“Selma” has received 100 percent positive reviews on RottenTomatoes and ranks near the top in almost every speculative analysis of Best Picture Oscar nominees.
But when you tally up the results of critics and guild awards so far, Ava DuVernay’s dramatic story of Martin Luther King’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery suddenly looks vulnerable, not invincible.
It has won two critics’ awards as the year’s best film, from the African-American Film Critics Association and the Black Film Critics Circle, compared with 16 wins for “Boyhood” and five for “Birdman.” More gravely, it has only received a single nomination, for costume design, from the seven guilds or professional societies that have announced their nominees.
Those are the Producers Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild, the American Cinema Editors, the Art Directors Guild, the American Society of Cinematographers and the one that nominated “Selma,” the Costume Designers Guild.
It’s important to point out that “Selma” wasn’t eligible for the WGA Awards, because its production wasn’t a guild signatory. But “The Theory of Everything,” which wasn’t eligible either, has won four guild nominations, including SAG and the Producers Guild, while the WGA-ineligible “Birdman” has landed five.
“The Imitation Game” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” meanwhile, have run the table and are seven for seven, while “Gone Girl” and “Nightcrawler” have five nominations each.
When you add the pounding that “Selma” has taken in some circles for its portrayal of President Lyndon Baines Johnson as hostile to MLK’s march, the film appears as if it might be stumbling at exactly the wrong time, with Oscar ballots due Thursday afternoon.
After all, of the 12 films deemed most likely to land Best Picture nominations next Thursday morning, “Selma” is the only one to have but a single guild nomination. (Still to come: the Directors Guild, Cinema Audio Society, Motion Picture Sound Editors and Visual Effects Society.)
But if “Selma” is a little battered and bruised, it’s hardly out.
Item 1: Producers Guild nominations are, on the whole, a good predictor of Oscar Best Picture nominations. Most Oscar nominees — in fact, about 80 percent of the Academy’s best-pic picks — hear good news from the PGA before they do so from AMPAS.
But the key words there are most and on the whole. Since the Academy expanded from five to 10 Best Picture nominations and the PGA followed suit five years ago, there’s never been an Oscar lineup that didn’t include at least one film not nominated by the guild. “The Blind Side,” “Amour,” “The Tree of Life,” “Winter’s Bone,” “A Serious Man” and “Up” all fall in this category — as do “Philomena” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” two films that were released late in the year, as was “Selma,” and were able to take advantage of the Academy’s later voting deadlines.
See photos: Golden Globes 2015: The Nominees (Photos)
History tells us that at least one film without a PGA nomination will land on the Oscar list. And “Selma” is probably a likelier candidate than “Unbroken” or “Interstellar,” simply by virtue of the fact that it got better reviews and seems more likely to be the No. 1 choice of enough voters to take advantage of the Academy’s preferential voting system.
Item 2: Awards voters, sad to say, are seemingly becoming more and more dependent on screeners. DuVernay didn’t finish editing “Selma” until the very end of November, and Paramount policy dictated that, because the film wasn’t going into wide release until January, every one of its DVD screeners needed to be individually watermarked.
The studio made the decision that they would only have time to produce, watermark and send screeners to the 6,000-plus Oscar voters, opting not to service guild and critics’ award voters. That killed the film’s chances with the Screen Actors Guild, and likely damaged its chances severely with other guilds as well, including the producers.
Dirty little secret: Industry voters can feel very entitled when it comes to screeners. Studios withhold them at their own risk, as Paramount also learned with “Interstellar.” (That had technical holdups as well, partly due to the intricacies of watermarking Blu-Rays.)
Item 3: The attacks on the accuracy of “Selma” clearly hit harder and stuck around longer than the charges that “The Imitation Game,” “American Sniper,” “Foxcatcher” and others also distorted the truth. The problem with getting Washington, D.C. involved, as “Selma” did with its portrayal of LBJ, is that those people make their living getting media attention and fomenting outrage.
And yet the criticism can also inspire supporters to rally around the film, and maybe even rank it higher on their ballots than they might have otherwise. In an Academy of more than 6,000, just over 300 votes can get you a best-pic nomination.
Item 4: “Selma” can still have a good weekend. It’s one of 11 movies that will be celebrated on Friday as the American Film Institute’s top films of the year, and it’s up for four Golden Globe Awards on Sunday, including Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director (DuVernay) and Best Actor (David Oyelowo).
It would no doubt be misleading and indelicate to compare “Selma” to the marchers it depicts, who were beaten by the police the first time they tried to cross a bridge in Alabama, only to complete the march a few days later. But while it’s hurting at the moment, I expect to hear its name when the Academy announces its Best Picture nominations next week — and to hear DuVernay’s name among the Best Director contenders and maybe even the DGA nominees as well when they’re announced on Tuesday.
This isn’t the road DuVernay and crew would have chosen for their movie, but it’s far too early to call it a dead-end street.