Oscars: 'Star Wars' and the All-Out Scrum of a Race Without a Frontrunner

As 'The Force Awakens' premieres, Academy voters reveal their favorites and annoyances with the season: "I have never been so assaulted by screenings and events and screeners."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Just when it looked as if the most wide-open Oscar race in years couldn't become more unpredictable, J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens premiered Dec. 14 and was met with enthusiastic reactions from Academy members and early critics ("The Force is back. Big time," wrote THR's Todd McCarthy). Many of them grew up on George Lucas' first trilogy and had braced themselves to be disappointed by the Disney relaunch, as they were with Lucas' own prequel films. But their reactions suggest Force Awakens could become the franchise's first installment since the 1977 original to land not only below-the-line nominations but also a nom for best picture.

Still, Force Awakens faces awards challenges, even as it likely will break several box-office records. Sequels always face hurdles, and the film didn't screen in advance for critics or awards bodies, so it hasn't appeared on any of the year-end lists or among the Golden Globe, SAG Awards or Critics' Choice nominations, typical Oscar indicators. (AFI postponed its voting by a week to consider Force Awakens so its AFI Awards could consider the film.)

But in what has turned into something of a retro year, Force Awakens isn't the only sequel to a decades-old original that appears to be in serious contention. George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road did solid business this summer ($375.8 million worldwide), and Ryan Coogler's Rocky follow-up, Creed, has had audiences cheering and forking over $86.9 million as of Dec. 13. Both movies have attracted major accolades: Fury Road was named best film by the National Board of Review, received picture and director Globe noms, landed a resounding 13 Critics' Choice noms (four more than any other movie) and earned Miller best director honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Creed's Sylvester Stallone was rewarded with supporting actor Globe and Critics' Choice noms, and if that all leads to an Oscar nomination, he'll set a record for the most years (39) between nominations for portraying the same character.

The improbable contenders underscore how topsy-turvy this awards season has become, with major categories still without obvious frontrunners as the holidays approach. Usually by this point there only are a few plausible winners (The Hurt Locker or Avatar in 2009 and, more recently, The King's Speech versus The Social Network as well as 12 Years a Slave versus Gravity). Some years there even has been just one prohibitive favorite with such films as Schindler's List, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King or Slumdog Millionaire dominating the conversation. But this year, awards voters seem to be all over the place. The nomination lists revealed in the first half of December couldn't be more different. Trumbo and The Big Short, which didn't figure on most prognosticators' early lists, scored with SAG and the Globes. When the National Board of Review and New York Film Critics Circle announced their winners — Fury Road and Carol, respectively — on back-to-back days, neither group made a single mention of the other's winning film in any of their own categories.

That dynamic explains why distributors and awards campaign consultants are working overtime lobbying Academy members aggressively. "I have never been so assaulted by screenings and events and screeners," sighs Anne Goursaud, a voter in the Academy's film editing branch. "This is the first year I've gotten four copies of some movies — they keep coming, and it's really annoying. If I get another copy of Carol or The Danish Girl, I'm going lose it." Goursaud says she is partial to The Big Short, Spotlight, Trumbo and especially Straight Outta Compton, "which is probably my favorite so far — but nothing really knocked my socks off," she says. "I fell asleep watching Steve Jobs."

Marcia Nasatir, of the executives branch, says she's heard similar reactions from many fellow members. "They think the pictures have not been great, that there's not a lot to choose from," she says. "There's a lot of movies that people like, but not a lot of movies that people love. Personally, though, I think The Martian is terrific, I love Spotlight, and I think the foreign films are as good as they've ever been — in fact, better than they've ever been."

Adds acting branch voter Robert Fields: "I thought last season was stronger in a general sense. I like the ones that everyone likes — among others, The Revenant, Room and Sicario — as well as a little one, Mississippi Grind. I was really disappointed and artis­tically irritated with Joy — many people I know don't like the picture, which tried but failed to be like a Preston Sturges movie."

Veteran actor and voter Tab Hunter disagrees about the overall quality, though: "I think this is one of the better years in many years. Movies like Brooklyn, Carol and Spotlight are examples of good, old-fashioned storytelling. The girl in Brooklyn [Saoirse Ronan] — I can't pronounce her name, but she was fabulous, as was Cate Blanchett in Carol, and every single thing in Spotlight came together perfectly."

It's still impossible to count any film truly out, though. Other titles that come up frequently in conversations with Academy members include Bridge of Spies, Concussion, Inside Out, The Hateful Eight, 99 Homes and Beasts of No Nation.

All 6,261 voting members of the Academy will have a chance to weigh in when nomination balloting begins Dec. 30. It closes Jan. 8, and the nominees for the 88th Oscars will be revealed Jan. 14. The ceremony will take place Feb. 28 — at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, where, as the Force would have it, the Force Awakens premiere just took place.

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