It’s a wide-open race for the Best Picture Oscar this year. Awards-watchers entered the season assuming Spotlight was a nominal frontrunner, but its support always seemed tepid. Now that The Big Short and The Revenant have racked up major precursor awards, the buzz has shifted accordingly.
But the uncertainty could pave the way for a winner no one saw coming: Mad Max: Fury Road. At first glance, the high-octane action flick doesn’t fit the artsy mold of the Academy, but Oscar voters aren’t a monolith. The math behind how the Academy votes for its signature awards reveals that Mad Max actually has a real shot.
The Academy’s 6,261 members are divided into 17 “branches,” each for a different profession of filmmaker: Directors, Costume Designers, Music, etc. Each branch votes for the nominees in its respective category; for example, the Documentary Branch selects the Best Documentary nominees. However, members of all branches vote on the ultimate winners of every award, including Best Picture.
Spotlight, having won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Film and received two acting nods at the Oscars, is likely popular with the Actors Branch. The actors are the largest slice of the Academy, but they still only account for 1,138, or 18%, of total membership. The Big Short's win at the Producers Guild Awards, meanwhile, signals support among the Producers Branch. At 483 members, the producers are only 8% of Academy members. And, given it won the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film, let's assume the Directors Branch is behind The Revenant. That’s 394 supporters for this raw Leonardo DiCaprio survival story, or 6% of the total electorate.
Where Mad Max could triumph is on the electoral strength of the craft guild voting blocs. The blockbuster is nominated for all eight craft awards—Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects. That’s an extremely rare feat, pulled off by only three other movies in Oscar history (including Titanic and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). This suggests Mad Max has supporters across all of those branches—which are ordinarily considered minor but are quite formidable as a group. Together, the technical branches combine for 1,811 members—a full 29% of the Academy.
There’s just one problem: amazingly, The Revenant is one of the other three movies that went eight for eight in technical nominations. But there is reason to believe that Mad Max’s support with technicians is stronger. The Revenant is seen as the favorite for only one craft award, Best Cinematography; it’s a long shot for the other seven. That means The Revenant is more like Master and Commander, which took home only two Oscars, than it is Best Picture–winner Titanic.
By contrast, Mad Max is favored by experts and betting markets to win six of those categories (all but Cinematography and Costume Design). If correct, that would mean Mad Max doesn’t just have support among the large technical voting bloc; it has real passion. It would put Mad Max in the company of not only Titanic, but also Ben-Hur and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the only other movies to win six Oscars for their crafts. Those three epics are the best comps for Mad Max with respect to support from the technical branches. All three won Best Picture. No film has ever won six or more technical Oscars, as Mad Max is expected to do, and lost the big prize.
At more recent Academy Awards, we’ve also seen examples of the archetype that Mad Max represents: technically strong films that ride their broad support into the thick of the Best Picture race. At the 2013 ceremony, space stunner Gravity won five of the six craft Oscars it was nominated for, while Martin Scorsese’s Hugo won five of seven in 2011. Neither won Best Picture, but neither had the depth or breadth of support that Mad Max (expected to win six of eight) has either. Both also had the misfortune to go up against a strong frontrunner those years: 12 Years a Slave and The Artist. There is no such juggernaut this year.
Despite the relative lack of buzz surrounding the film, precedent puts Mad Max right in the thick of the Best Picture race. And conditions could finally be right for a film of its ilk to prevail. To be sure, it’s still an unpredictable Oscar season—but it’s time to seriously consider that Mad Max might crash the party.