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How to win an Oscar

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

At the 96th Oscars nomination announcements, actor Jack Quaid and Zazie Beetz set a positive tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK QUAID: For anyone in the film industry, no matter where you're from, to be recognized by the academy is a dream come true.

ZAZIE BEETZ: To be nominated can be life-changing.

DETROW: But the Oscar nominations can be messy. Almost every year, off-screen drama pops up about something, often about who did or didn't get nominated. This year was no exception.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BARBIE")

RYAN GOSLING: (As Ken) Hi, Barbie.

MARGOT ROBBIE: (As Barbie) Hi, Ken.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Barbie) Hi, Barbie.

ROBBIE: (As Barbie) Hi, Barbie.

SIMU LIU: (As Ken) Hi, Barbie.

GOSLING: "Barbie" was the biggest movie of 2023, and it wound up with a very respectable eight Oscar nominations, including best picture. Two nominations it didn't get? Best director for Greta Gerwig and best actress for Barbie herself, Margot Robbie. Outrage poured across social media. And adding insult to injury...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOSLING: But it's Barbie and Ken. There is no just Ken.

DETROW: Ryan Gosling proved Kenough for the Academy, getting the nod for best supporting actor. Now, Robbie did receive a nomination as a producer for "Barbie," and Gerwig was nominated for best adapted screenplay, but fans were not appeased. Even Hillary Clinton chimed in on X, formerly known as Twitter. But Oscar pundits say the "Barbie" snubs weren't totally unexpected.

AMANDA DOBBINS: The academy does not have a great history with comedy, and I think the Margot Robbie performance was classified as that. It does not have a great history with IP. It does not have an illustrious history with female directors or stories centered around women. So there were a lot of things here that seemed like they could break the wrong way.

DETROW: Amanda Dobbins co-hosts the movie podcast "The Big Picture" for the website The Ringer with Sean Fennessey.

SEAN FENNESSEY: 2023 was an exceptional year for movies, so when you start looking down the list of what got in and what did not, it's harder than usual to say, well, we got to take this movie out.

DETROW: The machinery behind getting an Oscar nomination can feel like a giant mystery, befitting a voting body with over 10,500 members representing LA's biggest and most close-knit industry.

FENNESSEY: I always like to joke that it's one of the last true public secret cabals of America that we never see any voting results about anything ever.

DETROW: To find out what goes on behind the Oscars, I called Sean Fennessey and Amanda Dobbins. They co-host "The Big Picture" podcast for the website The Ringer. And they follow the intricacies of the Oscar campaigns year in and year out. I asked them, just what goes in to an Oscar campaign?

FENNESSEY: It's a long list. It's an entire strategy. It's an entire industry that is hundreds, thousands of people work in this industry. And it is a huge part of the lifeblood of the movie industry, I think, in a kind of a hidden way that many people don't totally understand. There's something very important in Hollywood called for your consideration. It's a massive industry powered by publicists and marketeers who are responsible for getting films in front of people at film festivals, organizing screenings for guild members, creating parties after those screenings to create awareness, and then building entire campaigns after the receptions of those movies and getting the famous people in front of the world so that they know that they should or could be nominated for these various awards. It's a nine-month job, story, thing that we spend nine months on our show covering all the time, and it's very elaborate and arcane, and in some ways, very silly and ridiculous. But it still is essential, I feel like, to the process of getting nominated.

DOBBINS: In addition to all those parties and events, you get a more public-facing thing too. You get ads here in Los Angeles. You get billboards which are just everywhere and often seem strategically placed according to where voters or other influential personalities live. You get their press appearances. And especially for films with movie stars and/or notable names, they just show up everywhere all of the time.

DETROW: And I want to ask about that because, like, think about people who are nominated. Like, let's think about a Lily Gladstone or a Ryan Gosling or somebody like that. If you're up for an award right now, are you doing press to try and generate broader buzz or are you going on, like, "Hot Ones" or whatever, hoping that, like, one academy voter might happen to catch it and think about you a little bit more?

FENNESSEY: I think it really depends on the nominee. In the case of Ryan Gosling, I would not expect him to do very much press to promote. Now, there's a couple of reasons for that, one of which is the fact that Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig are not nominated. That's a factor.

DETROW: Yeah.

FENNESSEY: But also because he is extraordinarily famous and successful and does not need to campaign aggressively for his award because people know who he is, and "Barbie" was a sensation. In the case of - I don't know - who's someone who we think will definitely be campaigning hard this year? Danielle Brooks maybe from "The Color Purple."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE COLOR PURPLE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You seem like trouble.

DANIELLE BROOKS: (As Sofia) I come here out of respect, but if there ain't nothing to get, there sho (ph) ain't nothing to give.

FENNESSEY: Who is a less-well-known name who had a standout role in that movie, which is otherwise not nominated at this Academy Awards. That's someone who you may see on Jimmy Kimmel or on an internet talk show like "Hot Ones" or on a podcast like the one that we host. So it really is dependent entirely, I think, on the profile of the film and the profile of the performer.

DETROW: I think we unfortunately have to very briefly talk about Harvey Weinstein, who's, of course, since disgraced and in prison right now for rape and sexual assault. But he was often credited as the inventor of the modern Oscar campaign. I mean, was there anything specifically that he and his studio did that was markedly different in like the "Shakespeare In Love" era when this started to kind of become the way that you go about trying to win these awards?

FENNESSEY: From my vantage point, there were two critical things that he did. One was he was a very gifted persuader of voters by creating, like, event-izing films that otherwise would not be classically deemed awards movies. He was able to pit smaller films like "Shakespeare In Love" against bigger films like "Saving Private Ryan" and play a kind of David-versus-Goliath card and engender a kind of sympathy from voters about the way that, you know, big studios had a lot of opportunity and resources and power, and he was running this very small shop that was interested in world cinema. And if you look at the work that is produced at Miramax, you'll see that the true heart of cinema lies in these stories.

Now, obviously, what he did in his private life is heinous. And frankly, what you hear behind the scenes about the way that he campaigned his movies, he also acted terribly at times and lied about his competitors and lied about his own films. And he, of course, was very involved in the editing and cutting of the movies as well and often took opportunities away from artists. And so he was a very bad actor, but he did all of those things. And then also, he was kind of an architect of a sort of swift boating of other movies, the way that he would kind of create disinformation campaigns around the movies that they were competing against. So this was a very nasty period.

DOBBINS: Absolutely. There's a great recent book by Michael Schulman called "Oscar Wars" that does the whole history of the Academy Awards, but it really focuses on that "Shakespeare In Love" versus "Saving Private Ryan" year that you mentioned as kind of the turning point and certainly the introduction of Weinstein's campaign tactics and ugliness. And what I had forgotten was the extent to which that was even a narrative at the time. And it became also just a meta story about Weinstein and Miramax versus Spielberg and Dreamworks and influence on the press and, can you buy an Oscar? Which was very much in the conversation in 1998, 1999. So he is certainly identified with that. And another funny thing is all of the different rule changes that the Academy institutes in response to things that Harvey Weinstein did. And they're like, well, no, actually, you can't have all of these people at a fancy dinner together with only academy voters. It's just - and it's like a constant game of catch of, well, Harvey did this and now we need to out rule it.

FENNESSEY: We saw this last year with the campaign for "To Leslie" in the way that we heard about rules that were violated in an effort to support Andrea Riseborough's performance. A lot of those rules were created because of what Amanda is citing, which is that Harvey Weinstein was effectively bribing academy members by creating opportunities for them to have great experiences so that they would then like him and vote for his films.

DETROW: Yeah. And this situation last year was this interesting moment where this was a low-budget film that it seemed like hardly anybody saw. But there was this very well organized by a handful of people "grassroots" - in quotes - campaign to get Andrea Riseborough a nomination, where you saw all of these posts all of the sudden from famous people kind of arguing for her. She ends up getting nominated. And it just became an entire thing.

FENNESSEY: This is something that happens, though. I mean, there's just - there's a way to do this that is much more sanctioned versus unsanctioned. What we saw last year, these kind of private events at people's homes, is unsanctioned. But we see now all the time very famous actors. For example, Jennifer Aniston co-stars with Greta Lee on "The Morning Show." They're friends. So Jennifer Aniston moderated Q&A after screenings of "Past Lives" to support her friend Greta Lee in front of a public audience often of, you know, Screen Actors Guild members or academy members. That's just within the bylaws. Now, if you step back 10 feet and say, why does the Academy Awards need bylaws? Fair question. It's a silly made-up award show. But it's because people like Harvey Weinstein insinuated themselves into the industry over time and stretched immensely to break those rules.

DOBBINS: There was something about the "To Leslie" affair that in the moment I just thought, well, why hasn't anyone done this before? It was a little ingenious. And I say that as someone who just, again, I'm a millennial woman, so I follow Gwyneth Paltrow on Instagram. And I just watched it roll out over time.

FENNESSEY: But that is the thing that is important to note. This is unverifiable, of course. But this has been happening since those rules were created. There are these parties and these get-togethers. This is an industry of friends. This is an industry of connectivity. So the difference is, is that now we have social media. So when you have a party, if someone accidentally takes a photo of a party supporting someone like Andrea Riseborough, it can find its way to the internet and then everyone can become aware of it. This no longer really can operate in the shadows in the way that it once did. So the academy has to be more stringent in the way that they police these things.

DETROW: To end, is there anything else that you think is worth flagging about dark horses or about how the next few weeks will play, off anything that can make somebody feel kind of smart and in the know if they want to, you know, pass it off as their own observation?

FENNESSEY: What's your dark horse?

DOBBINS: Justine Triet. Justine Triet is the writer-director of "Anatomy Of A Fall," which is a wonderful French film that was nominated for best picture. Justine Triet was nominated for best director. She was nominated for original screenplay. The star, Sandra Huller, was nominated for best actress. She could definitely win in best original screenplay. And she's another person who gives a great speech. She gave two at the Golden Globes. Fantastic blouse and jacket - not that that matters, but also in awards season, it does matter. So if you haven't seen "Anatomy Of A Fall," I would check it out because I think there is sort of just a continuing groundswell of support for that movie. I don't know that it'll take home the big prize, but she might be on stage.

FENNESSEY: This is less of a dark horse, but I think the most interesting race this year is best actress between Lily Gladstone in "Killers Of The Flower Moon" and Emma Stone in "Poor Things." Emma Stone, a winner previously, beloved in the community, I think widely considered one of the signature stars of her generation. And Lily Gladstone, the first-ever Native American actress from the United States to be nominated for best actress, someone who I think is the emotional core of that movie, which is very widely appreciated and got 11 nominations. But it feels like a very tight race, so close watchers should watch closely.

DETROW: All right. And they can follow the latest in your podcast, "The Big Picture" on The Ringer. That's Amanda Dobbins and Sean Fennessey who co-host that podcast. Thanks so much for joining us.

FENNESSEY: Thank you, Scott.

DOBBINS: Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.