One of the hallmarks of modern award-season cinema — or one of its great failings, depending on your point of view — is how narrow its range of genres has become.
For much of the 20th century, contenders spanned a wide gamut. All the way back in 1954, to take a representative but by no means outlying example, the five nominees for Oscar best picture were "Shane," "Roman Holiday," "Julius Caesar," "The Robe" and "From Here to Eternity." That's a purebred western, a romantic comedy, a Shakespearean drama, a biblical epic and a war picture all in one very short list. And that doesn't include what some consider the best movie of the year — "Stalag 17," a POW seriocomedy that garnered an acting win and director nom but failed to make the best picture cut.
Even decades later, the movies could still zigzag across the map. In 1992, the rare year a so-called genre movie ("The Silence of the Lambs") actually took the top prize, the best picture nominees were a highly eclectic bunch — they included a romantic drama ("The Prince of Tides"), a conspiracy legal thriller ("JFK"), a gangster movie ("Bugsy") and even an animated tale ("Beauty and the Beast").
Yet as the indie/prestige film movement grew, and as the studios narrowed their band of investments (as evidenced by the fact that they called them investments), the spectrum constricted. An "awards movie" became not a stamp of quality but a euphemism for a small collection of genres. Big and sentimental films, once easily fitting under the Oscar tent, were out; so too, quite often, were high-concept movies, speculative fiction and much of what came in established commercial categories, including action, rom-com and sci-fi.
Instead, the canopy made room mainly for intimate films, These movies were sometimes twee and sometimes dark, but they were often in a minor key, usually dramas, and almost never arrived with a big hook.
The trend came to a head in 2008, when pretty much all of the best picture nominees fit this description. The contenders that year were "No Country for Old Men," "Atonement," "Juno," "Michael Clayton" and "There Will Be Blood." That "Juno" is the outlier here speaks volumes.
The awards race had become so narrow, genrewise, that when a movie outside the presumptive range actually won the prize, as it did in 2009 with "Slumdog Millionaire," it became big news. (Three of the other nominees that year — "Milk," "Frost/Nixon" and "The Reader" — were all low-key character dramas of a certain type; only "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" broke the mold, slightly.)
There have been other exceptions this century, especially when it comes to the actual winner, most notably "The Lord of the Rings," which swept a whole bunch of prizes back in 2004. But by and large, the movies that compose a class of major Oscar nominees in a given year have looked a lot more alike than different.
Which brings us to the present, and why this year is so significant — you could even argue historic.
In 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences realized all of this was a problem. Or, as is the group's tendency, it decided to do something about a problem after being hectored by commentators and industry insiders.
For starters, the academy instituted preferential voting, which in practical terms meant that a small but hard-core group of supporters can nudge a movie on to a list — which means that even if a large percentage of the academy thinks "Star Wars" has no business sharing a podium with the artistic greats, a small number could still ensure a nomination.
The group also, as part of a larger initiative, began recruiting a younger and more ethnically diverse group of nominees. That doesn't automatically lead to genre expansion, but it doesn't hurt either.
Most famously, and crucially, the academy doubled the number of best picture slots, driven in part by "The Dark Knight" failing to earn a best picture nomination in 2009 (the subject of much of that hectoring). That shift instantly changed the complexion of the race, making a lot more contenders think they had a chance, and in turn emboldening distributors to campaign, even if their actual odds to win the top prize hadn't really gone up. It's a little like the NCAA's expansion of the men's basketball championship tournament from 32 to 64 teams back in the 1980s. Suddenly this was, at least nominally, everyone's title to pursue.
You can debate the merits of this philosophy. But for the goals the academy set, it began to work. Soon you were seeing the kind of movies that had been absent from the best picture list for years — a "District 9" here, a "Toy Story 3" there. And this year, it's all really bearing fruit,
At the National Board of Review ceremony on Tuesday night, "Mad Max: Fury Road" was the big winner, taking home the prize for best picture. With a small membership well outside the industry fold, no one will claim the NBR is a key bellwether of, well, much of anything. But the group has, wittingly or not, tapped into a growing momentum for a film that is now on a very likely course to a best picture nomination. Think about that — a third sequel in a franchise that hadn't been on the screen in 30 years, a movie that for all its technical achievements is basically a group of nonstop action scenes designed to pack in multiplexes at the start of blockbuster season, is now considered a good bet to be nominated for the highest honor of the year.
Earlier in the day, "Mad Max" was named to the Producers Guild of America's short list. That one is a strong bellwether for the Oscar best picture nominees; in fact, in each of the six years since the best-picture expansion, the academy has drawn no more than two movies from outside the PGA list. Joining "Mad Max" were "Sicario" and "Ex Machina," movies that come in genres — a drug-cartel thriller and high-concept sci-fi — that, someone like Scorsese excepted, haven't seriously been part of the Academy Awards conversation for years.
And snubbed on the PGA list? "Room" and "Carol," two of precisely the sort of dramas that had characterized this recent period of Oscars. Before the NBR ceremony began Tuesday night, Jason Segel, who gives a strong performance as David Foster Wallace in "The End of the Tour" but is getting little recognition for it, could be heard reassuring Lenny Abrahamson, director of "Room," not to get too caught up in what any of these tea leaves mean, good or bad, offering his own mental process for avoiding the psychological ups and downs.
A wise approach, but more consolation could soon be necessary. "Room" was thought a lock for the best picture list. Now it's not so clear. "Carol" is in a steadier but by no means solid position. Even shakier than both is Cary Fukunaga's very good child-soldier movie "Beasts of No Nation," though Netflix's intractability on making a real theatrical play for the film essentially took care of its Oscar prospects long ago.
Also on the PGA list was "Straight Outta Compton," a story of the history of N.W.A, a big-canvas, crowd-pleasing summer breakout that is the opposite of what many of these recent awards words have been. It, too, looks increasingly likely to snag a best picture slot. And while it didn't make the PGA cut, "Creed," a n auteurish spin on what is essentially a boxing franchise-extension, is slowly creeping into the conversation.
None of these movies have earned Oscar nominations yet, of course, and we'll see what happens when the academy announces its choices next week. But these films are attracting guild support in part because the loosened Oscar rules have incentivized studios to campaign and just generally broadened the debate; it's the awards-season equivalent of trickle-down economics (this version actually works).
Now, you could argue, and plenty have (and will) that these developments aren't wholly desirable. Movies like "Mad Max" have already reaped their riches by taking in so much money at the box office, the argument goes. They should make way for smaller movies like "Room" and "Carol" that actually need the awards-season attention, and are a bit more human-scaled to boot.
This way of thinking is understandable; it's what powered the idea of awards movies as a separate category of small and upscale dramas in the first place — as a reaction to some of Hollywood's most world-dominating, lowest-common-denominator instincts.
But it's also hard to deny that including a "Mad Max" or a "Compton" is what the Oscars are all about — that making a high-quality movie that's an action-adventure or a rap biopic is just as hard (some might say even harder) than making a high-quality period romantic drama or an indie chamber piece. And that, maybe, for the academy to go outside a few well-worn areas is a good thing. Not because of the promise of higher ratings (though certainly that isn't far from the minds of ABC execs and Oscar producers) or because of some abstract notion of audience democracy, but because at a time when film, and especially U.S. film, has been attacked for a lack of imagination and depth, this eclectic mix is exactly what the industry should be celebrating.
There are still plenty of caveats even with these changes. My gut tells me "The Force Awakens" is probably not getting in (sorry, Star Warriors). And unless "The Martian" pulls off an upset — and unless you very liberally define the genre of that movie — this will not become the first year ever that a science-fiction movie wins best picture. Change is incremental.
Still, "Mad Max," "Sicario," "Compton," "Creed," "The Martian" — these is the breadth of movies (along with the crop of excellent, if more typical, slow-burn dramas such as "Spotlight" and "Brooklyn") whose names could be called out for best picture next Thursday. That's a pretty big deal.
Finally, all comes in a rather interesting and even critical industry moment. The question for years has been whether the biggest Hollywood entities would finally jump back into an awards game they had largely forsaken as they pursued sequels and branded movies. And they did return, to a degree.
But what these last few curious and even game-changing weeks have shown is they may not have needed to. As voters (prodded and persuaded by Oscar campaigners, of course) are embracing movies like "Mad Max," "The Martian" and "Straight Outta Compton," it's becoming clear that the studios didn't need to lean forward to try to get back to the awards game. The awards game is coming to them.
In fact, tellingling, the movies which many studios considered their biggest awards contenders at the time they were making them — for Universal, not "Compton" but "Steve Jobs"; for Warner Bros., not "Mad Max" but "Black Mass"; for Fox, not "The Martian" but "Joy" — are some of the movies gaining the least traction.
You can debate whether these particular front-runners are worthy. Maybe you liked "Room" for what it was trying to do and didn't like "Mad Max" completely on its own terms. Or were lukewarm on "Compton" but blown away by "Carol." That's fine. But the notion that an "awards movie" only connotes a particular genre--that creating a film in a certain category automatically disqualifies it from Oscar consideration--is slowly melting away. Awards season is moving forward, smartly, by looking back.