It's not necessarily surprising that the same composers routinely show up in this category. Over the past two decades, scores originally written for films have been replaced with pop music for key moments, with Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet often cited as the progenitor of this trend. Scores, then, are now too often reserved specifically for prestige projects, while other films usually just have it hum in the background without drawing attention to itself. As a result, it's not uncommon to see the same few composers' names on most major movies, meaning that yes, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard and Danny Elfman and Howard Shore are often going to be more recognized than newcomers.
More after the break.
However, to say that there's no change in this category isn't entirely accurate because, in recent years, new composers - or at least first-time Oscar nominees - have been victorious in this category. In the past ten years, six of the ten winners in this category won on their first nomination, and the other four won on their second. The last winner in this category with three or more nominations before their win was Elliot Goldenthal in 2002 (for Frida); the last winner with five or more was James Horner in 1997 (for Titanic). A few key nominees may be the same, but when it comes to anointing the best score of the year, the newcomers have been more victorious.
The reason I mention all of this is that there are two scores that are nominated this year that come from first-time nominees, and one of them is the likely winner. Steven Price picked up his first nomination for Gravity, and for now he seems like the lock for the win. He does have recent history on his side: the past two winners, Mychael Danna (Life of Pi, 2012) and Ludovic Bource (The Artist, 2011), also composed the scores to Best Picture nominees. The bigger similarity, however, is that all three of these scores were for movies where the score was front-and-center in the sound design of the film. In other words, you notice these scores because they are so prominent: The Artist was a (nearly) silent film and relied heavily on Bource's score to aurally convey the emotional content, while Life of Pi and Gravity both isolate their characters for long periods of time, leading to less conversational dialogue and more heavy-lifting from the score. Price is something of a true newcomer; before Gravity, his only scores were for Attack the Block! (2011) and The World's End (2013). But he'll likely be joining a recent line of first-timers winning Oscars.
Win Butler and Arcade Fire
The other first-time nominees this year are William Butler - née Win Butler, lead singer of Arcade Fire - and Owen Pallett, a singer/songwriter, for Her. On first glance, this is a surprising selection - at least I was surprised to see it included - because it's a less-traditional film score, relying less on an orchestra and more on keyboards and electronic sounds. However, this isn't without precedent either: A.R. Rahman's winning score for Slumdog Millionaire in 2008 was inspired by the sounds of modern Bollywood cinema, while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' winning score for The Social Network in 2010 drew heavily from the former's work as Nine Inch Nails, employing electronic drones and tinkling piano. Reznor and Ross' score is a bona-fide classic, but it should be noted that these kinds of scores are still a rarity in this category. So even with precedent, to see the a non-traditional score nominated is still something of a rarity.
So the old complaint about this being a stoic, unchanging category isn't exactly true. Sure, there are recurring favorites when it comes to the nominees, but the music branch has shown they're willing to recognize new talent over those old favorites.
"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, god." Well, didn't I already do that? Steven Price is the most obvious pick, and it's beginning to look like he might be a part of a Gravity sweep in the technical categories. If anyone has a chance at pulling an upset, though, it's Desplat. Philomena is going to appeal to voters, he's written a terrific score for it, and as I noted in the opening paragraph, he's had momentum with the music branch for a while now. It may be time for his first win. Newman is similarly waiting for his first win, but he's the only nominee from Saving Mr. Banks, which won't help him in terms of momentum.
And, of course, I'll end with my ballot:
1. Steven Price, Gravity
2. Alexandre Desplat, Philomena
3. William Butler and Owen Pallett, Her
4. Thomas Newman, Saving Mr. Banks
5. John Williams, The Book Thief