Each and every year millions of us gather around our television sets and watch Hollywood history come to life before our eyes. Some are watching for the glitz and glamor of the fashion. Some are watching for the inspirational speeches. In this day and age, many are watching for a chance to experience an instant internet meme happen in real time (kudos to Ellen for last year's selfie!).

As with every year, there are arguments surrounding the politics of the nominations and winners. Some of the films rewarded may not last through eternity under the label of a "classic," while others that do not win, or are not even nominated, may end up becoming the most-beloved films of the era. There is some merit to calling the Oscars a popularity contest because the results do, seemingly, come from a vote amongst the industry's elite. But, the algorithms around each and every nod are rich in tradition and more complicated than just saying a certain body of work wasn't worthy. Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs spoke to the misconception of how the nomination process works: "There is not one central body or group of people that sit around the table and come up with nominations. It really is a peer-to-peer process."

This year, like most, has its own, unique controversies. The past month since the nominations were announced have been full of major he said-she said and frivolous speculation. Selma, a film that received mostly positive reviews, garnered a Best Picture nomination and a nod for Best Original Song, but failed to pick up nominations in categories for which it had most campaigned: Best Director (Ava DuVernay would have become the first African-American woman ever nominated in the category) and Best Actor (David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr., a character not fully-realized in this way on the big screen before this film). Foxcatcher, a critically-praised film that was a hit at the Cannes Film Festival, picked up Best Actor (Steve Carell), Best Director (Bennett Miller) and handful of other nominations, but failed to get that coveted mention amongst the Best Picture nominees. It's rare, but not unheard of, for a film's director to receive a nomination and the film fail to receive the same thing. These are just two of many head-scratching moments that have people wondering if there is an underlying force at play and if the Academy deserves a swift kick in the pants. Is racism a factor? Is sexism a factor? Is the Academy just a bunch of boring old people who have no taste in current films? Was The LEGO Movie not funny enough?

The problem with pointing fingers at the Academy is that the nomination process is completely out of our hands (unless, of course, you are a voting member reading this and, in that case, I'm glad you are here) and the back-story to every film and campaign is rooted in everything that occurs prior to the voting each and every year.

The biggest prize of the year is, of course, the Best Picture prize. It's the movie the award show is built around. It's a guarantee to box office and home video boosts. It raises awareness of all involved. It can sometimes be a well-loved film going into the race, or it can become an instant motion picture classic. This award is nominated by every voting member of the Academy from day one of the voting process. It's the only category with this kind of carry over. The Academy does not publish a list of every member, but counts put it somewhere around a voting body of 6,000. With all of those voices, and a preferential balloting system, it's a true surprise every year of which films make the final cut. It can take as little as a few hundred votes to secure a nomination. The odds are all over the place.

The race is now set up where as little as 5 nominees and as many as 10 nominees could be announced every year. Since this new preferential balloting system was introduced, we've had 9 nominees. This is the first year with only 8.

While a film may be championed in one category, by that specific category's branch, it does not mean other branches will feel the same way. The best example this year is the absence of Foxcatcher among the Best Picture nominees. The director's branch seems to have picked up on director Bennett Miller's nuances and choices. The deep and intellectually dark drama earned Miller a nod, which generally translates to a film's potential in the Best Picture race. Not so.

While we're on the subject, the directing branch is made up of just over 200 members. The way voting works means that a nominee probably needs just over 40 votes to make it to the group of nominees. With many films vying for a spot in each category, there will always be people left off that are equally deserving.
It would have definitely been historic for Selma's Ava DuVernay to make the shortlist and it would definitely be safe to say she received some votes. But, looking at the list of films from the past year, there were many, many directors who did and equally great job. With a list of 8 Best Picture nominees, that means at least 3 of those would have to be left off this list of nominees. Not everyone who is turning in quality work can expect to make the nominee list.
If the Academy had chosen to nominate her based solely on the fact that it would have been historic, that would have discredited the entire voting process and the integrity of the awards. Good on DuVernay for being a minority, in more senses of the word that just one, and turning in a great, quality piece of work. The argument shouldn't be that the Academy took a step back, but that DuVernay helped pave the way for future quality work from her and other directors like her.

The acting branch of the Academy is the largest with over 1,000 members. Since the majority of this branch's members are also part of the Screen Actors Guild, the SAG Awards are a good estimate to how these categories will look every year. This year's nominees from both groups are similar, but slightly different. SAG allows only a handful of actors to vote each year, from both television and film (meaning some of the people voting are not directly members of the Academy).
The biggest talking point from this year's crop of nominees is that each and every one of them is white. Names like David Oyelowo, for Selma, have been tossed around as major snubs. While Oyelowo received a nomination for the Golden Globes, those awards offer 10 Best Actor slots, 5 for drama and 5 for comedy/musical. Oyelowo did not receive a SAG nomination nor a mention from the Academy. There is no doubt that the actor received many votes, like the film's director, but making the top 10 of a category does not equal the top 5. With this being the largest branch of the Academy, you have to offer some credit to the thousands of votes placed each year, without discrediting based solely on one omission. As Academy president Isaacs said, "There are quite a few actors this year at the top of their game. There are five nominees this year, these were the five." It doesn't mean Oyelowo or Jake Gyllenhaal (who did receive a SAG nomination) didn't deserve an Oscar nomination; they just didn't make the cut.
Jennifer Aniston went into the race with a SAG nomination and Golden Globe nomination for her work in Cake. Once again, the Golden Globes are spread out among 10 names and the SAG Awards honor television, too, meaning it could have been a little more sentimental among her television peers to support her well-reviewed turn on the silver screen.

My biggest beef with the nominations is the absence of The LEGO Movie in the Best Animated Feature category. How could a film that made so much money and received so much praise be snubbed? Well, if you really think about it, the Oscar is more than just a popularity prize among what was a hit or miss (though box office doesn't hurt). The art behind the project definitely matters. While The LEGO Movie was artfully done, looking at the other nominees gives a glimpse as to how the animation branch feels towards the differing styles of animation. The art form has changed drastically over the course of the past 20 years, so it's always refreshing to see a wide selection of styles in the final choices.


The argument for proper and diverse awards recognition lies more in the hands of the ones producing projects than it does in the hands of the ones nominating and awarding the projects that make the cut (which, is interesting since many of these people are in both categories). There are literally thousands of films made and released every year. In 2014, a total of 323 motion pictures made the qualifying cut for the upcoming Best Picture prize. Not every project is worthy of the award, despite qualifying, based on all factual merits. Can you imagine a world when a Step Up film makes the final list based on a lack of diversity of dance films? That would never happen.

Within the arguments lacing this year's Oscar race are cries for more representation of diverse films, specifically based on the omission of Selma in certain large categories. While there are plenty of reasons to blame white-washing based on the fact that the majority of the Academy's members are white (it's not a completely solid argument, but it does hold some merit), the true lesson here is that the quality of a film definitely gives the project better chances. That may seem completely obvious, but countless verbal protests would say otherwise. In regards to Selma, director DuVernay did turn in a mostly quality film. Keep up the good work. In regards to Nightcrawler, directed by a first-time director, keep up the good work. To all filmmakers, continue creating experiences that aren't limited. In story. In casting. In production. Allow yourself to flourish and try new things. Think outside the box. Diversity is attainable with an open mind. And, never compromise an experience. There's nothing like seeing a film that leaves you with a feeling. That should be the focus. Awards are the icing on the already delicious cake. The bigger shame is the amount of bad movies made for millions of dollars each year. (I'm looking at you, Adam Sandler.)

The 87th Academy Awards are two weeks from today, February 22! Good luck to all of those nominated. 2014 was a great year for film. Here's to everything 2015 has to offer...

No comments: