I think this will be my last thoughts on the Oscars this year in regard to the lack of nominations for Selma. It’s a bit longer than the others, but hopefully I’ve gotten everything out I need to say.
I remember when I first saw For Your Consideration, the latest of Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy’s satires in the vein of Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. For Your Consideration, a story about a group of people involved in an independent film who get the idea they may be headed for Oscar glory, was not, shall we say, the most praised of their series of films.
There were people who found it funny, but for me, all I could think while watching it was that for people who are inside the movie industry, I’m astounded at how little they seemed to know as to how films become front runners or even considered in any way for the Academy.
This is a sort of roundabout way of suggesting that the only people who were surprised at how poorly Selma did with Oscar nominations are those who really don’t quite get how things work or know how to read the signs of what’s to come, which is understandable since Hollywood doesn’t seem to understand how it itself works as it is.
I’m not yet an industry insider, though I’m trying. You know, I’m the guy looking in the window at the party waiting to be invited to join.
At the same time, I have no life and spend a ridiculous amount of time, starting in the spring sometimes, trying to guess who is going to be nominated and win. I know, I know. It’s a sad existence, but for some reason, it’s just something I find fun and feel compelled to do. It’s a hobby; maybe not the most healthy of one perhaps, but a hobby nonetheless.
So, about two weeks or more before the nominations came out, I knew that Selma was in trouble. I knew that things weren’t going well.
In fact, when I first listed my predictions as to who was going to reach the finals, I didn’t even have Selma on my list of best picture noms. It wasn’t until a few days before when I read that Selma did get their screeners to the Academy that I changed my list at the last minute and included it as one of the nominees.
But even then, I knew that the only other nomination it was going to get was for song.
And I knew what the signs were that were telling me this and even some of the reasons why it happened.
I knew when the PGA, DGA, WGA and SAG did not give the movie any love (and the BAFTAS), that Selma was in deep trouble.
And the reason they didn’t give the movie any love was because they didn’t receive their screeners. And no only that, the movie opened late so that if voters in any of the guilds hadn’t seen it, they didn’t really have much time to do so and maybe didn’t even bother.
Also, although the campaign was solid enough, it just felt lackluster and was too dependent on buzz, but it’s hard to have strong buzz if no one can see the film.
One thing to note here: if the Academy didn’t allow up to ten nominations this year, and kept it to the previous five, Selma probably wouldn’t have gotten nominated at all.
There are other reasons why Selma didn’t quite make it, of course, and the film industry has much to apologize for and do something about when it comes to the treatment of minorities in the industry (from women to gays to Hispanics to Asians to blacks).
There are several ways a movie makes it to the finishing line in Oscarland and in all cases, the path is both controlled by the campaigners and controlled by forces the campaigners have no control over.
But here are some, but not all the ways to Oz (and I’m talking the TV series).
- You open early and, sometimes, if not usually, against all expectations, there is a groundswell of support that starts carrying the film on its back. At this point, if the people involved in the movie start running with that support and build on that in the campaign, they can take it all the way.
This is what happened this year with The Grand Budapest Hotel (and almost happened with Nightcrawler, though Nightcrawler did receive a screenplay nomination via this method).
This is not what happened with Wes Anderson’s previous movie, Moonlight Kingdom, which didn’t quite get that groundswell and it sort of died somewhat early. That year, the groundswell of support went to Beasts of the Southern Wild. And something similar happened to Paris at Midnight.
But to get to the awards program this way, the movie has to open early enough in the year so a groundswell can get going.
And the groundswell is something the campaigners have no control over. But what is done with it is controlled by the campaigners.
This can happen for all categories like acting (it’s how Jackie Weaver got a nom for Animal Kingdom).
- You have a movie that is receiving huge critical (and even audience) support and buzz before it officially opens. This is usually via film festivals, but also is sometimes how films from other countries do so well (and I don’t just mean foreign language films, but also films from places like England) since they get a tryout already in their home countries which can then be used as a way to test the waters so to speak.
This is what happened with The King’s Speech (when I first heard about this movie at Toronto, I said, that’s going to win best picture and actor, it was going to be impossible to stop).
The campaigners then can take this buzz and focus it on the Oscars and get those noms.
But for this to happen, the movie has to be shown at many of the major film festivals. People have to see it.
Here, the campaigners have control over entering it in the festivals, but they can’t really control if the movie connects with the critics and audience and they can’t force the buzz. But once the buzz is there, they can then regain control and create the Oscar campaign.
Again this also applies to other categories as well (Amour getting a best screenplay and actress nomination).
- You have a movie whose purpose seems to only be to be a factor during awards season. I’m not saying that is the movie’s intention, but it just feels like it. These are the ones where the movie hasn’t opened, hasn’t really shown that much at film festivals, but whenever people talk about it, they are talking about how many Oscar noms it’s going to get.
This can work for movies like Avatar and Into the Woods. But just ask Hilary Swank and Naomi Watts how often these movies can also crash and burn (Amelia and Diana respectively).
Again, the movies have to open at just the right time so everyone can see them.
Here, the campaigners have control over the buzz building up to the opening, but what they have no control over is how well it connects with the audience. And if indeed it does crash and burn, there is nothing they can really do about it (again, see Amelia and Diana). But if it doesn’t crash and burn, then the campaigners regain control.
- And finally, there are movies who open almost last minute and seem to connect to the audience and voters in a special way that no one can predict. This is what happened this year with American Sniper. Here the campaigners can’t really control that last minute groundswell and can’t even really control the campaign (there’s no time). The only place they really have control is making sure that things like screeners get to all the voters and that they have a good campaign already in place.
I am going to suggest that Selma had none of these.
But because relatively few films are made with black leads and with black casts, especially of the kind that normally get Oscar nominations (because, let’s face it, whether you like it or not, Tyler Perry’s films are no more likely to get an Oscar nomination than Animal House or Neighbors), what happens is that diversity then falls to only one film and one film only.
And if the campaign has in some way not gone according to plan and things have gone awry, then what is going to happen is what happened to Selma.