10 questions about this year’s Oscar nominees answered

Matt Damon

Matt Damon as a stranded astronaut in “The Martian,” which could become the first science-fiction film ever to win a best picture Oscar.

(Giles Keyte / 20th Century Fox )

Yesterday’s Oscar nominations finally brought some clarity to an awards season that had thus far been unusually wide open and filled with more than a few head-scratchers. (“The Martian” is a comedy?)

But even as the nominations answered many questions — yes, Virginia, an insane, full-tilt action movie like “Mad Max: Fury Road” can earn a best picture nod — it raised many others, some of which could make nice fodder for cocktail parties or future Oscar trivia games. Here are a few:

1. How did the five nominations for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” compare with previous “Star Wars” movies?

Though some fans may have been hoping for “The Force Awakens” to earn a best picture nod, its five nominations — for editing, original score, visual effects, sound mixing and sound editing — represent the strongest showing for any “Star Wars” film since the release of the first movie in 1977. That film earned 10 nominations, including best picture — the only “Star Wars” film to nab that top honor. In the end, it won six Oscars but lost best picture to “Annie Hall.”


“The Empire Strikes Back” received three nominations and two wins, and “Return of the Jedi” got four nominations and one win.


Among the prequels, “The Phantom Menace” earned three nods, and “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith” each earned one. When it came to winning Oscars, however, the Force was not strong with any of them.

2. Now that he’s made the jump from director of hit comedies to Oscar-nominated filmmaker, what will Adam McKay do next?


McKay’s shift from broad comedies such as “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights” to the financial crisis dramedy "The Big Short” was one of this Oscar season’s most fascinating career reinventions. Now that he’s reaped five nominations for the film, including best picture, McKay hopes to keep expanding his repertoire.

“I definitely notice a different type of script has started coming my way,” he told The Times recently. “I’ve got about five or six scripts that are dramas and could be called awards-type scripts.”

McKay is mulling over a range of options, from a “way darker, more dramatic idea” to a satirical comedy about immigration, with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly playing a pair of misguided border guards. And “Anchorman’s” Ron Burgundy is out there somewhere, waiting for his next moment to shine in the spotlight.

3. Is there any precedent for a “Mad Max” film getting any Oscar nominations — let alone 10?

In a word, no. Though the most critically acclaimed previous film in the series, 1981’s “The Road Warrior,” picked up a handful of smaller awards, including the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. prize for best foreign film, neither it nor any other installment ever earned a single Oscar nod. (If there were an Oscar category for stunts, as many have argued there should be, that may have been a different story.) 

The series’ creator, director George Miller, has received Oscar recognition for other films, however. In 2006, Miller won the best animated feature Oscar for “Happy Feet,” and he was nominated for three other Academy Awards: for the “Lorenzo’s Oil” screenplay and for best picture and adapted screenplay for “Babe.” “Mad Max: Fury Road" marks his first time receiving a best director nomination. 

4. How does the box office performance for this year’s crop of best picture nominees compare with last year’s?

Not even close. Given the strong showing for major studio films — which grabbed five of the eight slots — the 2016 best picture nominees have collectively grossed more than $600 million in the U.S. and Canada so far. That’s nearly three times the amount that last year’s field of contenders — dominated by smaller films such as “Birdman,” “Boyhood” and “Whiplash” — did by the time of the nominations.


Only one of last year’s best picture nominees, “American Sniper,” crossed the $100-million mark; this year, two have already — "The Martian” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” — and a third, “The Revenant,” has a good shot at getting there.

5. Which of the best picture nominees stand to earn the biggest post-Oscar box office bump?

Post-Oscar bumps vary widely and are generally hard to predict. Plus, a few films among this year’s crop, including “The Martian,” “Bridge of Spies” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” are already long gone from theaters. But “The Revenant,” which opened wide last weekend, is perfectly poised to bask in the glow of its 12 Oscar nominations, which come on top of its Golden Globes win for best drama.

“The Big Short,” which opened Dec. 23, also stands to benefit from its five nominations.

Among the smaller films, “Room” will expand to 300 theaters this weekend to capitalize on its four Oscar nods, and “Spotlight” and “Brooklyn” will each go wider as well. Given that each of those films has been playing since the fall, it remains to be seen how much money is left on the table for them. But they could follow the pattern of last year’s best picture winner, “Birdman,” which was released in October 2014 and nearly doubled its domestic gross during 2015’s Oscar season.

6. How did last year’s film festival winners fare in the major categories at the Oscars?

“Room,” which earned strong buzz when it premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and claimed one of the top prizes at the Toronto Film Festival, earned a best picture nomination. The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, “Son of Saul,” earned a nomination for best foreign language film, and Rooney Mara, who shared the prize for best actress at the festival for “Carol,” earned a supporting actress Oscar nomination.

The stop-motion animated film “Anomalisa,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, scored an Oscar nomination for best animated feature.


The big winners at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, however, including the documentary “The Wolfpack” and the teen dramedy “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” didn’t receive any Oscar love.

7. Among this year’s crop of nominees, who has the most nominations to their name?

Again, not even close: With his nod for the score of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” composer John Williams received his 50th (yes, you read that right) nomination — the most of any living person. In Hollywood history, only Walt Disney received more nominations, with 59.

8. Has anyone ever gone longer between Oscar nominations for playing the same character than Sylvester Stallone?

Nope. The 39-year gap between Stallone’s best actor nod for playing Rocky Balboa in the original “Rocky” and his supporting actor nod for “Creed” sets a new record. The previous record was held by Paul Newman, who went 25 years between his best actor nomination for playing “Fast Eddie” Felson in 1961’s “The Hustler” and winning the award for the same role 25 years later in 1986’s “The Color of Money.”

9. If “The Martian” were to win best picture, would it be the first outright science-fiction movie to do so?

Believe it or not, yes. Over the years, several sci-fi movies have been nominated for best picture, including “Avatar,” the original "Star Wars,” “Inception,” “District 9,” “Gravity” and “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.” But most often the genre has been relegated largely to the technical categories.

Were “The Martian” to win best picture, many sci-fi fans would see it as a fitting acknowledgment of the film’s director, Ridley Scott, who directed two classic sci-fi films, “Alien” and “Blade Runner,” which each failed to score best picture nominations.

Whether or not the film wins, “The Martian” producer Simon Kinberg sees this year as something of a watershed in terms of the Academy’s acceptance of the genre, noting the dystopian “Mad Max: Fury Road” as another example of a film with sci-fi elements getting Oscar love.

“There’s an interesting thing that happened this year, where ‘Mad Max’ and us and ‘Star Wars’ — three science-fiction movies that are completely different — all get major nominations,” Kinberg said. “That feels like a sign of the times.”

10. Alejandro Iñárritu won the best director Oscar last year for “Birdman” and is nominated again this year for “The Revenant.” Has any filmmaker ever won that award back to back?

Yes, but not many — and not for a long time. Only two other filmmakers, John Ford and Joseph Mankiewicz, have won the prize two years in a row. 

Ford (who earned the award a record four times) won in 1941 for “The Grapes of Wrath” and in 1942 for “How Green Was My Valley.” Mankiewicz won in 1950 for “A Letter to Three Wives” and the next year for “All About Eve.”  

Twitter: @joshrottenberg 


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