By now, Boyhood’s praises have been sung enthusiastically by nearly everyone who’s experienced Richard Linklater’s 12-year-spanning opus—the film currently holds an astounding 99 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And here at Slate, we’re more than happy to chime in—again—to proclaim it a tour de force.
But can it get nominated for Best Picture? We worry. It certainly deserves it, but of course the Academy Awards are only somewhat merit-based. Despite receiving an overwhelmingly positive reception from critics and audiences, Boyhood’s road to a nomination on Jan. 15 is far from guaranteed. In fact, it has a lot of factors working against it.
So here’s Slate’s guide to Boyhood’s Oscar chances. First, we’ll answer the doubters. Then we’ll create a road map to a Best Picture nomination, based on a recent film whose similarities to Boyhood may not be obvious, but which surprised many on its way to a nod.
Doesn’t the academy ignore quiet, critically acclaimed indies?
Not always, and in recent years, hardly at all. Even before the Best Picture category expanded to include up to 10 nominees for the 2009 Academy Awards, little movies like Sideways, Juno, and Little Miss Sunshine were scoring Best Picture nods. Since then, modest films like Winter’s Bone, An Education, Nebraska, and Philomena have landed nominations, and indie (or at least indie-spirited) films The Hurt Locker and 12 Years a Slave have even garnered a win.
Didn’t Boyhood come out too early?
Conventional wisdom says that movies released prior to awards season—that annual period in fall and early winter when studios release their Oscar bait—will be long forgotten by the time academy members cast in their votes, no matter how beloved they may be. In some cases, this factor has been attributed to certain films that failed to grab a Best Picture nomination; just last year, it seemed like early releases and stalled momentum killed the Best Picture chances of the lauded Fruitvale Station, released in July, and Linklater’s beloved Before Midnight, released in May.
But the number of nominated films released earlier in the year is actually more than you may expect. Since 2004, 11 films released prior to August have secured a nod:
Crash (May 2005)
Little Miss Sunshine (July 2006)
Up (May 2009)
The Hurt Locker (June 2009)
Toy Story 3 (June 2010)
Winter’s Bone (June 2010)
Inception (July 2010)
The Kids Are Alright (July 2010)
Midnight In Paris (May 2011)
The Tree of Life (May 2011)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (June 2012)
Sure, two of those are Disney-Pixar films and one was a certified blockbuster that was likely nominated—at least in part—to atone for The Dark Knight’s absence a couple of years prior, but the rest resembleBoyhood in terms of indie status, director prestige, and critical acclaim at the time of their release. And while we’ve still got an array of Oscar bait to look forward to for the rest of 2014 (Foxcatcher and Gone Girl, for instance) Boyhood certainly can’t be ruled out based on its July release date alone.
Isn’t its box office too small?
No. It’s actually out-pacing the box office returns of 2009 winner The Hurt Locker; in its fifth week, Boyhood has grossed more than $11 million, while Kathryn Bigelow’s film had made about $5 million at the same point in its run.
In fact, the film has surpassed Linklater’s Before Midnight as well: In its first week, Boyhood grossed $615,167, compared to Before Midnight’s $369,722 first-week gross from the same number of theaters. It’s already Linklater’s highest-grossing non-studio film to date.
But don’t movies like Boyhood need the Weinstein Machine?
Nope. In fact, none of the early releases listed above had the magic of Harvey behind their Oscar campaigns. And Boyhood seems to have its own carefully crafted marketing campaign, one that entrusts much of its box office success to old-fashioned word-of-mouth: Co-producer Jonathan Sehring (and president of IFC Films) has said that they felt they had a perfect summer film that “would play well into the fall.” And while the rest of the company’s 2014 roster looks promising, no one film sticks out as a Best Picture candidate—which means IFC can put all its eggs in Boyhood’s basket.
So what does Boyhood need to do to increase its chances?
IFC’s never successfully run a Best Picture campaign before, but they seem perfectly set up to maneuver this smash success—about to become their second-highest grossing film ever—to a nomination. They might consider following lessons learned from another dreamy indie about childhood from a visionary director: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, whose Best Picture nomination was a surprise to many.
In the fall of 2011, Mark Harris examined the pre-September Oscar hopefuls in Grantland, among them,Tree of Life. That film, with its inexplicable dinosaurs and nonlinear, poetic storytelling, was incredibly polarizing, unlike Boyhood. But what it had going for it at the time, he wrote, was an incredibly devoted fan base: “The movie’s admirers don’t just like it, they love it; the intensity of feeling that led the New York Times’s A.O. Scott to compare it approvingly to the work of Herman Melville is what lands you at the top of a ballot rather than at no. 3 or no. 4.” If IFC can foster that kind of passion forBoyhood—the kind of passion that led the Times’ Manohla Dargis to dub Boyhood a “masterpiece”—they have a chance at capturing enough No. 1 votes on academy ballots.
On top of that, Harris noted, the film’s distributor, Fox Searchlight, began crafting the narrative of “instant classic by a brilliant director” early on, with respected but undecorated (by the academy, anyway) directors like David Fincher and Christopher Nolan expounding upon its virtues. Linklater is in a similar position as Malick was— like Malick, he made a formally inventive, emotionally potent film, and as Malick was, he’s a director whom the Academy has largely ignored through a long career. Boyhoodhas received the praise of Linklater’s peer Gus Van Sant—but IFC should go hunting for more celebrity endorsers, to foster the narrative that it’s Richard Linklater’s time.
It also helped that Tree of Life’s co-producer Brad Pitt was enthusiastic about promoting a film in which he plays supporting character to unknown child actors. Like Pitt, Hawke’s character in Boyhood is not at the center of the film, but luckily, he’s been more than happy to discuss his experience working on the film with long-time collaborator Linklater. If Hawke, and co-star Patricia Arquette, who’s also beenmore than game to participate in the publicity run, continue to make the rounds through the winter,Boyhood will be that much likelier to remain in the Oscar conversation—and given how much the film clearly means to both of them, it seems likely they will.
A couple of weeks ago Boyhood was screened for academy and Screen Actors Guild voters, where audience members appeared to embrace the film wholeheartedly—and so the Oscar push for Boyhood has begun, if ever so subtly at this point. We feel confident that with the right plan and a little bit of luck, this heartwarming movie beloved by both critics and audiences can receive the nomination it so richly deserves. Leave it to the Oscars to make such a statement necessary.