Off the Carpet: ‘Sniper’ aims for Oscar with box office dominance

The “Selma,” #OscarsSoWhite thing was like kerosene to a match this weekend, and frankly, the reductivism on both sides made it impossible to even have a real conversation about it. So let's let that breathe for a beat. I have no epiphanies about it and neither does anyone else endlessly gnawing on it. Let's talk about what's out there now.

“American Sniper” made a lot of money this weekend. Like, a whole lot. And that has some wondering aloud about its Oscar prospects. On one hand, no one who saw what the film did in limited release (and saw even earlier that Warner Bros. was taking advantage of the January dumping ground to leverage awards buzz for box office a la “Lone Survivor”) was surprised that it dominated. On the other hand, most estimates were significantly south of $90 mil.

Regardless, this film has been seen and chewed on for nearly two months as the studio had the screener ready to go very early (before the official Academy screening, even). This weekend was the rest of the country catching up to a movie already viewed and considered by AMPAS. Box office ignition isn't going to suddenly change people's minds about the best of the year.

I see sound editing and sound mixing wins, and I see potential for Bradley Cooper to give Michael Keaton a run for his money in Best Actor, but beyond that, don't forget the lessons of “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Those films came on strong in the final lap, landed multiple nominations (10 for the former), cleaned up at the box office and, ultimately, fell prey to the already established narratives. Meanwhile, there is some reported backlash within the Academy vis a vis “Sniper's” depiction of someone who “seems like he may be a sociopath,” to quote one member.

But…you never know. I'm not making any declarations. Just providing some context to consider. I think if this were the old Oscar timeline, with the Academy Awards deep into March, then something like “Sniper” shocking as a Best Picture winner could happen. If there was time to build that head of steam, mitigate any potential backlash, etc. But the season has been reduced on the back end the last several years, and by now, generally, everyone pretty much already knows what they're voting for.

I expect the Academy to spread things out this year. I'm betting on three Oscars each for “Birdman,” “Boyhood,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Imitation Game” (including Best Picture), and two for “American Sniper.” We don't have a crafts juggernaut like “Gravity” to sweep through the below the line categories and we certainly don't have an anointed victor to drag various other prizes along. So that makes the most sense to me.

I will say, though, that “Selma” is absolutely still in a position to win. There could be internal pushback if there is overwhelming pressure that they “must” vote for it, but I still believe the film needs to be seen by many and during phase two, that will change. Nothing about stats or recent history really figures, and leaning on that kind of information is folly. There's nothing keeping “Selma” from making history that requires pointing to lack of precedent.

For now, “Sniper” will continue to make bank. “Selma” will continue to be a political football. “Boyhood” and “The Imitation Game” will maintain an even keel. And the guilds will help show the way.

Speaking of which, keep your eye on Saturday night's Producers Guild Awards. That is the only group that uses the preferential balloting system that the Academy employs. In this era, I feel that whatever wins there, wins the Oscar (though this year the lack of “Selma” in the PGA nominations line-up means it's still a Best Picture wild card). The next night, the Screen Actors Guild dishes 'em out, which could be a good night for “Birdman,” but I'm not entirely sure. It'll all just feel like added shading after PGA, though.

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The Contenders section has of course been updated with all the nominees and added commentary in each category. What are your predictions? Are you ready to commit?