Off the Carpet: Ballots are out

As the Academy prepares to speak up, where are we now?

<p>&quot;Les Mis&eacute;rables&quot; will be opening while voters have ballots in hand. Could inevitable box office stories help push it along?</p>

"Les Misérables" will be opening while voters have ballots in hand. Could inevitable box office stories help push it along?

Credit: Universal Pictures

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Normally this column would begin with something like, "Ballots have been mailed to Oscar voters today," but that begs reminding that for the first time ever, the Academy has adopted an electronic voting system in addition to paper ballots (for those who request them). How will that change the course of the season? Is chatter about glitches and lack of understanding just a facile talking point blown out of proportion? Maybe. The Academy has been very diligent in reminding its membership of the changes, so I think it'll be fine, but what is tangible in all of this is the landscape as a result of the first major nominations announcements of the season.

The New York Film Critics Circle put "Zero Dark Thirty" on the critics awards map. It went on to take a number of other, similar prizes and asserted itself as the year's critical favorite. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association, meanwhile, stuck up for the lagging "The Master" at a crucial time, yet chose Michael Haneke's "Amour" as the year's best film, giving it a much-needed boost as Sony Pictures Classics endeavors to get the film seen and considered by the Academy votership.

The Broadcast Film Critics Association laid the generally agreed-upon foundation, narrowing the overall race down to specific components. The Screen Actors Guild threw in some nuance (snubbing Joaquin Phoenix, tossing Nicole Kidman into the race) while the Hollywood Foreign Press Association built a little onto that (stoking the Kidman fire, inserting "Django Unchained" into the discussion). And now we have a pretty well-defined slate. The question becomes, in these hotly contested categories -- Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, etc. -- who will rally and claim a spot?

That's when this time period becomes truly important. From today through January 3, members will catch up on a lot of films via screeners with nary a major announcement beyond the events of the last two weeks to "help" them decide. "Les Misérables" and "Django Unchained" will open in theaters during this time, where box office stories could give them added exposure, but the next guild announcements (from the producers, writers and art directors) are all set for January 3, by which time, it'll be too late to make any sort of impact. However, looking for something to make an impact, as we've said countless times, isn't always the trick. It's about looking at how rhythms in this or that group might translate for similar membership in the Academy.

For instance, there is very little cross-over between the SAG's nominating committee (the only industry group to speak up so far) and the Academy's actors branch. So Phoenix and Amy Adams' "snubs" there for "The Master" might not be all that indicative. But at the same time, it COULD be indicative of how actors in general perceive the film and/or their work therein. All actors aren't cut from the same mold, of course, but you can pick up on things by that announcement each year -- like, say, the exclusion of Shailene Woodley in 2011.

Also, one must take into account the fact that ineligibilities always cloud the WGA's influence or indication, while the PGA often has its own criteria. A nomination for "Skyfall" with the producers wouldn't be surprising, while a Best Picture nomination -- though not at all out of the question -- would be more surprising.

I think the race itself will be much clearer on January 8, when the 10,000-plus-member DGA offers up its picks. That's a vast organization, much like the Academy, and it can give an idea of how consensus is shaping up. If Tom Hooper misses there, for instance, it means a LOT more than his snub by the HFPA. The SAG awards two-and-a-half weeks later may give an even better indication: I have a hunch this year's SAG ensemble winner, be it "Argo," "Les Misérables" or "Lincoln," will be our Best Picture winner. (It could go to "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" or "Silver Linings Playbook," of course, in which case, I recant.)

But that's all a ways off. We have 18 days of voting ahead of us. So if you're on the bubble (we're looking at you Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Emmanuelle Riva, Matthew McConaughey, etc.), now's the time to find that spark.

And of course, I'm burying the lead here a bit, because the real question is how many Best Picture nominees we will have. Last year was the first experiment with having between five and 10, and no one expected a nearly full boat of nine nominees. This year, I've talked to countless people who think we could easily have 10, and in such a competitive year full of quality work, that's not at all out of the question. But films like "Amour," "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," "Django Unchained," "Flight," "The Impossible," "The Master," "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Skyfall" need to find ways to connect right now if they're going to join the assumed sextet of "Argo," "Les Misérables," "Life of Pi" (though this isn't as solid as the others), "Lincoln," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Zero Dark Thirty."

But enough out of me and my ilk. It's time for the Academy to speak up. Well?

Check out my updated predictions HERE and, as always, see how Guy Lodge, Greg Ellwood and I collectively think the season will turn out at THE CONTENDERS.

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Kristopher Tapley
Editor-at-Large
Kristopher Tapley has covered the film awards landscape for over a decade. He founded In Contention in 2005. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Times of London and Variety. He begs you not to take any of this too seriously.
2013-2014 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
UPDATED: MARCH 2, 2014