screenplay, PGA and DGA nominations), "The Big Short" is as strong a Best Picture contender as it ever was.
"Mad Max: Fury Road"
With 10 nominations including Best Picture and Best Director (George Miller), "Mad Max" is the second most nominated film this year. Those 10 noms were the exact number we were predicting in the exact categories we were predicting them in, so the film is no better or worse than it was going into the nominations. There's a solid chance it'll win Best Picture, but it might be stronger if it had managed surprise nominations for Best Actress (Charlize Theron) or Best Adapted Screenplay too.
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Photo Credits: "The Revenant" by 20th Century Fox; "Spotlight" by Open Road Films; "The Martian" by Moviestore/REX