AFI Awards: What It Means When 'Star Wars' Is In, 'Revenant' Is Out (Analysis)

Unlike the Academy, AFI considers only American productions and tends to gravitate toward big-studio fare, THR's awards analyst reminds.
Courtesy of Lucasfilms 2015/Walt Disney Studios
John Boyega and Daisy Ridley in 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

The Force has awakened in a major way.

The only awards group that postponed its voting until it could see and consider Star Wars: The Force Awakens was impressed enough by J.J. Abrams' film to include it on its year-end top 10 list — in place of The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, The Danish Girl, Trumbo, Joy, Steve Jobs, Creed, Black Mass and Sicario, among other highly-touted Oscar hopefuls — we learned on Wednesday afternoon when the American Film Institute announced its honorees for the 16th annual AFI Awards, which will be presented at a luncheon in January.

The AFI's nine other selections for 2015, in addition to Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Disney), are The Big Short (Paramount), Bridge of Spies (Dreamworks), Carol (The Weinstein Co.), Inside Out (Disney-Pixar), Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Bros.), The Martian (20th Century Fox), Room (A24), Spotlight (Open Road) and Straight Outta Compton (Universal).

Do the AFI Awards offer insight into how the Academy itself may act down the road? Yes and no.

AFI Awards selections are made "through an AFI jury process in which AFI trustees, scholars, film and television artists and critics determine the most outstanding achievements of the year." Only five of this year's 16 film jurors are members of the Academy (film and/or TV) — jury chair Tom Pollock (executives branch), Marshall Herskovitz (producers branch), Bennett Miller (directors branch), John Ridley (writers branch) and Emma Thomas (producers branch) — and none, notably, are representatives of below-the-line branches. Even so, one cannot totally dismiss the relevance of their picks in terms of predicting how the full Academy will act.

The Academy considers all films for its best picture Oscar, whereas the AFI considers only American films for its top 10 list — they are the American Film Institute, after all. When the two groups have not overlapped in the past, it usually has been a case of the AFI recognizing a big studio film (to which they tend to gravitate because or in spite of the fact that the big studios provide AFI with much of its funding) that is then replaced in the best picture Oscar race by either an indie film or by nothing at all (the Academy is not obligated to include 10 films, but rather somewhere between five and 10).

For these reasons, supporters of Brooklyn and other contenders deemed non-American shouldn't despair, and supporters of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mad Max: Fury Road and Straight Outta Compton (big studio films widely thought to be on-the-bubble) shouldn't start popping open champagne just yet.

Last year, the two groups' lists ended up looking very different: AFI included five films among its 11 (an additional title was included due to a tie) that did not go on to receive best picture Oscar noms (Foxcatcher, Interstellar, Into the Woods, Nightcrawler and Unbroken), while the Academy, which ended up with eight nominees, included one film that was ineligible for AFI recognition because it was deemed non-American (The Theory of Everything).

Most years, though, their lists closely resemble each other. In 2013, AFI included Fruitvale Station, Inside Llewyn Davis and Saving Mr. Banks, which the Academy replaced with Dallas Buyers Club and Philomena — in other words, two indies replaced two indies and the Academy passed on one studio film that AFI endorsed. In 2012, AFI included The Dark Knight Rises and Moonrise Kingdom, which the Academy replaced with Amour — a foreign indie that had been ineligible for AFI replaced an American indie and the Academy passed on one studio film that AFI endorsed. And in 2011, AFI included Bridesmaids, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and J. Edgar, which the Academy replaced with The Artist and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — the Academy replaced one studio film with an indie, another studio film with a different studio film and dropped a third studio film altogether.

The point is that it would be unusual — but certainly not impossible — for the Academy to replace an AFI pick with another studio film (frightening for backers of The Revenant, Joy, Creed, Concussion, Steve Jobs and Black Mass), but it remains quite likely that the Academy will replace an AFI pick with an indie (heartening news for backers of Brooklyn, as well as The Danish Girl, Beasts of No Nation, Trumbo, Love & Mercy and Ex Machina).

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