’12 Years a Slave’ vs. ‘Gravity’ – Who Filled the Seats at the Academy?

Sunday’s AMPAS screening of Steve McQueen’s slavery drama was well received, but attendance couldn’t match ‘Gravity’

It’s too early to tell if Academy voters will like “12 Years a Slave” as much or more than they liked “Gravity,” but it’s clear that they were more anxious to see imperiled astronauts.

A week after every seat in the 1,000-seat Samuel Goldwyn Theater was filled for the official AMPAS screening of Alfonso Cuaron’s space movie, only about half as many members showed up for a Sunday night screening of Steve McQueen’s harrowing “12 Years.”

And that screening had the added lure of featuring a post-screening Q&A with McQueen, stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o and Alfre Woodard, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and composer Hans Zimmer. (The “Gravity” screening did not include a Q&A, which normally increases attendance.)

Also read: ’12 Years a Slave’ Review: A Captivating, Harrowing Historical Horror Show

Maybe Academy members were home watching the Red Sox/Tigers game, or the Cowboys/Redskins battle. Maybe they were in other theaters seeing “Gravity” or “Captain Phillips.”

Maybe they just didn’t feel as excited about a brutally powerful slavery drama as they had about a whiz-bang zero-gravity adventure.

Or maybe voters pay some attention to critical favorites from the festival circuit (a crowd of 500 is still a substantial Sunday-night turnout), but far more attention to box-office hits and pop-culture phenomena.

After all, “Gravity” is a tough yardstick by which to measure other movies, even if it and “12 Years” have been painted as rivals ever since both took the fall festivals by storm.

Whatever the reason, several members who attended the screening immediately mentioned the size of the crowd, which was not only smaller than the “Gravity” screening but also smaller than the recent audiences for “Captain Phillips.”

And while members reported that the applause was robust for the film, particularly for McQueen and its principal actors, the film’s relentless violence also left some voters visibly disturbed.

(Of course, given the film’s subject matter, that’s sort of the point.)

The word powerful was used by most of those TheWrap spoke to, but it’s also fair to say that the screening was another sign that, a few early predictions to the contrary, the Best Picture race is far from over.

Also read: 5 Reasons ’12 Years a Slave’ Is No Oscar Lock: Backlash, the Unseen and McQueen

Said one voter the morning after the screening, “I really don’t know what wins now.”

And with few major contenders on the AMPAS schedule for the rest of October, the race may get more confusing — and hey, more fun — before it gets any clearer.