LOS ANGELES — Surprises almost never happen anymore at the Academy Awards. The vote-mongering machinery and punditry have grown too powerful.
But what if?
With Oscar voting ending on Tuesday, the smallest film company in the best-picture race, A24, backing the nominee with the smallest box office tally, “Room,” is holding out hope that maybe, just maybe, it can pull off a“Million Dollar Baby.” Back in 2005, the favored film going into the Oscar ceremony was “The Aviator” — that year’s steamrollering equivalent of “The Revenant,” right down to Leonardo DiCaprio in the starring role. But “Million Dollar Baby,” with Hilary Swank, won in a huge upset.
The A24 camp sees a similar path for Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” about a mother (Brie Larson, considered a lock for best actress) who makes a heroic escape with her son from long-term captivity. A punch-drunk theory born in the exhausted final days of another interminable awards season? Possibly. An example of how the longest shots keep believing until the second those envelopes are opened? Most definitely.
The “Room” hypothesis starts with vote splitting. A bear claw behind “The Revenant,” which won the top prize at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards on Sunday, are two other best-picture contenders, “The Big Short” and “Spotlight.” In an unusual lack of cohesion, Hollywood’s most influential guilds spread their marquee awards among the films, with the actors going with “Spotlight,” the directors backing “The Revenant” and the producers honoring “The Big Short.”
If those films similarly divide voters from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — there is considerable but not complete membership overlap between the guilds and the academy — “Room” or another candidate could slip through. (The last time the guilds disagreed to this level, by the way, was the year “Million Dollar Baby” won for best picture. Asterisk: “Million Dollar Baby” at least had the support of one of the three groups, winning the big prize at the Directors Guild of America awards in 2005.)
“Room,” based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the screenplay,has also started to play the gender card. A24 supporters have been quietly noting that a decade has passed since a film carried by a female lead has won best picture, a message that could resonate with female voters in a “Million Dollar Baby” way, especially when gender inequality in Hollywood has come under intense scrutiny. Jodie Foster; Geena Davis; and Sherry Lansing, a former chief executive of Paramount Pictures, have been among the Hollywood women who have hosted voter screenings for “Room.”
At least some “Room” supporters have gone even further, asserting that, among the eight nominees, “Room” is the only serious contender anchored by a female performance.
Fans of “Brooklyn,” starring Saoirse Ronan, would likely argue otherwise, although Ms. Ronan, a best actress candidate along with Ms. Larson, has been losing most of the pre-Oscar contests. Yes, Charlize Theron cuts quite the swath through “Mad Max: Fury Road,” but that film, with no nominations for acting, is mostly seen as a directing feat. (Also nominated for best picture are “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon, and “Bridge of Spies,” with Tom Hanks.)
Another stars-are-aligning thought: Chris Rock, set to host the Academy Awards on Feb. 28, last served as the ceremony’s master in 2005, the “Million Dollar Baby” year.
Even more than witty acceptance speeches, Oscar watchers seem to crave surprises, and the unexpected used to happen at the Academy Awards with some regularity. In 2006, the ensemble drama “Crash” beat that year’s front-runner, “Brokeback Mountain.” When an in-his-prime Harvey Weinstein powered “Shakespeare in Love” to a best-picture win in 1999, defeating “Saving Private Ryan,” there were gasps in the auditorium.
In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” mildly surprised by snatching the best-picture award from James Cameron’s “Avatar.” But those in the know pretty much saw it coming, as it was an open Hollywood secret that voters were leaning into Ms. Bigelow, who also won the directing Oscar that year, and away from Mr. Cameron, her ex-husband, who was widely perceived as having had enough kudos.
In truth, the element of surprise nearly evaporated about a decade ago, as scrutiny of the grinding, monthslong awards process by professional, web-based handicappers (and Las Vegas odds makers) became routine. Because organizers of the Academy Awards insist on a late-winter berth for the ceremony, voters annually show their hands in the pre-Oscar guild awards. Oscar watchers tally the results, and by awards night, there is little left to do but dutifully check off the boxes.
This year, the acting categories were declared locked up almost as soon as nominations were announced, with Mr. DiCaprio in particular considered a sure thing to win best actor. “Every now and then, the town owes you something,” said Albert S. Ruddy, a producer of “Million Dollar Baby,” adding that he thought “The Revenant” was a fine film and that Mr. DiCaprio’s industry peers are well aware that he spent months “going through the snow” and worse to get the movie made.
Mr. Ruddy was sitting next to Mr. DiCaprio when “Million Dollar Baby,” directed by Clint Eastwood, took the top prize instead of “The Aviator” in 2005. “Don’t worry, baby, you’re going to get a hundred of these things,” Mr. Ruddy recalled telling Leo, as he and almost everyone here refers to the actor.
The “Million Dollar Baby” surprise, Mr. Ruddy added, had much to do with the film’s late release, in mid-December of 2004, and deliberately slow expansion in January. By contrast, “The Godfather,” also produced by Mr. Ruddy, was released in March 1972, “just 10 minutes after the Academy Awards ceremony was over,” he said. So that film, when it took the best-picture award rather than “Cabaret,” which had eight Oscars, surprised some by surviving its long exposure.
Regardless of the outcome for “Room,” A24, founded four years ago and only employing about 40 people, has proved itself a savvy campaigner — a winner just by the way it has “danced the dance,” as Scott Feinberg, awards columnist for The Hollywood Reporter, put it. “They started planting the seeds that ‘Room’ was special way back in the summer, before the first screenings at Telluride, and we all paid attention,” Mr. Feinberg said by phone on Monday, referring to the Telluride Film Festival.
Mr. Feinberg noted that A24, which takes its name from a highway in Italy that connects Old World cities to newer ones, has employed a canny awards strategist, Lisa Taback, who used to work for Mr. Weinstein.
While most of Telluride’s offerings (“He Named Me Malala,” “Steve Jobs,” “Suffragette,” “Beasts of No Nation”) quickly died on the Oscar trail and at the box office, A24 kept “Room” alive with an excruciatingly slow rollout in theaters. The film played in fewer than 300 locations for 13 weeks, taking in less than $1 million. Then, timed to Oscar nominations in mid-January, A24 pounced, pushing “Room” into nearly 900 theaters. The film has sold about $12 million in tickets. “Spotlight” so far has taken in over $37 million in domestic ticket sales and “The Big Short” about $66 million.
Little A24, which also has a documentary feature in contention this year, “Amy,” about the life and death of Amy Winehouse, could not afford a blanket for-your-consideration campaign, so it resorted to “strategic strikes,” Mr. Feinberg noted. One effort involved recreating the titular setfrom “Room” near a theater in West Los Angeles where voters often go to see films. A24 also had to overcome Ms. Larson’s shooting schedule for “Kong: Skull Island,” which made her unavailable for various campaign stops.
To compensate, A24 sometimes turned to Jacob Tremblay, a rascally 9-year-old who played the son in “Room.” Trotted out at key moments — at the Governors Awards, at a luncheon for nominees, on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” — Jacob in some ways turned into this year’s version of Uggie, the terrier the Weinstein Company successfully deployed on behalf of “The Artist” in 2012.
“Cute little Jake,” Mr. Feinberg said, “turned out to be quite the secret weapon.”