Oscars: Why Are Contenders Dropping Like Flies This Awards Season? (Analysis)

In the decade-plus that I've been covering Oscar races, I've never seen anything quite like this year, in which major awards hopefuls have been dropping like flies.

A couple of weeks ago, it looked like Paramount's The Wolf of Wall Street would be moving to 2014 and Sony's The Monuments Men would be coming out in 2013. Now it seems like the reverse is happening. According to reports, Martin Scorsese's Leonardo DiCaprio-starrer Wolf has finally been whittled down to an acceptable runtime and will be released on Christmas Day. George Clooney's World War II thriller Monuments Men, on the other hand, is running behind on its visual effects and consequently will be held until February.

Go figure.

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In addition to Monuments Men, Sony Pictures Classics' Foxcatcher got pushed into next year because Bennett Miller apparently needs more time to finish it. And The Weinstein Co.'s The Immigrant, starring Marion Cotillard, and Grace of Monaco, starring Nicole Kidman, are also being held, even though the former played at Cannes and the latter was extensively teased there, because Weinstein apparently feels that the movies stand a better chance at the box office in the spring.

All of these reported justifications may be true -- but, according to high-level industry insiders, another consideration factored into at least some of these scheduling decisions, as well: fear. 2013 has shaped up to be such a competitive year that some distributors would rather hold their films until the next cycle in the hope that they will stand a better chance of getting noticed. Distributors always try to gauge the field and then, depending on what they see, occasionally recalibrate their plans. In recent years, some distributors who saw holes in the field rushed films that were scheduled to come out later into the awards race, to varying degrees of success -- see Million Dollar Baby in 2004, Letters From Iwo Jima in 2006, Crazy Heart in 2009 or Hitchcock last year. This year, after assessing the field, distributors are running in the other direction.

Can you blame them? Where is there an opening?

Have a best actress Oscar hopeful? Good luck getting her into a field that is already packed to the gills with past winners (August: Osage County's Meryl Streep, Blue Jasmine's Cate Blanchett, Gravity's Sandra Bullock, Labor Day's Kate Winslet, Philomena's Judi Dench and Saving Mr. Banks' Emma Thompson) and a perennial nominee (American Hustle's Amy Adams) who did some of the best work of their careers this year. At least one outsider usually makes the cut in this category -- see novelty cases Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace), Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), etc. -- but this year there probably won't even be room for Adele Exarchopoulos, the 19-year-old star of the epic lesbian love story Blue Is the Warmest Color, or 24-year-old Brie Larson, the star of the best movie of the year that I've seen, Short Term 12.

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The best actor race wouldn't be much easier to penetrate. I have seen Robert Redford in All Is Lost, Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, and I can't imagine a scenario in which any one of them is not nominated. That would leave just two slots in the category up for grabs between Forest Whitaker for Lee Daniels' The Butler, the 2013 film that more Academy members tell me they love than any other so far; Captain Phillips' Tom Hanks, one of the most well-liked guys in the industry, who is finally back on his game; rising stars Oscar Issac (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station); Joaquin Phoenix, a best actor nominee last year for The Master who is back this year with HerHugh Jackman, who shed his nice-guy image in Prisoners; Idris Elba, who plays Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom; and Paramount's other best actor hopeful, veteran Bruce Dern for Nebraska. Most people haven't even seen Christian Bale in American Hustle or DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street yet -- and when was the last time that either of them gave a performance in a fall movie that wasn't a formidable contender?

As for the two supporting categories, there are very few slam-dunk nominees -- probably just Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) among the gentlemen and Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave) among the ladies -- but that is not to say that they lack plausible options.

To the contrary, the best supporting actor field could be filled out with one or even multiple nominees from 12 Years a Slave (Michael Fassbender being the best bet from the huge ensemble), American Hustle (Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner are both vying in this category), August: Osage County (put your chips on Chris Cooper, if anyone), Blue Jasmine (Bobby Cannavale and Andrew Dice Clay are getting real pushes), Lee Daniels' The Butler (keep a particularly close eye on David Oyelowo) and Wolf of Wall Street (Jonah Hill is said to pop the most but there's also Matthew McConaughey, who is contending in this category for Mud as well). Then there's Josh Brolin (the best thing about Labor Day), George Clooney (who could ride Gravity's coattails far for his small part), Harrison Ford (a movie star who is virtually unrecognizable in 42), Jake Gyllenhaal (doing serious character work in the hit drama Prisoners), Tom Hanks (playing Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks) and Geoffrey Rush (for his sensitive performance in The Book Thief) -- all of whom have received some degree of previous recognition from the Academy. And we can't forget Barkhad Abdi (the Somali standout in Captain Phillips), Daniel Bruhl (who makes Rush, if not The Fifth Estate, worth seeing), Steve Coogan (who wrote and brings levity to Philomena) and regular bridesmaid Sam Rockwell (at his most Rockwellian in The Way, Way Back), who have yet to have their day in the sun. And then there's the sad case of James Gandolfini (Enough Said), who might be in line for a career tribute nom. Want to try to slide past that group?

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How about best supporting actress? In addition to Nyong'o, there are multiple possibilities from The Butler (Oprah Winfrey first and foremost) and August: Osage County (Julia Roberts will be the center of a lot of attention but Margo Martindale is just as good if not better in the film). There are numerous ladies up for their portrayals of real people, including Jennifer Garner (a tolerant doctor in Dallas Buyers Club), Naomie Harris (Winnie Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), Felicity Jones (Charles Dickens' mistress in The Invisible Woman), Octavia Spencer (a grieving mother in Fruitvale Station), Sarah Paulson (a slave master's wife in 12 Years) and Emily Watson (a German protector of a Jew in The Book Thief). There is a group of talented ladies who brought fictional figures to life, including last year's best actress Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence, who put on a few pounds to do some real character work as the wife of a conman in another David O. Russell joint, American Hustle; Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine; Melissa Leo, the category's winner three years ago, in Prisoners; Carey Mulligan in Inside Llewyn Davis; Lea Seydoux in Blue Is the Warmest Color; and June Squibb in Nebraska. And then there's Her's Scarlett Johansson, who might score a nom thanks to the use of only her single best physical attribute -- get your mind out of the gutter, I'm talking about her voice!

For the sake of argument, let's just say that you care only about a best picture nom. Who do you plan on taking a slot from? 12 Years a Slave, a movie that is already widely described as "the Schindler's List of slavery"? Gravity, which employed groundbreaking technology and has won the box office each of its first three weekends in release? The Butler, which movingly synopsizes America's Civil Rights struggle at a time of renewed racial tensions across the country? Blue Jasmine, one of Woody Allen's most critically acclaimed and commercially successful films yet? Captain Phillips, a hit film that promotes the idea of American exceptionalism more than any politician's speech ever has? Saving Mr. Banks, a movie about the movies like the last two best picture winners? All Is Lost, Dallas Buyers Club, Her and Philomena, which I would argue feature some of the best big-screen performances ever? Acclaimed indies with cult followings, such as August: Osage County, Before Midnight, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Fruitvale Station, Inside Llewyn Davis, Mud and The Place Beyond the Pines? Quality films with big studios behind them, such as The Book Thief, The Great Gatsby, Nebraska, Rush and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty? And that's not even touching upon the four movies that most pundits have not yet seen, American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street, Lone Survivor and Out of the Furnace. If you think that no more than nine of those films are better than yours, good luck to you.

The movies that are moving to 2014, supposedly for regrettable reasons, may actually have stumbled into a better place. I certainly wouldn't want to compete against the 2013 field.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg