By conventional Hollywood standards, "Get Out" shouldn't be an Oscar darling. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is usually averse to horror movies, and almost never rewards films that come out early in the year. What's more, the academy typically favors industry stalwarts, not first-time filmmakers like writer-director Jordan Peele.
But "Get Out" broke all the rules, earning four nominations including best picture, best director and best original screenplay, marking another twist in a highly unusual yearlong path from last year's Sundance Film Festival to the Oscars red carpet. The movie is the first February release to earn a best picture nomination since "The Silence of the Lambs" won the top prize in 1992.
The unexpected success of the $4.5-million socially conscious thriller, released by Universal Pictures, is more than just a quirky Hollywood anomaly. It serves as a reminder that studios, even in a seemingly ossified system, can find success by betting on fresh talent and edgy ideas that connect with audiences.
"Get Out," about a young black man who visits his white girlfriend's parents and is ensnared in a terrifying plot, has benefited from a wave of cultural momentum behind its satirical take on race in America. The movie became a surprise hit, grossing about $255 million at the worldwide box office, and continued to resonate with audiences during news cycles about the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., and athletes protesting during the national anthem. Now it has a decent shot at the business' top honor, which will bring a big boost of prestige to the winning studio and filmmakers.
"It's the wildest dream that has become a reality," said Peele in an interview. "There were so many stigmas around this movie that I assumed would keep it from being nominated -- the horror stigma, the stigma about movies earlier in the season, and the stigma around some of the imagery in this movie."
The journey of "Get Out" illustrates the challenge of campaigning for a movie that hit theaters more than a year before the ceremony.
A year ago, Comcast-owned Universal had successfully sold "Get Out" to audiences as a high-concept scary movie, spending tens of millions to make the film a commercial winner. But when awards season began in the fall, the studio had to remarket the film in a way that would get the academy's notoriously older and whiter demographic to take it seriously.
Even getting horror-averse voters to see "Get Out" was a formidable undertaking, said Jason Blum, one of the films' producers.
"It was very, very challenging getting eyes on the movie from members of the academy," Blum said in his Los Angeles office. "I would be surprised if more than 20 percent of academy members had seen the movie by the end of August."
The critical response and the social impact gave the studio the confidence to put the muscle of a full-fledged awards campaign behind the movie, said Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Pictures. Universal declined to say how much the studio spent on the campaign to target academy voters. However, studios typically spend $4 million to $5 million for a robust rollout, which includes spending on television ads, billboards, screenings and flying filmmakers around the country to awards events.