LOS ANGELES — In 87 years of Oscar history, it has only happened once. Only one studio, United Artists, with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Rocky” and “Annie Hall,” in the 1970s, has released a best picture winner three years in a row.
But 20th Century Fox, for better or worse, is taking a run at the record books.
In a year of tangled Oscar prospects at multiple studios, Fox has at least four films with a credible shot at a best picture nomination. They are “The Revenant,” a frontier-era tour de force directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu; “The Martian,” Ridley Scott’s 3-D blockbuster; “Joy,” starring Jennifer Lawrence as the inventor of the Miracle Mop; and “Brooklyn,” a period romance showcasing Saoirse Ronan.
It is an embarrassment of riches — especially considering that Fox, through its art house label and partnership with New Regency Productions, had the Oscar-winning best picture earlier this year, with Mr. Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” and the year before, with Steve McQueen’s blistering “12 Years a Slave.”
But the strong slate of contenders also has the makings of a monumental headache. Fox now faces the delicate task of making each child feel equally loved.
Sibling rivalry is already festering under the surface, with some people connected to “The Revenant,” which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, worrying that Fox will find subtle ways to favor “The Martian,” in part because of the studio’s long relationship with Mr. Scott. (Fox declined to comment for this article, along with New Regency, which produced and financed “The Revenant.”)
Other studios face a similar challenge. At Universal, for instance, “Straight Outta Compton” has unexpectedly moved ahead of “Steve Jobs” as the great awards hope. But nowhere is the jockeying as pronounced as it is at Fox.
Is Fox taking out equal “for-your-consideration” ads in Variety for each film? Did “Joy,” directed by David O. Russell, get better hors d’oeuvres for its event than “Brooklyn,” directed by the relatively unknown John Crowley? It may sound petty, but teams of producers, agents and publicists are paying meticulous attention, and they will scream bloody murder if they feel slighted. In some ways, it is a fight about money; Oscar campaigns cost millions of dollars.
“Fox is one of the savviest studios when it comes to winning Oscars, but simultaneously managing multiple best picture campaigns — not to mention four — can be enormously complicated,” said Sue Fleishman, the founder of September Media, an entertainment-focused communications consultancy.
Ms. Fleishman, a former Universal and Warner Bros. executive, added, “You have to figure out how best to support each contender without damaging the others.”
It is too early, of course, to say whether one of the Fox films will end up a winner on Feb. 28, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hands out its little gold statues in a ceremony broadcast on ABC. Voting does not begin until Dec. 30, and some major films have still not been widely seen, including “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which some awards strategists think could shake up the race when it arrives on Dec. 18.
“Spotlight,” about the Boston journalists who exposed the local Catholic Archdiocese’s cover-up of child sexual abuse, is currently the film to beat, according to the Oscar prognosticators followed by Gold Derby, an entertainment honors site. But most handicappers have “The Revenant” and “The Martian” hot on its heels, with “Joy,” which has still not been widely shown, and “Brooklyn,” which has taken in roughly $8 million in relatively limited release, not far behind.
Adding to this year’s awards complexity for Fox, which also has a best animated film candidate in “The Peanuts Movie,” none of its potential best picture nominees have the same strengths and weaknesses.
“The Martian,” which has taken in more than $545 million worldwide since its release in October, is certainly an audience favorite. Starring a convivial Matt Damon as a stranded astronaut, “The Martian” was also a critical success, scoring a powerful 80 on Metacritic.com, a site that compiles film reviews.
Popularity and perhaps an underlying sense that the film will reap honors for its technical achievement have helped push “The Martian” toward the front of the pack. But few Oscar experts list Mr. Damon as their top prospect for an acting statuette, an obvious soft spot for the film.
A greater advantage for “The Martian” may lie in a vast pool of film industry respect, if not quite love, for Mr. Scott. At the age of 78, he has directed about two dozen feature films, including
“Gladiator,” which was named best picture in 2001. But he has never personally won an Oscar, despite three directing nominations — and Hollywood’s urge to make good for that sort of oversight helped push both “The Departed” and its director, Martin Scorsese (who had never won), to Oscar victories in 2007.
Mr. DiCaprio has never won an Oscar, either. His largely silent performance in “The Revenant” as a severely wounded frontiersman, will almost assuredly bring him a sixth nomination — and very likely an ultimate win, Oscar diviners agree. (Contrary to Internet rumor, Mr. DiCaprio does not get “raped by a bear” in the film, which arrives in limited release on Christmas Day.)
“The Revenant,” which has a SWAT team of publicists and awards consultants working on its behalf, is a visually arresting film that some Oscar forecasters have compared to “The Tree of Life,” Terrence Malick’s critically adored 2011 drama. Despite the gore in Mr. Iñárritu’s movie — a horse is disemboweled, among other bloody sequences — New Regency sees “The Revenant” as an audience pleaser, attracting multiplex crowds of men and women alike.
But even blockbuster ticket sales, visual wizardry and Mr. DiCaprio’s performance may not be enough to beat the odds. According to Libby Wertin, a researcher at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library, no director has ever had a film win back-to-back best picture Oscars. “Of course, these days, few directors besides Woody Allen manage to have films released in consecutive years with any regularity,” Ms. Wertin noted in an email.
For the moment, Oscar prospects for Mr. Russell’s “Joy” are murkier. Mr. Russell is known for some of the best-received films in recent years, including “The Fighter,’’ “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle.” So he is in some ways competing against his own very strong track record. How does “Joy” stack up? Only finished recently after heavy re-editing (test audiences did not like the initial third act), the feel-good “Joy” has been receiving good-but-not-quite-great tastemaker buzz.
The film’s chances may ultimately rest on good will for Ms. Lawrence, who won a best actress Oscar for “Silver Linings Playbook.” Because of its story, “Joy” may also resonate strongly with female voters. At a recent screening for awards voters, Ms. Lawrence said the film acknowledges “women who are the unsung heroes of their households.”
Fox is invested in doing right by “Joy” on the awards circuit, in part because of its long relationship with John Davis, one of five credited producers. (Mr. Davis’s “Garfield” and “Predator” series have been major moneymakers for Fox over the years.)
As with Sony’s “Concussion,” about a Nigerian-born doctor who takes on the National Football League, “Brooklyn” and its cagey backers from Fox Searchlight have been looking to connect with something grand — the nation’s soul-searching over immigration — while delivering more than just white male leads at a time when critics have become wary of them. “Brooklyn” is about a young Irish woman’s quest for love and a better life in America of 60 years ago.
That might be enough to land “Brooklyn” among the final slate of eight or nine best picture nominees. Winning is a long shot, but Fox’s specialty division is ceding nothing. (In fact, the unit also believes that Paolo Sorrentino’s meditation on aging, “Youth,” which opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles, also has a shot at a best picture nomination.)
In recent days, entertainment journalists received for-your-consideration booklets for “Brooklyn” that carried glowing comments from 22 critics. “This Year’s Most Stirring Film,” it started.
Those involved with “The Martian,” “Joy” and “The Revenant” may disagree, of course.