Guild gold: The Oscars used to be called a "popularity contest," but that was years ago when Hollywood was a small community where stars and filmmakers lived down the street from one another, worked long hours together at the studios, hung out at the same nightclubs and restaurants and interacted all the time.

Times changed. Now the Oscars are driven not by how well liked the nominees are, but by how much money studios spend on marketing campaigns to convince Academy members to watch a film and decide it's Oscar worthy.

Achieving Academy voters' blessings is a challenging task that awards marketers must accomplish over a period of eight or nine months. As contenders work their way down the path to Oscar night, which this year is a very late in the game Mar. 2, different forces impact on how contenders are perceived and how frontrunners emerge.

From mid-May on, starting with the Cannes Film Festival, awards bestowed by film festival juries and audiences generate headlines about potential Oscar contenders.

By early December, critics groups like the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review and the Broadcast Film Critics Association take over as the driving force behind Oscar speculation. Mid-December brings Golden Globe noms from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which generate major bragging rights for Oscar hopefuls.

By January the emphasis shifts to the Hollywood guilds representing actors, producers, directors, writers, film editors and other behind the scenes talent. Guild gold is prized because unlike critics and festival awards, these represent votes by many people who will vote for the Oscars because they're also members of corresponding Academy branches. How the guilds vote is often an excellent bellwether for how Academy members will vote.

The trouble is the guild votes come so late in the awards season. Hollywood marketers need to be out there campaigning months earlier. That's why the studios make the most of opportunities at far flung festivals in places like Cannes, Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York. Playing well at the festivals translates into elevated Oscar profiles that put films on track for Academy consideration.

A case in point is Paramount's "Nebraska," which got into the race as soon as Bruce Dern won best actor at Cannes. Dern's victory in Cannes over the higher profile Robert Redford for his performance in Roadside Attractions' "All is Lost," a film in which Redford was the only actor on screen, immediately put "Nebraska" on the awards map.

Since then "Nebraska's" received a nice sprinkling of other wins for Dern as lead actor and for June Squibb as supporting actress. Its six Oscar nominations positioned it as a stronger contender than many awards gurus anticipated earlier in the season.

Now with three guild-endorsed front runner nominees in a nine contender best picture race, "Nebraska's" starting to look like a possible dark horse.

          The three front runners leading the pack are Warner Bros.' "Gravity," whose director Alfonso Curaron won the Directors Guild of America's feature directing award; Columbia Pictures' "American Hustle," winner of the Screen Actors Guild's best ensemble cast award; and Fox Searchlight Pictures' "12 Years a Slave," which tied with "Gravity" for the Producers Guild of America's feature film award.

With three top contenders, each backed by a key guild, the possibility's there that they could cancel each other out with Academy voters. That, in turn, could open the door for a less lofty contender like "Nebraska" to sneak in.

"Hustle" and "Gravity" each lead the Oscar pack with 10 noms and "Slave" is right behind them with nine. They're followed by three nominees that each received six nods – "Nebraska," "Captain Phillips" and "Dallas Buyers Club."


"Nebraska's" six Oscar noms are in prime categories, including best actor (Dern), supporting actress (June Squibb), cinematography, directing (Alexander Payne), picture and original screenplay. What it doesn't have is a film editing nod, which typically is necessary for a film to win best picture. Only three of the nine nominees have the prime package of best picture, directing and film editing noms -- "Hustle," "Gravity" and "Slave."

Besides winning best actor at Cannes, Dern's also won awards from the L.A. Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review. Dern was a SAG lead actor nominee, but lost to Matthew McConaughey ("Dallas Buyers Club").

Squibb was a SAG nominee, but lost to "Slave's" Lupita Nyong'o. She also was a Golden Globe supporting actress nominee, but lost to "Hustle's" Jennifer Lawrence.

"Nebraska" received a Writers Guild of America (WGA) original screenplay nod, but lost last Saturday to Warner Bros.' "Her." Although it received a directing Oscar nod, it wasn't in the DGA race (which Curaron won for "Gravity"). It had a PGA nom, but lost to "Gravity."

"Nebraska" has three noms -- actor, original screenplay and cinematography -- for British Academy BAFTA's, which will be awarded Feb.16 in London.

Its strong set of Oscar noms gives it surprise potential if the race is as tight as many observers believe it is right now. While "Phillips" and "Dallas" also have six noms apiece, "Nebraska's" noms are in categories generally considered more likely to produce a best picture win.

Columbia's "Phillips" has a best picture nod, but no directing nom for Paul Greengrass (a best directing Oscar nominee in 2007 for "United 93") or best actor nom for Tom Hanks (a two-time best actor Oscar winner in 1994 for "Philadelphia" and in 1995 for "Forrest Gump"). On the other hand, it does have that very important best film editing nod. Its other Oscar noms are for supporting actor (Barkhad Abdi), sound editing, sound mixing and adapted screenplay. "Phillips" won the WGA's best adapted screenplay award Saturday.

"Phillips" has nine BAFTA noms, including best picture, directing, film editing and lead actor (Hanks) and many British Academy members are also Academy members who vote for the Oscars. It had a DGA nom for Greengrass, but he lost to "Gravity's" Curaron.

"Nebraska" with its directing and acting Oscar noms would appear to have an advantage over "Phillips," which isn't in those races. Best picture nominees without directing noms are considered "orphans" in the race. "Phillips's" lack of a best actor Oscar nod for Hanks suggests a lack of passion from the actors' branch. Although Hanks and Abdi (who is an Oscar supporting actor nominee) received SAG noms, they lost to Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto from Focus Features' "Dallas Buyers Club."  "Phillips" did not receive a SAG ensemble cast nod. It did get a PGA nom, but lost to "Gravity" and "Slave," which tied.

"Dallas Buyers Club" also boasts six Oscar noms – for actor (McConaughey), supporting actor (Leto), film editing, makeup & hairstyling, best picture and original screenplay.

While it's got the all-important film editing nod, it's missing a directing nod for Jean-Marc Vallee ("The Young Victoria"), who also lacked a DGA nom. "Dallas" was a PGA nominee, but lost to the tie between "Gravity" and "Slave."

"Dallas" got a lift from its great SAG success, reflecting the actors' support for the film. McConaughey and Leto also won Golden Globes, so they've been making acceptance speeches, which can be very helpful in attracting votes from Academy members if they like what they see.

"Dallas" also had a WGA nod for original screenplay, but lost Saturday to "Her."

Bottom line: "Nebraska," "Phillips" and "Dallas" all have different strengths, but what they have in common are serious storylines that resonate with Academy members. If Oscar's three best picture frontrunners run into each other, these three contenders will be right behind them ready to go for the gold.