Pete Hammond

A recent, and unsolicited, email from a producer friend of mine demonstrates what a lot of people are saying about this year’s best picture race: “Now this is a year for film! Tremendous. Going to be a fun one, my friend.” It is going to be a fun one. Nearly every Academy member to whom I have spoken seems excited about the level of quality in this year’s race, which is a strong indication that this could be the first year 10 films are nominated since the rules changed to allow a variable number. Just consider what’s already out there in theaters or on Blu-Ray: 12 Years A Slave, Gravity, Captain Phillips, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Dallas Buyers Club, Blue Jasmine, All Is Lost, Fruitvale Station, Prisoners, Rush, Blue Is The Warmest Color, Before Midnight, Mud and The Place Beyond The Pines.

The fact is, this is a year in which there could be room for 20 films. Consider those yet to open or just opening: Philomena, Saving Mr. Banks, Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis, August: Osage County, The Book Thief, Her, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, Lone Survivor, Labor Day and The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. All of those films have played the fest circuit, and most pundits—including this one—already have seen them and can say definitively that it’s a formidable list. Of those yet to be seen by just about anyone outside of rarefied circles are The Wolf Of Wall Street and American Hustle, both December releases expected to be major players in several races.

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With this kind of lineup, it is no wonder some movies once thought to have awards aspiration—such as Foxcatcher, Grace Of Monaco, The Immigrant and George Clooney’s The Monuments Men—have all opted out. And why not? Clooney doesn’t need another contender when he’s already got shots with two others: Gravity (in which he co-stars) and August: Osage County, which he co-produced. Whew. One Academy member who is religiously trying to see everything as it comes out told me she already keeps changing her mind about what her favorites are.

Most pundits, though, would say frontrunners at this early date include 12 Years A Slave and Gravity, with Captain Phillips gaining. Proof of the intensity of this year’s race is that all three of those films have already been victims of so-called “whisper campaigns” that have challenged their accuracy and credibility, but nothing seems to have stuck. Box office for all three is promising and that, too, can be a factor in determining longterm chances for Oscar success. Gravity is a worldwide hit, Phillips has exceeded everyone’s expectations and Slave, despite being a grueling experience for some to watch, is shaping up to be a nice-sized indie hit. Butler also exceeded expectations and became a late-summer smash, totally against type. That could easily result in Oscar triumphs—as it did for the similarly themed The Help two years ago—especially once the Weinstein Co. revs up its campaign.

There can always be surprises, but among the films about to open and not yet road-tested at the box office there isn’t a single disappointment, creatively speaking. Of course, weaker-than-expected box office results can throw a wrench into the proceedings for some films, making it more difficult to get the campaign funds needed to keep them alive.

Related: Contenders 2013: ‘Wolf Of Wall Street,’ ‘Nebraska,’ ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ ‘Fruitvale Station,’ ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler,’ ‘August: Osage County,’ ‘All Is Lost,’ ‘Place Beyond The Pines,’ ’12 Years A Slave,’ ‘Gravity’ & More Kick-Off Panels

In past years, much of the best picture crop has come from late-breaking holiday releases, but Oscar voters already are juggling an imposing and bountiful crop. Critics groups are likely to try to use their clout to influence the race one way or another and can make a difference, particularly if they all get behind one film, such as they did with eventual best picture winner The Hurt Locker and nominee The Social Network. A repeat of that for, say, 12 Years A Slave, could help that film dominate the race early on and build a groundswell that could be insurmountable as the season unfolds (think Slumdog Millionaire rolling over early presumed favorite The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button). But in the last three years, the Academy has been choosing best picture winners like The King’s Speech, The Artist and Argo, none of which were necessarily critics-group darlings. The trend could help contenders that are more mainstream, feel-good films, such as Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks, the Weinstein Co.’s sleeper Philomena or Paramount’s Nebraska, which has been building up steam in the community by staging numerous small screenings and dinners since the summer months. Essentially, Nebraska has been steadily winning over one voter at a time in a very smart and well-planned strategy. Many pundits are looking at the studios’ Christmas Day release of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street to shake up the race at the finish line, but Alexander Payne’s Nebraska could be the little engine that could for Paramount.

Even with a little less than four months until Oscar night, those who make their living campaigning for these little gold statuettes are already feeling the pressure. As master Oscar campaigner Harvey Weinstein himself said recently, “If you haven’t got the goods, don’t get in the race.” He also called this the “most competitive season I have ever seen.” Although the season is likely to have a number of changing scenarios as we roll along, for Academy members—and moviegoers—it’s going to be a lot of fun just watching.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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