Oscars: The Path to Victory for 5 Best Picture Frontrunners

Illustration by: Made By Radio

'The Revenant' hasn't sealed the deal, 'Spotlight' still has game and Ridley Scott's snub actually could help 'The Martian' as the final push begins.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Way back in 1982, producer David Puttnam arrived at the 54th Annual Academy Awards with little expectation his $6 million movie would be crowned best picture. He had cobbled together the funds from Warner Bros., The Ladd Co., 20th Century Fox and a multimillionaire's son named Dodi Fayed, a neophyte to moviemaking who had yet to become famous as Princess Diana's last date. From Hollywood's point of view, the Egyptian heir had been taken for a ride: Who else would buy into the notion that a British period piece about two runners could become a hit?

But when Chariots of Fire won the top Oscar, trouncing Warren Beatty's Reds and Louis Malle's Atlantic City (the dual favorites), Fayed's investment looked smart and Puttnam's instincts were vindicated. An underdog that had entered the ceremony with only one acting nomination (Ian Holm) and few other major awards still could pull off a victory. Original screenplay Oscar winner Colin Welland's chant, "The British are coming!" wasn't so wrongheaded after all.

That should reassure campaigners clinging to the hope their candidates can pull off a victory at the 88th Academy Awards. And they'd be right to remain optimistic.

The Revenant scooped up the Golden Globe for best drama, but there's a long history of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association being out of sync with the Oscars, and insiders believe five of the eight best picture nominees have a legitimate chance to win: Revenant, The Big Short, Spotlight, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian. (The other three — Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn and Room — are seen as long shots.) This could be the most wide-open race in years.

For several of them, admittedly, it's an uphill road. But it was uphill for Crash and Shakespeare in Love, which knocked off Brokeback Mountain and Saving Private Ryan, respectively.

Few campaigners these days use the dirty tactics that came into play before — for instance, when rivals spread rumors that John Nash, the hero of A Beautiful Mind, was anti-Semitic, or when a group of naysayers reportedly was hired to spread the word that all of Ryan's strengths could be found during its first 15 minutes and the rest of the film was mundane.

How can this year's nominees win? Here are strategies for the five presumptive favorites:

The Revenant

The Fox/Regency picture comes in with two acting nominations and a bunch of below-the-line noms, indicating it has widespread backing within the Academy. Now it needs to consolidate that support and make sure the nattering about the film's troubled shoot, fired crewmembers and spiraling budget doesn't become a perfect storm of opposition; rather, the difficulties should be presented as a strength, as many believe they are. Getting the support of the tech branches will be crucial, which means press-phobic cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki needs to be out there, as do stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy (the latter has been missing from the campaign circuit). An injection of modesty wouldn't hurt, either: Lines like, "Pain is temporary, but a movie is forever, right?" (from Alejandro G. Inarritu's speech at the Globes) are well and good, but not if they make voters think the director is tooting his own horn.


The real-life priest-abuse story that has held the frontrunner spot since it screened at Telluride in September has been losing traction. It shouldn't. It enters the Oscars with an unexpected two acting noms and is the favorite for original screenplay. But its backers need to remind everyone why the film is topical, and that means bringing out some of the sexual abuse victims to talk about their stories. Oscar voters like to think the best picture winner matters; that's why they once gave the prize to Gandhi rather than E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Give them a cause, and they'll give you their vote.

The Martian

Fox needs to follow the Argo playbook and turn defeat into victory. When Ben Affleck didn't get nominated as that film's director, it helped solidify votes in the best picture category, rather than see them split between picture and director. It also brought the movie a huge boost in sympathy. The fact that Ridley Scott was overlooked (shockingly) as director should be turned to Martian's advantage.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Technicians and lovers of pure style admire Fury Road's below-the-line excellence. What Warners needs to do is build on that base, getting enough voters to place the movie No. 2 or No. 3 on their ranked ballots (even if they don't place it No. 1) so it's in the running till the very end. It also needs to call on star Charlize Theron to remind voters of director George Miller's brilliance. His film might not have the obvious substance of some others, but it's a hell of a lot more fun.

The Big Short

The Paramount movie arrives with a huge advantage: It entered the game late, so voters don't feel saturated with information. But the film's comedic nature might lose those looking for more heavyweight material. Solution: Bring out the economic giants. Get Nobel Prize winners and other authorities to remind voters how serious the 2008 fiscal crisis was and how well this story explains it — and how relevant it is, if at all, to the current financial volatility. The crisis affected everyone in the U.S., and a vote for Big Short tells us we must never forget.

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