Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow were behind two of the most acclaimed movies of 2012, the political thrillers “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” and the smart money in Hollywood had both vying for directing honors at next month’s Academy Awards.
Yet when the Oscar nominations for director were announced Thursday, Affleck and Bigelow were passed over. Instead, two of the five slots went, stunningly, to longshot Hollywood outsiders: a 30-year-old New Orleans artist making his feature debut and an Austrian auteur who has worked almost exclusively outside the English language.
The nominations for Benh Zeitlin and Michael Haneke — whose Louisiana coming-of-age-story “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and French-language old-age drama “Amour,” respectively, have grossed only a combined $12 million in the U.S. — had much of Hollywood baffled and buzzing, and trying to come up with an explanation.
“I have no theory for it,” said Amy Pascal, co-chair of Sony Pictures, which released “Zero Dark Thirty.” “I don’t understand it — everybody is like, ‘What?’ She [Bigelow] is the center of gravity of the movie.” The director Ang Lee, who did land a spot on the list for his 3-D adventure “Life of Pi,” joining Steven Spielberg (“Lincoln”) and David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook”), said, “It’s shocking. Normally there’s a pattern. There’s no pattern this year.”
Even Michael Barker, the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics studio “Amour,” called it “incomprehensible” that Bigelow, who like Affleck had earned nominatins from every other group, wasn’t nominated.
Many voters, pundits and Oscar nominees offered up possible explanations for what Oscar watchers regard as one of the more surprising upsets in recent years. Theories included controversy over the accuracy of “Zero Dark’s” torture scenes to voters turning to other movies because they thought Affleck and Bigelow were locks, much in the way a political candidate ahead in the polls will generate a low voter turnout.
“I think when it comes to awards a lot of people vote for the guy they think won’t get in because they think someone like Ben is alread in,” said the “Flight” screenwriter John Gatins, who was nominated for a screenplay Oscar Thursday and votes in the writers and the directors guild prizes.
Some felt that Affleck and Bigelow, whose movies, about the Iran hostage drama of 1979 and the manhunt for Osama bin Laden, were both based on shattering moments in recent history, split the vote; others thought the list reflected a desire for fresh voices. The politics of Hollywood and the peculiarities of awards voting also came in for consideration.
The slight to Bigelow was especially noteworthy because she is the only woman to have won a directing Oscar, for “The Hurt Locker.” But she may have been damaged by a controversy in which lawmakers, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), said the film erroneously suggested torture helped lead to the capture of Bin Laden.
The academy’s nominees deviated sharply from the selections of the Directors Guild of America, announced earlier in the week. The DGA is usually a strong indicator of Oscars but only overlapped on two of the five choices (Spielberg and Lee).
In past years, academy members often took their cues from the DGA, but this year Oscar voting closed several weeks earlier, before the DGA announced its selections.
It was also hard to avoid the quirks of academy voting. Although the Oscars are considered an overarching seal of quality, the nominations for all but best picture are decided by a small group, known as a branch.
So even though the Directors Guild of America is composed of nearly 15,000 members, the academy’s director branch is far smaller, made up of about 360 people. Voters list their five choices in what is known as a preferential balloting system, with every member being credited with only one vote.
According to Steve Pond, an Oscar pundit with the industry website the Wrap, a director needs just 62 votes to land a nomination — a startlingly small total that can lead to surprising choices.
What’s more, the median age of the director’s branch, according to a study conducted last year by The Times, is 64, making it the second-oldest branch in the academy--and possibly helping “Amour,” which deals with aging, make the cut.
But there were cultural factors at work too.
One Oscar voter, the writer-director Keith Gordon, said in an interview that he put Zeitlin on the top of his ballot because of what he saw as “a trend toward smaller, more offbeat films.” (Also omitted from the list, in that vein, was Tom Hooper, the winner for “The King’s Speech” two years ago who helmed 2012’s splashy “Les Miserables.”)
Joe Cavalier, a TV veteran and member of the branch, said that he was “so tired of the same people getting nominated.” He added, “I think people should go for dark horses, and other people that I talk to in the academy feel the same way.”
But if the choices were a sign of the growing acceptance of independent cinema, they also suggested a shrinking film world. Haneke had won numerous European prizes — including Cannes’ prestigious Palme d’Or in two of the last four years. But until Thursday he had never been nominated for an Oscar.
Kevin Hooks, a director who has worked on such TV series as “Prison Break,” said he believed “Argo” and “Zero Dark” were hurt because they touched on charged current events.
“I think that it’s difficult to dismiss the idea that political controversy has something to do with it. You look at two films that are basically politically themed,” he said. “Recent history has shown us that when you have films that are based upon real events that controversy has hurt those films in the past.”
He said he voted for Bigelow but not Affleck.
Bigelow and Affleck were not made available for comment Thursday, but a person close to both said they were hit hard by the news.
“I know they are both disappointed,” said William Goldenberg, an editor on “Argo” and “Zero Dark”. “Both films are such directors’ movies … you think, ‘how could they not be nominated’?”
Still, some saw the nominations as a positive sign, an indication that the Oscar world has grown more inclusive.
“The history of the Oscars is a history of no Howard Hawks, no Alfred Hitchcock,” said Jeanine Basinger, professor of film studies at Wesleyan University, where Zeitlin attended. “I think you have to say hurrah to the academy because they are looking at finally the full picture of moviemaking in the United States. This is everything from the top of the establishment to the top of the real independent movement.”
Times staff writers Mark Olsen, Glenn Whipp and Claudia Eller contributed to this report.