When this year’s Oscar nominations dropped on January 24, two perennially problematic issues for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences met in a head-on collision in the Best Actress category: Hollywood’s historic lack of representation, and the vast economic imbalance between indie movie producers and billion-dollar media behemoths competing for the same awards. Andrea Riseborough received a surprise nomination for her little-seen but excellent work in To Leslie, while two actors widely considered favorites in the category, Viola Davis (The Woman King) and Danielle Deadwyler (Till), did not. The latter two were nominated for this Sunday’s SAG awards, but not Riseborough.
The other Best Actress nominees are Michelle Yeoh, Ana de Armas, Michelle Williams, and Cate Blanchett. Riseborough’s nomination came after a low-budget, well-organized social-media campaign by the movie’s many celebrity fans, among them Jane Fonda, Charlize Theron, and Edward Norton. Some high-profile fans of the film even held private screenings in support of Riseborough’s nomination push. Critics of Hollywood’s exclusionary economy of prestige charged that a well-connected white woman snagged a nomination from at least one deserving Black woman, and that the Academy had a glaring case of misogynoir.
First, let’s qualify the word “surprise.” You were only “surprised” by Riseborough’s nomination if you avidly follow the Oscar predictor sites and podcasts—a cottage industry of pundits who purport to have a racetrack tout’s inside dope from the celebrity paddock on who looks likely to win, place, or draw at the Oscars. Riseborough’s sudden appearance in the category surprised this clutch of award handicappers because she never held their favorite spot, nor did she get nominations from SAG or the BAFTAs, as Davis and Deadwyler did. To Leslie opened at the indie South by Southwest festival and had made only $27,000 at the box office by nomination day. Despite critical raves, few people talked about it until its campaign of influential supporters boosted it. By contrast, The Woman King had hit $92 million by January 24, and Till $10 million since its January 10 debut.
Much as our bloated presidential campaigns now run two years, the annual Oscar awards have expanded into a nearly year-long affair. The Academy’s red carpet now unrolls over 6,000 miles to the Cannes Film Festival in May, 10 months before the Oscars’ March broadcast. Award winners at Cannes kick off the mercurial odds-setting speculations for America’s film-coronation ceremony in March. During the 10-month buildup to the Academy’s televised envelope-tearing spectacle, the red carpet runs through Venice, Telluride, Toronto, SXSW, critics’ top 10 lists, year-end best lists, and critics’ circles from Los Angeles to Detroit to New York. Consensus favorites develop; movie stars make treks out to the movie world’s Iowa caucuses—the Golden Globes and the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards. The circuit builds to the guild awards at the WGA, DGA, SAG, and then the BAFTAS.
Just as in politics, publicists, strategists, and ad-sales teams run tabs into the millions for these campaigns. That all finally ends on Oscar night itself. And then, if someone gets slapped, or decides to make a ham-handed political statement, you may even still be tweeting and posting about it the next morning.
Does any of this matter? Isn’t it all just millionaires handing out gold statues to each other to stroke each other’s egos? As The Woman King’s director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, recently said:
There are those who say to Black filmmakers, “Why do you care about awards? Why do you care about validation from a white organization?” And that’s the thing. The Academy and the guilds should not be thought of as white institutions. They’re supposed to be made up of our peers. They’re not. They don’t represent the whole filmmaking community. But what awards give you is currency. They impact your standing. They impact the box office. They impact the steps you take in this industry. They impact who gets final cut.
In short, Oscars matter. Oscars matter because they confer power to the artists who win them. They help decide who gets to make movies that shape the global culture. In an age where culture wars decide presidential elections, yes, Oscars matter.
Oscars matter so much that in 2019, Netflix spent an estimated $25 million on its campaign to put Alfonso Cuaron’s masterful Roma into contention. The movie itself cost a reported $15 million, and made (in its short release) about $5 million. Oscars for Roma would instantly boost Netflix’s reputation in the industry: It would be seen as not just a video-on-demand streaming platform but also a major studio that prestige filmmakers entrust to make quality movies. To be sure, Cuaron deserved those nominations, but so did other films and filmmakers who did not have $25 million behind them. The Roma campaign paid off with 10 nominations and three wins: Best Achievement in Direction, Best Achievement in Cinematography, and Best Foreign Language Film. A Mexican director won a pair of leading awards—did that mean Hollywood made real strides forward in Latino representation in 2019? Or did it mean Netflix paid $25 million for its larger business strategy, with Roma the lucky beneficiary?
Both things can be true, but it’s a rare occurrence for the big money to roll behind a foreign-language or independent film. Roma fell short of the big prize for Netflix, a Best Picture win. The next year, Bong Joon-Ho won Best Director and Best Picture awards for Parasite—the first foreign language film to ever win in the latter category. Throughout the 2010s, the Best Director category expanded with international diversification and wins: Tom Hooper (British), Michel Hazanavicius (French), Cuaron twice, Mexico’s Alejandro González Iñárritu (twice) and Guillermo Del Toro, South Korea’s Bong Joon-Ho, and Taiwan’s Ang Lee. Roma and Parasite further expanded that diversification as groundbreaking foreign-language entries. In the last two years, New Zealand’s Jane Campion won Best Director, and then Chinese-born Chloe Zhao.
It could be coincidence that all of these directors of color and international citizenship won, or it’s simply that Prince-Bythewood is absolutely right: Oscars shift our perception of who filmmakers, producers, and stars are and can be. That’s why a nomination for Prince-Bythewood or Till’s director Chinonye Chukwu might have had real impact: no Black woman has ever been nominated for directing, and no Black director has ever won.
In the case of Andrea Riseborough, there was no campaign budget. To Leslie got produced for less than $1 million and was shot in 19 days. That does not make the film good or bad, but it makes clear how little cash the filmmakers would be able to spend promoting it for awards season. Even at its SXSW opening, it wasn’t in a competitive slot, so, despite critical raves, it had no award to generate buzz. Actress Mary McCormack (wife of To Leslie’s director), and Riseborough’s manager, Jason Weinberg, organized a social-media campaign and arranged private screenings. Soon, Fonda, Paltrow, Demi Moore, Frances Fisher, and many others got behind the film. Celebrity Instagram and Twitter accounts helped To Leslie shortcut that 6,000 miles’ worth of international red-carpet receptions and millions in ads to get Academy voters’ attention. Its backers calculated that if the entire 1,302-strong membership of the Actors’ branch of the Academy voted, Riseborough needed only 218 votes for a nomination. No one knows how many votes she got. Did she squeak by, or did this unorthodox strategy give her a vote count topping Blanchett and Yeoh and the other favorites? The entire focus of this campaign was on the Academy’s Actors’ branch of the Academy, and it worked.
Riseborough’s nomination came as such a shock to industry insiders that the Academy held an investigation to see if anyone broke their campaigning rules. As actress Christina Ricci put it on her Instagram account, “Seems hilarious that the ‘surprise nomination’ (meaning tons of money wasn’t spent to position this actress) of a legitimately brilliant performance is being met with an investigation.”
Except for the Riseborough campaign’s breach of the unwritten rule of spending millions for an Oscar nomination, no violations were found. The Academy has any number of rules on how an individual can campaign, but none for spending caps on campaigns. You can’t get robbed of a nomination you never had, but you can be let down by the people hired to get you one. To Leslie, The Woman King, and Till combined only got one Oscar nomination—Riseborough’s. As for The Woman King, this year Oscar voters found themselves with a historic choice between two global blockbusters about African warrior queens, The Woman King and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. For years, Marvel has worn down Academy voters to legitimize its spandex franchise, and this year it got nominations in six categories for, among others, Angela Bassett, Rihanna, Tems, Ruth Carter, and Camille Friend. It’s not like Academy voters can’t vote for both The Woman King and Wakanda Forever, but it seems they chose one over the other. As for Deadwyler, Amazon’s Orion Pictures and Barbara Broccoli’s Eon Productions (which controls the Bond franchise), Whoopi Goldberg, and the eminent Frederic Zollo produced her film Till. In Deadwyler’s well-connected, well-financed situation, you do wonder—yeah, what happened?
Misogynoir is real, and it cannot be ruled out—particularly in light of the Oscars’ history of racial and gender underrepresentation. With so many nominations for Everything Everywhere All at Once and Wakanda Forever, along with the Academy’s internal diversification, the Oscars’ public image has improved. Still, award shows aren’t a true barometer of representation and diversity in Hollywood. A recent UCLA study shows that actors from diverse backgrounds have made tremendous gains in the last decade. And yet a new USC Annenberg study shows just the opposite trend in directing. Oscars matter in many areas, but the Oscar campaigns seeking to influence the ballots of Academy voters are not vying for a diverse or fair playing field. Their goal is just to win.