That’s the question we ask every year around this time, surveying the field of Best Picture Oscar contenders and trying to figure out not only which of them will please Academy voters, but how large a slate will make the cut. In the four years since the AMPAS Board of Governors opted for a variable number of nominees between five and 10, we’ve had nine nominees three times and eight nominees once. (For reasons we’ve gone into in the past, it’ll likely never be 10.)
If I had to guess, I’d say that 2015 will be another year of eight. But that’s only a guess, and it comes without having seen The Revenant, Joy and The Hateful Eight, three potential awards heavyweights. Still, we can at least look at the types of films from which Best Picture nominees are drawn.
THE TRADITIONAL ACADEMY MOVIE
FORERUNNERS: The King’s Speech, War Horse, The Theory of Everything
THIS YEAR: Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, 45 Years
Impeccably crafted and boasting old-fashioned storytelling, these films are mainstays almost every year, though they seldom win anymore. Pretty much everything Steven Spielberg makes fits in this category, and Bridge of Spies is no exception. Brooklyn and 45 Years are more subtle than many TradAcad flicks, but moving enough to appeal to the older demographic that makes up much of the voting body (though the youthful Brooklyn has a wider reach than that).
THE IMPORTANT MOVIE
FORERUNNERS: 12 Years a Slave, The Hurt Locker, Selma
THIS YEAR: Spotlight, Carol, Suffragette, Straight Outta Compton, The Danish Girl, The Big Short
Hot-button issues and social significance always help with voters who are know their choices will be judged by posterity. This year has no shortage of weighty themes, including sexual abuse, gay and women’s rights, race relations, transgender issues and the economic collapse.
THE MOVIE ABOUT HOLLYWOOD
FORERUNNERS: The Artist, Argo
THIS YEAR: Trumbo
Back-to-back wins by The Artist in 2012 and Argo in 2013 may have overstated the idea that Hollywood adores movies about itself, but there’s no question voters like to see their industry onscreen. The main contender this year is Trumbo, which played like gangbusters at an Academy screening and deals with the Hollywood blacklist as seen by a man who won two Oscars under false names because he couldn’t openly be employed.
THE SHOCK OF THE NEW
FORERUNNERS: Birdman, The Social Network, Her
THIS YEAR: Steve Jobs, Anomalisa, Love & Mercy
As the Academy gets younger and more diverse, its choices are occasionally adventurous, as Oscars for the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men and Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman showed. This year’s standard-bearer is Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin‘s Steve Jobs, a bracing and unconventional torpedoing of the biopic genre.
THE SMALL PASSION PICK
FORERUNNERS: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Winter’s Bone, Whiplash
THIS YEAR: Room, Beasts of No Nation, Son of Saul
This is where the Academy’s preferential system of counting votes comes into play: Best Picture choices are ranked, and it’s better to have 250 No. 1 votes than 2,500 No. 2s and 3s. Small indies that are passionately loved by a minority of voters can sneak into the field–a fact that bodes particularly well for Lenny Abrahamson’s disquieting Room, but also for the brutal Beasts and a wild card, Laszlo Nemes’ foreign-language entry Son of Saul.
FORERUNNERS: Gravity, Hugo, Life of Pi
THIS YEAR: The Walk
They’re big, bold and distinguished by mind-boggling effects, which cause many of the below- the-line Academy branches to rally behind them (and often puts them in the “Big Hit” group, too). Added bonus: A Best Picture nomination essentially guarantees that the film will win Best Visual Effects.
THE BIG HIT
FORERUNNERS: Avatar, The Help, Toy Story 3
THIS YEAR: The Martian, Inside Out, Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
These are the movies that ABC hopes the Academy nominates–because when blockbusters are in the running, ratings for the Oscar show go up. This year, Star Wars would probably provide a huge ratings bump all by itself, though it’s likelier that voters will go for The Martian instead.