The Envelope: Best picture Oscar contenders often break the genre film barrier

Matthew McConaughey in “Interstellar”
There’s a widely held belief that genre movies, including sci-fi films, such as this year’s “Interstellar,” don’t get seriously considered for best picture Oscars.
(Melinda Sue Gordon / Paramount Pictures)

There is a long-running misconception that members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences love only underdog biopics, literary adaptations and anything in which Meryl Streep speaks with an accent. But if you look at the list of the 500-plus movies that have received best picture nominations since the earliest awards were handed out in 1927, you’ll see a surprising number of titles that stray from the straight dramatic film — comedies and genre stories that encompass fantasies, thrillers, westerns and sci-fi epics.

As Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies and author of “80 Years of the Oscar,” points out, comedies and musicals such as “The Thin Man” (1934), “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936) and “Gigi” (1958) have always been on the award radar. “However, it’s always easier to acknowledge the dramatic roles and the big showy parts,” he says.

Osborne does note, however, that academy voters tend to have a blind spot when it comes to big, visual-effects-laden fantasies. “It confuses me when a movie like ‘Annie Hall’ wins over ‘Stars Wars’ or ‘Avatar’ loses best picture to ‘The Hurt Locker’ because, in a sense, the fantastic stories that are told in ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Avatar’ can only be told as these movies on the big screen.”

This year has plenty of non-drama fare looking for some attention. Imaginative rides such as Disney’s off-beat fairy-tale offerings “Maleficent” and the musical “Into the Woods,” its blockbuster release with Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Chris Nolan’s just-released space odyssey “Interstellar” from Paramount and Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies,” slated for a mid-December opening from Warner Bros., fit the bill as genre movies that have strong crossover appeal.


“As the makeup of the academy membership changes with more members [having] awareness of animation and visual effects, I think we’re going to see more fantasy and sci-fi films come into the spotlight,” says Don Hahn, executive producer of this year’s “Maleficent” and 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast,” the first animated movie to be nominated for a best picture Oscar. “It was a huge honor to be nominated, … and since then the inclusion of an animated film category hasn’t stopped great films from rising to the top. I can’t help but think that academy voters are very tuned in and completely aware of what makes a best picture or director nomination, regardless of the technique used to make the film.”

Jorge Gutierrez, the writer and director of this year’s animated feature “The Book of Life,” echoes Hahn’s sentiments. “The really good genre films reflect their time and views in incredibly unique and subversive ways.”

Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and Jon Favreau’s “Chef” are two of this year’s top comedic contenders, which performed well at the box office. Both Fox Searchlight (“Budapest”) and Open Road Films (“Chef”) have launched award season campaigns for the two titles.

“I think academy voters are open to what they think are the better films regardless of the genre,” Tom Ortenberg, president of Open Road Films, says. “‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ ‘Sideways’ and ‘Juno’ are three fairly recent examples of comedies that were award season favorites. Voters are open to comedies if they have been moved by them.... The best award season campaign of all is to get people to see your movie.”


Darker, edgier movies that don’t necessarily leave the audience with warm, fuzzy feelings could also find their way into the best picture nominees. Noirish offerings such as David Fincher’s thriller “Gone Girl” and writer-director Dan Gilroy’s gritty “Nightcrawler” belong to the category of genre films that have seen awards love despite their lack of faith in human nature, films such as “Fatal Attraction” and “The Silence of the Lambs.”

“Academy voters are often looking for thematic and emotional relevance and standout performances,” says Gilroy. “Biopics and straight dramas are where those qualities can often be found. That said, a lot of the films that I love are genre films that have all those elements. You can even argue that the first movie that received the Oscar, ‘Wings’ [1927], was a genre movie — a great kinetic film with lots of action about WWI fighter pilots.

“‘District 9,’ ‘Avatar,’ ‘Inception’ were films that broke through in the sci-fi category, and darker films like ‘Silence of the Lambs’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’ were also recognized by the academy despite their edge and crime angle. Expanding the number of features in the past few years [from five to up to 10 nominees] has also allowed the voters to move beyond the more traditional types of movies, without paying attention to labels and genres.”

Perhaps it’s “Book of Life’s” Gutierrez who offers the best defense for including genre movies in all the top races. “They truly are a reflection of ourselves, with all our glorious flaws — like a delicious street taco full of wisdom.”