7:00 pm EST, January 15, 2020

Why the Oscar nominations, unfortunately, do matter

Every year, the Oscar nominations have good surprises and bad. We tend to focus on the bad. And there is good reason for that, to be honest.

In the grand scheme of cinematic history, the number of stone-cold masterpieces that were completely ignored by the Academy certainly outnumber the ones that were recognized. Of my personal top five filmmakers of all time, only one won an Academy Award for Best Director (it’s Martin Scorsese, who is nominated again this year and deserves to win).

The point is, the Oscars don’t have much bearing on what movies are remembered. We simply remember the good movies, whether those are esoteric art films or joyous popcorn flicks — both of which are typically ignored by the Academy.

Despite these ways the Academy does not matter in terms of posterity, there are real world, short term consequences for films, filmmakers, and actors that don’t get nominated (or lose on the big night itself). When a crop of nominees lacks diversity the way this year’s does, it shrinks possibilities for anyone in this industry outside of the straight, white paradigm.

Take, for example, Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers. When Hustlers debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September it seemed like a no-brainer that Jennifer Lopez would get an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress— some prognosticators were already assuming her for frontrunner status.

oscar nominations

On Monday, she missed out on the Oscar nomination after receiving three of the four “precursor award” nominations (namely the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and the Critics Choice Awards, with the fourth being the British Academy Awards). It should be noted that Hustlers did not receive any nominations, despite the fact that director Lorene Scafaria brings a muscular, thrilling vision to the film that is more artful and coherent than of at least one of the nominees for Best Director.

It matters that these people get Oscar nominations for a couple of reasons. There is cache in being able to say you are an Academy Award Nominee when pitching ideas to financiers. It makes the path easier. This is a visible, quantifiable metric that says to financiers: this person does not fail. There are any number of awards that come every year but none holds the prestigious weight that an Oscar nomination carries.

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Martin Scorsese has spoken at length about how the last 13 years of his career were made possible by his winning Best Director for The Departed in 2006. It was his eighth nomination overall (sixth in directing, plus two in writing), but by actually winning the award he was able to sustain his career that much longer, getting films greenlit he was unable to in the past. This happens with a winner, yes, but it also happens with someone who has previously had no nominations being “inducted” into this elite club.

So, the question becomes, what movies are going to be lost in development hell because one of its creators hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar? Movies from Lorene Scafaria or Lulu Wong (writer/director of the similarly shut out The Farewell) might never come to be because of this.

Greta Gerwig, the fifth woman ever nominated for the Oscar for Best Director (for her solo directorial debut Lady Bird in 2017), was snubbed for her excellent second film, an adaptation of Little Women. She did get a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film, which is great on face value, but I fear it solidifies her in the minds of less open-minded executives that she is a writer, not a writer-director.

The fact that the film should receive six Oscar nominations overall further including two acting nominations (Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh) and Best Picture but be left out of Best Director feels like a pointed slap in the face.

These women will have to work that much harder to get their work made, while men already worth some nine figures like Todd Phillips will have even more doors open to him due to the fact that <em>Joker</em> was the most nominated film of the year — a baffling fact (this, another side-note, is a particularly hard fact for me to swallow, as I think Joaquin Phoenix is the best actor of his generation, yet I feel he is objectively bad as Joker — and it is Phillips’ direction I blame because he clearly was unable to support the more outré choices Phoenix was making).

And then there is the fact of direct financial gain of Oscar nominations. For one, awards shows serve as advertisements for the nominated films. While I do not think Academy voters should specifically vote for smaller, independent films over studio movies because they could use the marketing boost, isn’t it always such a coincidence that the overwhelming number of films nominated for Best Picture every year are already huge hits at the time they become nominees? Instead of truly searching for the best films of the year the Academy has a bias toward nominating commercially successful films.

Further, a lot of people involved in independent films get contractual bonuses for awards nominations and wins, so by not nominating Lulu Wang, the Academy is quite literally taking money out of her pocket. The bonuses incentivize creatives to “play the game,” doing Q&As and luncheons when they could be working on their next project, and if they don’t get the nomination, that is time they will never get back.

So, yes, masterpieces have been ignored by the Academy all the way since its inceptions nearly a century ago and that fact leads people, myself included, to want to say “they don’t really matter” when our favorite movies of the year are ignored. But the important thing to think in this time is, what future favorite movie of mine will never even get made because of a lack of Oscar nomination today?

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