The Oscars will celebrate achievement in film for the 91st time later this month. Over the years, the Academy has faced growing criticism, including its underrepresentation of people of colour within its membership as well as its nominations, and its tendency to snub several well-received films each year. With critically acclaimed films such as 1979’s Escape from Alcatraz and Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 feature-length directorial debut Reservoir Dogs not receiving a single Oscar nomination, this trend has continued in recent years with the Academy snubbing impressively innovative films like the sci-fi action movie Snowpiercer in 2013, as well as last year’s dark comedy Sorry to Bother You in the upcoming 91st Academy Awards.
Its director, Boots Riley addressed the number of people who called out the Academy for snubbing the underground hit. (https://twitter.com/BootsRiley/status/1087770116408758272?s=19&fbclid=IwAR06brsXdiFUDMN2t5aT_uB19KfJSr0QrsUrCzFk4dPIUM3qE9um50Cwf4c) While defending the many of the members themselves as people who ‘want to see something new’ and enjoyed Sorry to Bother You as a result, he instead criticised the actual process studios need to undertake in order to receive nominations. ‘…the largest factor as to why we didn’t get nominated is that we didn’t actually run a campaign that aimed to get a nomination for Screenplay or Song. We didn’t buy For Your Consideration ads in the trade magazines and we didn’t service the whole academy with screeners,’ Riley tweeted just after this year’s nominations were announced in late January. He goes on to say that due to this lack of campaigning, the Academy would have perceived the film as not even having a chance of getting nominated, let alone winning, which, as can be concluded through his casual string of tweets, he found unsurprising.
Riley’s rather nonchalant tone about his film’s lack of nominations should not, however, curtail the criticism of the complicated process of running on Oscar campaign. Studios rely on campaigning through ‘For Your Consideration’ ads, entering their films into prestigious festivals like Sundance or Cannes, constant lobbying and glamorous parties in order to attract Academy members to actually watch their product. Previous Oscar favourites like La La Land had its director and actor promote the film on several talk shows and news programs not only in the US but around the world. This campaign had created a lot of buzz even before the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, leading it to become one of 2016’s most profitable releases and win almost win Best Picture.
There is a great deal of strategy behind Oscar campaigns too. Not only are Academy members targeted, but the wider audience as well, and studios use calculated techniques to increase the relevance of their film, taking the current political climate into account. The 2013 biographical drama Philomena had its star Steve Coogan and eponymous subject Philomena visit Pope Francis in Rome as representatives of a project aimed to raise awareness on the matter of forced adoptions – the central theme of the film itself. This had undoubtedly led it to receive four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Just a couple of years later, The Weinstein Company had run pro-immigrant ads for its movie Lion in wake of President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration policies. By framing these films as relevant to the wider community, they became incredibly attractive Oscar nominees.
Despite the evidently unfair tactics used by studios in their campaigns, there have been calls to limit campaign spending. This financial reform would theoretically give studios that lack the means for a wide-reaching operation more chance to receive nominations, battling the subjectivity of the Academy. This is admittedly easier said than done, as the film industry is a business built on the foundations of capitalistic rules. While there will perhaps always be a handful of films that will be snubbed due to the greater forces of the industry, the Academy has done a lot in the past few years to become as inclusive and impartial as they can, through nominating more sci-fi/fantasy and horror films like The Shape of Water and Get Out, and diversifying the membership to include more women and people of colour. And so the inclusion and celebration of films regardless of the weight of their awards campaign may be on the rise – only time will tell.