There are many theories to explain the absence of non-white acting nominees for this year’s Academy Awards: maybe the Academy members are racist; maybe they aren’t racist but are simply too white overall; maybe there just weren’t enough non-white performers this year. The debate goes on and on.
But what if it wasn’t just the biases of the anonymous membership? What if studios got exactly what they paid for?
The studios, after all, invest heavily in advertising and promotional campaigns for their films and actors, hoping to influence the Academy members who vote on Oscar nominations and wins. They buy splashy ads in the industry press, give out free tickets and DVDs to voting members and throw parties with famous people. And those efforts create narratives. Face it — nobody left “Creed” muttering, “My god, Sylvester Stallone is truly America’s best supporting actor.” And most people who talk about how much Leonardo DiCaprio deserves an Oscar this year probably1 didn’t see “The Revenant.”
I wanted to figure out how to quantify those nomination campaigns, and since there’s no way I’m getting into an Oscar party or a studio screening, I went to a library2 and inventoried every “For Your Consideration” advertisement3 appearing in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the Oscar nomination voting deadline. I went through each issue released from November through Jan. 8, when nominations voting closed, found 363 “For Your Consideration” ads, wrote down the size and page of each ad, and photographed it. (You can download all this data at the bottom of this piece.)
As you can see in the table below,4 a strong promotional campaign is no guarantee of a desired nomination, but it’s pretty clear there’s a relationship between advertising and success. For this analysis, I looked at nominations for awards that recognize acting, directing and films as a whole.5 Of the top 10 advertised English-language films, six scored at least one nomination in those categories.6 Compare that with the 21st through 30th most advertised English-language films, of which only three got a nomination.7
|FILM||AGGREGATE AD SPACE||NO. OF ADS||NOMINEE|
|1||The Danish Girl||2049 sq.in.||13||✓|
|2||Bridge of Spies||1926||9||✓|
|4||Straight Outta Compton||1731||10|
|5||Beasts of No Nation||1614||12|
|7||Love & Mercy||1125||9|
|14||The Good Dinosaur||662||3|
|22||Star Wars: The Force Awakens||407||2|
|25||The Big Short||396||2||✓|
|25||What Happened, Miss Simone?||396||2||✓|
|30||I Smile Back||333||4|
But the studios did not heavily promote high-quality films this year featuring non-white directors, performers or subjects. Based on our analysis, only two got the support from studios to hang with the best of them in an Oscar nominations campaign. One of the few levers the studios have to help these films get nominations went largely unused.
Of course, there’s no guarantee the promotion would have had any effect. One of the two films heavily promoted by the studios was “Beasts of No Nation,” produced by Netflix, which was the fifth-most advertised film on our list. It did not get the desired nomination for its star, Idris Elba. The other was “Straight Outta Compton,” distributed by Universal, which was heavily promoted for best picture but wasn’t nominated.
The only film with a non-white director or cast that did get a top nomination was not heavily advertised: Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant.” It was the 13th-most advertised film.
For “Beasts,” it could be that people were skeptical of a film released primarily on Netflix receiving a top Academy prize,8 but there’s really no way of knowing why it and “Compton” failed to garner the desired nomination. Still, Netflix can’t be faulted for running an earnest and presumably expensive best supporting actor campaign for Elba. Just look at the aggregate advertising space for films pursuing or obtaining acting nominations:
Sure, the “Beasts” campaign lagged behind films like “Bridge of Spies,” which received a nomination for Mark Rylance; “Steve Jobs,” which got nominations for Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet; and “The Danish Girl,” which got nominations for Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. But its ad buys dwarfed movies like “Joy,” for which Jennifer Lawrence was nominated, and “Trumbo,” for which Bryan Cranston was nominated. “The Big Short” and “Spotlight” barely campaigned in print at all but each still got a supporting acting nod. “Creed” is a peculiar case, because Stallone got a nomination in a movie otherwise anchored by un-nominated black performances and direction.
For “Compton,” the ad campaign’s focus on the cast as a whole rather than one actor in particular probably hindered its chances for acting nominations. But it was very clearly in the running for best picture. In this chart, which compares it with other hopefuls, note the absence of movies like “The Big Short,” “Room” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which did not heavily invest in an advertising campaign in industry publications but received nominations:
I included “Concussion” in the chart to show how quickly that film’s backers gave up on mounting a serious bid. It’s clear that many films with a non-white cast did not receive the same kind of studio support that films with white creators did. Will Smith in “Concussion,” John Boyega in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler in “Creed,” Benicio Del Toro in “Sicario” and Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” are just some of the roles and films for which the ad campaign appears to have been phoned in.
What’s the point of bringing all this up? It might be the fastest way to counteract what happened this year.
When the issue of no non-white acting nominees arose, the first reason discussed was the composition of the Academy voters. They’re very white, and there’s an argument to be made that their biases hurt films by non-white artists, whether because of passive unfamiliarity or, less likely, active animosity. In the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite uproar, the Academy announced a series of rules changes regarding voting eligibility to move the needle. The goal, according to an Academy statement, is “doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.”
Here are the problems with that: First, double of “not much” is still “not much.” Second, there’s some clever hedging in that promise, because doubling the number of “women and diverse members” offers no guarantee that any given group’s proportion in the Academy will rise. Hypothetically, it could add not a single black member in the next four years and still meet the goal by adding enough women. I sincerely doubt this is its intention, but even the declared commitment is no guarantee of demonstrable change.
The whole point is that the Academy’s composition issue — thanks to a reverence for incumbency and the slow rate of adding new voters — is going to be a slow problem to solve. It could be 10 or 20 years before the needle is moved to parity. And the chances for non-white actors are not likely to soar anytime soon in an industry in which 73.3 percent of speaking roles in films go to white people. It’s a pipeline problem, one that may be even bigger than the Academy’s. Even the campaign to get more women on screen — they represent only about three in 10 speaking characters — is several years away from demonstrable change.
That brings us back to the promotional campaigns, which is something the studios can do without delay. I doubt Variety or The Hollywood Reporter have sold all their prime ad positions for next Oscar season. Investing in campaigns for non-white performances and films by non-white creators could give an immediate boost to marginalized groups making great films. Not that there should be a Rooney Rule for “For Your Consideration” campaigns, but a well-funded nomination campaign for minority candidates could be a first step toward greater inclusion.
You can download the data used for this story on GitHub.
CORRECTION (Feb. 25, 6:05 p.m.): In an earlier version of this article, the table incorrectly categorized “The Good Dinosaur.” It is not a film with a white director; its director, Peter Sohn, is Korean-American.