It's been put down to sentimentality, spin, bribery and plain luck. But now an American academic claims to have unlocked the secret "formula" that will guarantee a film makes the Oscar shortlist.
As Hollywood awaits Tuesday's announcement of the nominations for the 75th Academy Awards, which will take place on 23 March, it would do well to heed the theory of veteran critic Emanuel Levy.
Mr Levy, professor of film and sociology at the University of California Los Angeles, has pinpointed the six boxes he believes a movie needs to tick to be sure of a nod from the judges. First is the "romantic epic" quality shared by sprawling historical dramas from Lawrence of Arabia to Gladiator. Then there is the "social issue", encompassing everything from marital strife (Kramer vs Kramer) to ethnic cleansing (Schindler's List).
"Glossy" production values are a prerequisite, while a serious Oscar contender, no matter how grave its subject, also needs to be somehow "uplifting". Another essential quality is the use of novel or impressive "source material", be it an award-winning book or an acclaimed stage play.
One of the most important elements, Mr Levy argues, is the "added value" factor. This can range from gimmicks such as snazzy special effects to boasting an all-singing, all-dancing cast or a prodigious young director.
Now Mr Levy, who outlines his theory in a new book, Oscar Fever: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards, has used it to predict this year's nominations – and the eventual winner.
"An Oscar-winning movie has to scream at the public that it is an 'event' worth seeing," he said. "Most Americans watch films these days at home, on video or DVD, so to be an Oscar hopeful you have to tell people that they need to go and see it in the cinema.
"The contenders this year will be big, popular movies with great showy production values. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers will get in, though it probably won't win because the academy is gearing up for the final instalment. Gangs of New York will get in, because it has everything going for it, except perhaps the social issue thing. Roman Polanski's The Pianist will probably also be nominated."
Mr Levy, who divides his time between lecturing and writing reviews for Variety magazine, believes the final decision will rest between one of two films: the musical Chicago and British director Stephen Daldry's The Hours.
"No musical has been nominated for best picture since All That Jazz in 1979, and the last winner was Oliver! in 1968, but Moulin Rouge did very well last year and Chicago could take over where it left off," he said. "But the most important factor for an Oscar-nominated movie is that it should be about an important issue. It can be a 'pseudo-issue' too, and in this area The Hours scores well – there's an Aids theme and it also has a look at the position of women in society. It's not an epic picture in scope, but it's ambitious and it has literary cachet. My money is on The Hours."
Though Mr Levy's main concern is the psychology behind the nomination process for best film, he also sees patterns in the choice of nominees for best actor and actress. For actresses, the key factor is their willingness to be "de-glamourised" for their roles, while actors must be prepared to play characters who are ageing, sick or disabled.
Nicole Kidman's brooding portrayal of Virginia Woolf under layers of prosthetic make-up in The Hours makes her a shoo-in, he says, for best actress. Ironically, Elizabeth Taylor was similarly rewarded in 1966 for her role as bloated college professor Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Meanwhile, Daniel Day-Lewis, who proved the maxim for men in 1987 when he won the best actor gong for his performance as disabled artist Christy Brown in My Left Foot, could benefit this year from another key factor. Like Diane Lane, who Mr Levy believes will be nominated for best actress for her role in Unfaithful, he has the "comeback" card in his favour.
As for directors, Mr Levy has no doubt about who will win this year's crown. At 60, and with five nominations but no win yet, Martin Scorsese is, he says, a cert.And the winners will be... David Thomson's predictions
By the dawn's early light (or actually well before light), at 5.30am Pacific time on Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce its Oscar nominations for this year. Your gambling correspondent offers these predictions – but please bear in mind that he also thought the Oakland Raiders would win the Super Bowl.
Best Picture: The Hours; The Pianist; Chicago; Talk to Her and Adaptation. (In other words, I don't think Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York will get a nod.)
Best Director: Stephen Daldry for The Hours; legal outcast Roman Polanski for The Pianist (he's subject to immediate arrest if he lands on US soil); Rob Marshall for Chicago; Pedro Almodovar for Talk to Her; and Scorsese for Gangs of New York. (The directors, I suspect, cannot resist nominating Marty.)
Best Actor: Jack Nicholson, right, in About Schmidt (if he wins, he equals Katharine Hepburn's record of four Oscars); Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York; Adrien Brody for The Pianist; Nicolas Cage in Adaptation; and Michael Caine for The Quiet American (despite the fact that the Graham Greene adaptation has been largely withheld by Miramax).
Best Actress: Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours; Diane Lane in Unfaithful; Salma Hayek for Frida; Renée Zellweger in Chicago; and Julianne Moore in Far from Heaven.
Best Supporting Actor: Chris Cooper in Adaptation; Dennis Quaid in Far from Heaven; Ed Harris in The Hours; and Paul Newman and Jude Law, both in Road to Perdition. (I think that this will be the only attention paid to that once vaunted film.)
Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Clarkson in Far from Heaven; Kathy Bates in About Schmidt; Miranda Richardson in Spider; Toni Collette in The Hours; and Meryl Streep in Adaptation.
And the winners? I'll put my money on Meryl Streep as supporting actress and Paul Newman as supporting actor. Best actress is my most confident assertion: I think just about everyone by now recognises that Nicole Kidman has become a sensational actress. Best actor: I thought Day-Lewis, but now I suspect that sentiment is torn between Nicholson and Adrien Brody. (Indeed, the late dark horse is The Pianist, which is getting through to US audiences.) Best director? I have a hunch that won't go away that Roman Polanski (and Homeland Security) are going to be put on the spot. And best picture will be The Hours.
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