Just when you thought you had this whole thing figured out, leave it to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to shake things up. If pete_hammond_300x100ever there was a bittersweet morning it was today.

AmericanSniper posterCongratulations American Sniperyou got six nominations including Best Picture, BUT sorry Clint, they snubbed you in the Best Director category denying you the chance to become the oldest nominee ever.

Congratulations Foxcatcher for catching five nominations in key categories including Directing, Writing and Acting, BUT sorry Foxcatcher somehow not one of those five nods was for Best Picture.

Congratulations Selma because you did land a Best Picture nomination, BUT sorry that other than that (and “Glory” for Best Song) you were AWOL, racking up one of the lowest overall totals ever for a Best Pic contender.

Congratulations The Lego Movie on that awesome Best Song nomination, the very first movie announced for all 24 categories, BUT sorry, that was the only time you got a lego-up on the competition and your shocking shutout in Best Animated Feature, where many thought you would win, was the talk of the day.

Congratulations Ava DuVernay, James Marsh, Damien Chazelle and Clint Eastwood. According to the entire Academy you directed one of the eight Best Pictures of the year, BUT sorry, apparently the directors branch didn’t agree.

Grand Budapest HotelIt was that kind of day, one of ups and downs delivering happiness and heartbreak as only Oscar can. And despite attempts in widening the Best Picture race to a possible 10 nominees to bring more popular films into the competition, the Academy has again used the opportunity to go almost all indie on us.

In the Best Picture race, there are only two major studio films—Warner Bros and Village Roadshow’s American Sniper and Paramount’s Selma—out of eight, and the latter feels indie. It may be up to Eastwood to save the day for the Academy as his Sniper is looking like a blockbuster in advance of its national debut tomorrow. That can help goose audience interest in the February 22 ABC broadcast, which usually sees ratings trouble whenBirdman 2 the actual movies nominated don’t generate a lot of audience interest.

Although they are very fine films, Fox Searchlight’s leading pair of Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, Sony Pictures Classics’ Whiplash, Focus Features’ The Theory Of Everything, and IFC Films’ Boyhood aren’t the sort of fare that gets Middle America jazzed up with a rooting interest. The Weinstein Company’s The Imitation Game with eight key nominations—just one behind the Searchlight pair with nine each—is certainly indie too, but one like The King’s Speech that seems to be gaining favor with the popcorn crowd as well, with $40 million to date and just really getting rolling.

Image (8) boyhood__140507074117-275x193.jpg for post 724794That could help, but third-time producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who have seen strong ratings with their previous two Oscar outings, will with first-time Oscar host Neil Patrick Harris have to figure out another way to bring the audience into the tent. The Academy probably sensed this already and reportedly is spending up to $5 million on marketing the show in venues other than the usual places.

I talked to the producing pair this morning after the announcements and they thrilled that the Academy, for the first time, presented all 24 categories in the nomination announcement. It was a successful experiment. Right off the bat, in the first half of nominees there was controversy when The Lego Movie failed to get a nod for Best Animated Feature. I was on live via satellite with Canada AM, and in the four minutes between the first group and the second group (which had most of the major categories) it sparked lots of  spirited talk about the snub. I think also it helps generate interest in seeing which film is racking up noms early on, thereby building suspense: It was clear, for instance that Sniper and Whiplash were going to have a very good day, but then in the second batch came snubs for both when Best Director was read off by presenters Chris Pine and Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs. In Canada, the hosts even had time to cheer the Animated Short nomination of  National Film Board of Canada’s Me And My Moulton. Do it like this every year, Academy. A new tradition is born.Image (2) hr_The_LEGO_Movie_9__140206190237-275x401.jpg for post 687273

For their part, as producers Zadan and Meron are most interested in the show element and pray that the Best Song nominees won’t be a quintet of Irish lullabys. “The first thing we do when we get the list at about 2 AM  is not check Best Picture or Acting but go right to the song category to see what has been nominated,” said Zadan. They were relieved by today’s list, which includes some great potential show moments. Already you can imagine dancing Lego characters; a spot for Adam Levine to sing the wonderful “Lost Stars“;  a stirring moment with Harris Rudin MeronCommon and John Legend on Selma’s powerful “Glory” and a touching segment with Alzheimer victim—and now first-time Oscar nominee—Glen Campbell’s final song, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” from the terrific documentary I’ll Be Me, about Campbell’s battle with the disease. To quote the title of the fifth nominee, Diane Warren’s “Grateful,”  Zadan and Meron were more than grateful to the music branch for this sterling selection of tunes. The branch made up for the screw-up last year when the Academy was forced to disqualify one of their nominees, “Alone Yet Not Alone,” bringing a new set of rules in how songs are chosen.

As for the horse race, which is another element the Academy is going to have to build up, this remains the most wide open in years—especially for Picture and Lead Actor. Critical darling Boyhood, along with The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Imitation Game all have the rightThe Imitation Game 2 “bones” for an Oscar win with key categories like director, screenplay and editing among their hauls. Editing is key: No film since Ordinary People in 1980 has won Best Picture without at least an Editing nomination. Imitation Game and Boyhood are further boosted with several acting nods from what is by far the Academy’s largest branch. Birdman is not far behind by this measure, but it failed to get an Editing nod, perhaps because the film, with its “one take” gTheory of Everythingimmick, looks like it wasn’t edited.  It certainly was – expertly – and received an ACE nomination.  The film far exceeded that initial idea to become one of the year’s most acclaimed and  with directing, writing and three acting nominations don’t count this one out either.

And then there is American Sniper—and this could be a real comer as its box office takes off. The only key nod it didn’t get, director (though Eastwood is a producing nominee), is a hindrance to be sure, but with directing/picture splits in the last two years , the Academy may be learning to separate the two categories more than they had done in the past. Sniper has momentum on its side and could have a clear shot at the top prize as the one big studio picture in a sea of indies. I am waiting for the PGA Awards on January 24th to give further clarity to the race. Though Boyhood has been cleaning up at the Globes and on the critics circuit, it needs to win the first big industry guild contest to really cement its frontrunner status, and that test will come, as it has so often in recent years, with the PGA.

In the acting races, smart money is definitely on Boyhood’s Patricia Arquette and Whiplash’s J.K. Simmons to take the Supportingwhiplash awards. And playing an Alzheimer’s victim in Still Alice, Julianne Moore is the one to beat for lead actress, if only for the well-publicized fact that she is overdue. If anyone had a shot to upset her, it might have been Cake’s snubbed Jennifer Aniston. Sadly, she didn’t make the cut for a really fine performance and a great campaign that brought her Globe, Critics Choice and SAG nominations. The mere fact that so many are listing her among the “Oscar snubbed”  is a real testament to how far she was able to come since that Toronto Film Festival debut in September.

As for the Lead Actor race, it really could be between a couple of recent Golden Globe winners,  Birdman’s Michael Keaton and The Theory Of Everything’s Eddie Redmayne. If they split the vote, don’t be surprised to see someone from the remaining trio of nominees—Steve Carell, Benedict Cumberbatch and Bradley Cooper—sneak in and take it all in Oscar’s most competitive category this year. Cooper could be helped by the fact that he is also burning up Broadway in The Elephant Man, a show currently scheduled to close on—you guessed it—Oscar Sunday, February 22. Will that date be changing so Cooper can come to the Oscars?

FiSelma Bradford Youngnally, there already is lots of talk about the “lack of diversity” shown in the nominations, particularly as 20 white actors were nominated and the opportunity to bring in people like David Oyelowo’s towering portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr in Selma was not taken. That category was so crowded there were bound to be snubs.  The deserving Jake Gyllenhaal from Nightcrawler was also overlooked. It’s a sad fact of the Oscars this year, but after being blanked by the PGA, DGA, SAG, WGA and BAFTA, the Academy was the one key industry group that awarded Selma a Best Picture nomination, just one year after giving the prize to 12 Years A Slave. With Boone Isaacs and EO Dawn Hudson leading the charge, the Academy has been making great strides in diversifying the membership. And remember, a Best Picture nomination, achieved after snubs from all the major guilds, is a pretty big—and rare—deal for a small movie that now gets to tout that in their ads. I don’t chalk up its inclusion or exclusions to the issue of diversity. It’s just the way Oscar is rolling this year.