Oscars: 12 Films' Strategic Keys to Winning

Hollywood Oscar Keys - P 2015
Illustration by: Taylor Callery

Hollywood Oscar Keys - P 2015

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It's hard to remember another Oscar race as wide open, in as many major categories, as this one is heading into the December holidays. By this point, particularly in the best picture field, there usually are only two or three plausible winners. But this year, there are a dozen.

Check out how different the SAG, Golden Globe and Critics' Choice nomination lists look from one another. And consider the Academy, which has a very different makeup from any of those groups, is changing thanks to a major initiative during the past few years to increase diversity. All of which probably explains why distributors, talent and awards consultants are campaigning so aggressively.

Now's as good a time as any to step back, take a widescreen look at the field and identify the key things each of the dozen hopefuls needs to do to wind up at the podium at the end of the night Feb. 28.

The Big Short
Key: SAG and/or Globes upset 

This late-breaking entry has a lot going for it: It's adapted from a Michael Lewis book (as were The Blind Side and Moneyball, both of which landed pic and acting noms); it's about something important and relevant to our time (what caused the Great Recession); it's entertaining (thanks largely to co-writer/director Adam McKay's comedic sensibilities); it's the sole live-action contender Paramount is focused on; and everyone will at least check it out because of its incomparable A-list cast (led by Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale and Brad Pitt). Despite gripes that its subject matter and jargon are too complex and require multiple viewings to follow, Short did better than anticipated in the early nominations, receiving a best pic (comedy) Globe nom and, more significantly, a SAG ensemble nom. If it can upset The Martian to win the former and/or Spotlight to win the latter, people are going to have to start taking it even more seriously.

Bridge of Spies
Key: Spielberg and Hanks 

Here's a fact that surprises a lot of people: only one Steven Spielberg film (Schindler's List) and one Tom Hanks film (Forrest Gump) have won best picture, and both were released more than 20 years ago. Why did, say, Saving Private Ryan, a previous collaboration of the two, lose to a lesser film, Shakespeare in Love? In large part because its director and star were not willing to campaign as others did. That's admirable but not helpful for a film when they are its best selling points. Bridge is right in the Academy's wheelhouse (many members came of age while the events it depicts unfolded), it has done well at the box office, and it feels timely with U.S.-Russia tensions now at their highest since the Cold War. If Spielberg and Hanks would beat the drum for it a bit more, it could surge.

Key: Fox Searchlight

It has been a challenge to get peo­ple to watch this movie (its Academy screening was poorly attended), largely because it's not "big" (its director and stars are largely unknown, and it won't get many below-the-line noms) — which might explain why it underperformed in the SAG and Globe noms, where only Saoirse Ronan was nominated. But perhaps it should serve as consolation that another Fox Searchlight film of similar scale and niche appeal, Juno, fared about the same with those two groups but went on to major Oscar noms thanks to critical love and voters watching its screener. This film arguably is even more powerful (bring your hankies) and relevant (it's about immigrants and how embedded they are in the fabric of our country), and if anyone knows how to maneuver a tough sell to the Oscars podium it's Searchlight, which has managed that trick at each of the past two ceremonies.

Key: Harvey

It looks as though Harvey Weinstein might end up with "only" one of his films in the best picture race — this 1950s-set lesbian love story — which actually would be scarier for the competition than if he had two because he can be counted on to push it obsessively. A two-hander with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, the Todd Haynes indie missed a SAG ensemble nom (it's the first year since 2008 that a Harvey film isn't represented in the category) but landed a field-leading five Globe noms including best picture (drama). You can count on Harvey to start pushing the angle that indie icons Haynes and lenser Ed Lachman never have won and producer Christine Vachon never has even been nominated — while also trying to convince people that a vote for Carol is a vote for social progress.

Key: Nostalgia

Speaking of sequels to sequels, how about this latest —  and, some have argued, greatest — installment in the 40-year-old Rocky franchise? Keeping in mind that the first Rocky beat a great movie about journalism (All the President's Men), why couldn't this one, too? It plays on nos­talgia for the earliest installments and promotes the idea that — win, lose or draw — hard work and decency are their own reward. What's not to like about that?

Mad Max: Fury Road

There's so much working against this action hit: an early release (May 15), the lack of a realistic acting contender (it was shut out in the SAG noms, though Charlize Theron landed a Critics' Choice nom) and the Academy's aversion to genre movies (including even The Dark Knight) and sequels (excepting The Godfather: Part II and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). However, many groups one wouldn't expect to back Fury Road strongly have done just that: It scored more mentions than any other film in the Critics' Choice noms, it got pic (drama) and directing Globe noms, and it is the National Board of Review's pick for best film and the L.A. Film Critics Association's for best director (George Miller). The Academy's weighted ballot could advantage it, too.

The Martian
Key: Ridley

No best picture Oscar hopeful except Inside Out has grossed more than this sci-fi dramedy, which tells a terrifying story in an upbeat way. It's poised to be a big winner at the Globes, where, rightly or not, it's competing in the thin musical/comedy category. And though SAG snubbed Martian, the other guilds should line up behind it, from those representing craft and technical work to the PGA (which loves a hit) and the DGA. Its secret weapon is director Ridley Scott. Why? He has never won an Oscar, isn't getting younger, has a better résumé than his competitors and legitimately scored a major directorial achievement with this film. Fox might be juggling two other movies (Joy and The Revenant), and sci-fi might not be the Academy's favorite genre (best pic bridesmaids include Star Wars, Avatar and Gravity), but many voters want to give director to Scott — and few like to give best director to the maker of a film that's not also their choice for best picture.

The Revenant
Key: Below-the-line backing

It's not fun or escapist —  in fact, it's long, gruesome and offers no real light at the end of the tunnel — but it's as artful as any other movie this year. That's thanks in large part to the magnificent skills of director Alejandro G. Inarritu, cinematog­rapher Emmanuel Lubezki (both of whom won Oscars last year for Birdman) and Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives a career-best performance. Some might feel awarding Leo his first Oscar would be sufficient acknowledgment for the picture, but if Fox, in partnership with New Regency (which produced the past two best picture winners), can convince voters that this is a landmark achievement made under brutal circumstances, then perhaps they can get it over the top.

Key: Emotion

Like Brooklyn, this is a small-scale, acting-driven, tear-jerking pic that was directed by and stars talent whose names don't yet mean much to most voters (Lenny Abrahamson, Brie Larson and 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay), so it will depend on word-of-mouth praise and screener viewings. Room got a boost by winning the Toronto Film Festival's audience award, which has helped catapult three films to best picture wins during the past decade. It also has A24's mostly undivided attention.

Key: Actors

Sure, it has been regarded as the frontrunner since it was unveiled at the fall film festivals, a difficult but not impossible position to sus­tain (see 12 Years a Slave); its merits, one could argue, have been overstated by journalists (the film makes heroes of journalists); and most people couldn't pick its understated director, Tom McCarthy, out of a lineup. However, like most best picture winners, Spotlight is about something of real-world consequence that actually happened (the discovery of the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal in Boston); like other smaller movies that managed to overcome limitations and win (such as Crash and Birdman), it features a terrific ensemble of well-liked actors; and it's the clear favorite to win the same best ensemble SAG Award those two films won en route to best picture Oscar wins, which matters because actors make up the Academy's largest branch.

Straight Outta Compton
Key: Diversity

The season after the #OscarsSoWhite Academy Awards, and amid the Black Lives Matter movement, this surprise hit about the roots of gangster rap feels timely. Academy members embraced it at its official screening, even applauding after the opening sequence, and might be eager to rebut the notion that just because they predominantly are old white men doesn't mean they can't celebrate a film about black people. With a gracious director, likable stars and Universal very much behind it (thanks to the demise of Steve Jobs), Compton could keep defying the odds.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Key: Excitement

The fact that this hallowed franchise has a new installment has caused major excitement, both inside (the AFI has named The Force Awakens one of the year's 10 best films) and outside of Hollywood. It's destined to become a blockbuster; writer-director J.J. Abrams is making a claim for auteur status; the return of the stars in the 1977 original ups its nostalgic appeal; and the result, it turns out, also is a happy throwback in terms of story, look and feel to George Lucas' Star Wars. Audiences are excited, and that only further encourages voters to reward The Force Awakens for doing what seemed nearly impossible: living up to expectations.