Why the Wrong Movies Win Oscars

2.6.20 / The Oscars


SEAN: Alissa Wilkinson, Vox. It’s the Oscars every year. The Oscar nominations come out and every year we hear about who was robbed. And this year it was women who were robbed. And more specifically, it was Little Women that was robbed. And every year I see everyone bemoaning the people who got robbed and the robbing of those people. And I feel like these people don’t understand the Oscars really work. And I was hoping that you could help them understand.

ALISSA: That’s my job.

SEAN: What are these people missing, Alissa?

ALISSA: I think most people just don’t quite know what the Academy is or what they’re picking when they pick the Oscars. They’re a very large group and very large groups tend to pick the middle option.

SEAN: <Laughs>

ALISSA: So that’s often what happens with the Oscars.

SEAN: Yeah. Who are these people? The Academy.

ALISSA: So the Academy is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That’s their full name. There’s about 9000 of them. It’s film industry professionals, you know, cinematographers and actors and directors, also publicists and executives. They right now sit at about 32 percent women and 16 percent minorities, which is up from 2015. But in the earlier part of the decade, the L.A. Times did some investigative journalism and found that the median Oscar voter was probably kind of a white guy who was older than 60.

SEAN: <Laughs> And if everyone on the Internet knew that, they would probably freak out a little less or at least temper their expectations.

ALISSA: Right. It’s not all that surprising that they’re picking things like The King’s Speech and Argo. It’s a lot more surprising when they pick movies like Moonlight.

<CLIP> WARREN BEATTY: And the Academy Award…

SEAN: Yeah. Well, as we all remember… they almost didn’t.         


WARREN BEATTY: For Best Picture…

FAYE DUNAWAY: You’re impossible… come on… La La Land!

SEAN: And thennnnnnn they did.

<CLIP> JORDAN HOROWITZ: No. There’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture. This is not a joke! I’m afraid they read the wrong thing. Moonlight. Best Picture.

SEAN: What do the people in the Academy — these largely 60 plus white men most respond to?

ALISSA: They seem to respond to a couple different things. They really, really, really love movies about Hollywood.


JOHN GOODMAN: It doesn’t matter. It’s a fake movie.

ALAN ALDA: If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit.

ALISSA: So a movie like Argo was almost a shoo in because it’s a movie about Hollywood kind of saving the world. That’s like perfect.


PHILIP BAKER HALL: The United States government has just sanctioned your science fiction movie.

ALISSA: They also like kind of ponderous historical dramas of different kinds. So they really love, you know, The English Patient.


MAN: You’ll have to forgive us. We’re not accustomed to the company of women.

WOMAN: Not at all I was thoroughly enjoying my book.

ALISSA: They like movies that are big and impressive.


RUSSELL CROWE: Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance. In this life or the next.

ALISSA: But you know what they like even more than all those movies, Sean?

SEAN: Tell me.

ALISSA: Campaigning.


ALISSA: You know, like political campaigns. They cost a lot of money. An Oscar campaign can cost the studio ten million dollars for one movie.

<CLIP> NEWS: And in the race to the finish line. The studio shelled out big bucks themselves because gold means green.

ALISSA: They’re spending it on screenings. They’re spending it on hosted events, luncheons, cocktail parties, meet and greets.

<CLIP> ANTONIO BANDERAS: But I am tired of the campaign. I am an actor. I am not a politician.

ALISSA: They do a lot of sending of swag.

SEAN: What kind of swag?

ALISSA: People get DVDs in the mail, I have piles and piles of them in my house.

SEAN: Mmm.

ALISSA: So that they can watch the film. But they also send weirder swag though. So, for instance, I have a whole stack of coffee table books from movies like The Irishman.


JOE PESCI: It’s what it is.

SEAN: Is The Irishman coffee table book, like 4000 pages long as the movie was three hours?

ALISSA: It’s not, but it’s about two feet wide. 

SEAN: <Laughs>

ALISSA: And apparently you can actually fetch about 80 bucks for it if you put it on the market.

SEAN: Oh, they’re like worth money?

ALISSA: Yeah. If people really liked the movie. They’re meant to be collectors items. They also sent even stranger swag. So if you look around my apartment, I, for instance, have a bobblehead of Ruth Bader Ginsburg that was sent out as swag to people who might be voting for the RBG documentary.

SEAN: Oh! That seems way better than a coffee table book.

ALISSA: Yeah, it’s kind of great. And it sits next to one of those Russian nesting doll things that I guy as part of the swag for The Death of Stalin. It has Steve Buscemi on the outside and then inside are increasingly smaller versions of all of the characters from that movie. 

SEAN: <Laughs> That’s smart. That’s why you kept that one. Because it’s good.

ALISSA: Yeah. And they sent it with a bottle of vodka, which was very nice.

SEAN: Okay, well that’s just BRIBERY!


SEAN: It reminds me of the Golden Globes! People always talk smack about the Globes. They say that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, who hands out these trophies, just wants to get their pictures taken with big celebrities. Are Oscar campaigns just as empty as that? Are they just about who gives the biggest bottle of Vodka?

ALISSA: It definitely happens in the academy. It definitely also is to a lesser degree, again, because of the size of it and also because the Academy does have a labyrinthine set of rules about what you can do to promote your movie — rules that they actually had to set in place, because Harvey Weinstein, of all people, was concocting more and more elaborate plans to get his movies in front of voters,

SEAN: Because that was the deal with Harvey. He could get you an Oscar.

ALISSA: Yeah. That’s why Harvey Weinstein was so, so powerful, was that he could turn your little film into an Oscar winner.

SEAN: So I imagine, though, you got to do more than just send some fun swag and have a nice reputation, though, like what’s the most extreme version of this campaign in like, I don’t know, the Harvey Weinstein classic sense?

ALISSA: Yeah. So just like in a political campaign. Opposition research is important.

SEAN: No! You sully the waters of the other movies?

ALISSA: You sure do. You plant negative stories. For instance, if you see a story about a movie that came out eight months ago, two weeks before the Oscars, then you know that somebody is probably behind it. And this is the consummate Harvey Weinstein tactic. When Slumdog Millionaire was up against one of his films, a story suddenly appeared that the Slumdog Millionaire filmmakers were exploiting their subjects.

SEAN: Oh, I remember that.

<CLIP> NEWS: It’s not where you’d expect to find one of the stars of this year’s favorite Oscar film. But this tarp tent is Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail’s home.

ALISSA: And it may or may not be true. And they called Weinstein and said, is this you? And he basically said, ‘Well, you know, I’m not saying it’s not me.’ That’s essentially what he said.

SEAN: Hmm.

ALISSA: And so, you know, obviously that’s taking a page right out of political campaign books.

SEAN: That’s an extreme version. Is this sort of campaigning  happening on a smaller scale, too? Maybe in a less negative fashion?

ALISSA: I mean, the whole idea is to build a narrative around your movie or around your actor or writers or whatever, that people feel like they want to vote for it the same way with a political candidate. You want to say, you know, this guy’s from outside the establishment. He’s going to come in and he’s going to change things or like this person overcame the odds. These are things people resonate with. Movies do the same thing every single year.

SEAN: The best story about the best story?

ALISSA: Yeah, the best story about the best story in these fit different archetypes. We have you know, here’s the underdog film that might just make it or here’s the movie that, you know, we’re going to give you the values that you want to be part of. Or here is a movie that, you know, embodies what it is to experience the power of art. All these different things are archetypes that really work on Oscar voters.


SEAN: Let’s take it to present day. I mean, what are the best stories about stories we have this year? The underdog and all the rest?

ALISSA: So this year, one great underdog story is Parasite.

<CLIP> PARASITE: (In Korean): “Jessica, Only Child, Illinois, Chicago”

ALISSA: You might say, ‘How’s that an underdog? I feel like I’ve been hearing about it all year.’ But it’s the first Korean film to ever get nominated for best international feature, formerly Foreign Language Feature.

SEAN: Mmm-hmm.

ALISSA: And if it wins Best Picture, it would be the first movie not in English to win in that category, which is a huge deal

SEAN: Ever?

ALISSA: Ever in the history of the Oscars. One thing they did very smartly to create a narrative around it is they released it into just, I think, one or two theaters.

SEAN: Yeah.

ALISSA: And in New York, the big news was Parasite is sold out all weekend.


NEWSCASTER 1: South Korea dark comedy thriller Parasite opens in theaters today and it’s already a box office smash.

NEWSCASTER 2: Proving to be quite popular. People wait in the long line outside the IFC Center in the village tonight.

SEAN: I was at one of those sold out shows at the IFC!

ALISSA: Yeah. And people thought, oh my goodness. Like, I must see this movie that everyone is going to. That’s a great, great way to light a fire underneath your movie. And it’s a great movie. People really liked it. So word of mouth was very helpful there. But that’s an underdog.

SEAN: Hmm.

ALISSA: We have Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. On the other hand, which is Tarantino, came out actually the same day at Cannes as Parasite did.

SEAN: Hmm.

ALISSA: But it has a totally different narrative attached to it, which is that this is a film about Hollywood. Right. This is a almost a love letter to how Hollywood used to be to an older age.

<CLIP> ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD: Hello, everybody. This is Alan Kincaid on the set of the exciting Get NBC and Screen Gems television series Bounty Law.

ALISSA: You know, it’s a movie about kind of one kind of acting, giving way to another kind of acting.

<CLIP> ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD: Now, if you think you’re seeing double. Don’t adjust your television sets because, well, in a way, you are.

ALISSA: And especially for Hollywood, people who feel like their industry is changing right now with the advent of streaming and things like that. It feels like that’s a movie that kind of taps into a feeling they’re having, too, of nostalgia. We also have movies like, for instance, 1917, which if I was allowed to place bets, that’s probably the one that I would bet on as best picture winner.

<CLIP> 1917

COLIN FIRTH: Deliver this to Colonel Mackenzie. There’s a direct order to cool off tomorrow morning’s attack. If you don’t, we will lose two battalions. Sixteen hundred men, your brother among them.

ALISSA: It’s a movie that’s kind of a very classic Hollywood film about like courage in the face of war.

<CLIP> 1917

COLIN FIRTH: You think you can get there in time?


ALISSA: The idea of like someone persevering and overcoming the odds. This has always done really well at the Oscars. People just really like those kinds of movies.

SEAN: Yeah.

ALISSA: And you might say the same thing about the Irishman potentially. Right. I mean, here’s another movie from arguably the master of American cinema, Martin Scorsese. It replicates a lot of what’s been popular about his work for a really long time and kind of puts a new spin on it.


STEPHEN GRAHAM: This is how you dress in Florida? In a suit?

AL PACINO: For a meeting? Anywhere. Florida, Timbuktu, I dress in a suit. For a meeting.

ALISSA: I think the reason that one might be kind of coasting in, not at the position it hopes in the rankings is that it’s a Netflix movie and there’s still a large contingent of Hollywood that thinks Netflix is trying to kill Hollywood and that it’s killing the theatrical experience.

SEAN: You know, the whole time I was watching The Irishman, I was just thinking, this is great, but I’d love it more as a coffee table book.

ALISSA: <Laughs> Well, I have a coffee table book for you, Sean.

SEAN: Now, you keep it. It’s worth eighty dollars.


SEAN: I wonder, with a movie like The Irishman, you got someone like Joe Pesci who like came out of retirement out of his like, you know, pushy cave to make this movie for his buddy Martin Scorsese. I can’t see that dude engaging in the Oscar campaign, engaging in a narrative, getting out there, telling the story to win an award. Does that happen? Do people ever say, like, man, this isn’t for me, I don’t want to do this?

ALISSA: Yeah, they do. I mean, Pesci actually has gotten the nomination in spite of that. But I think that’s because he’s a larger than life person. But yeah, not all actors love being on the road all the time. It’s exhausting. It’s several months of just going to awards dinners every night, maybe listening to yourself lose to the same person every night. And that can sometimes sink their chances. There were stories last year about, you know, Bradley Cooper just not loving that kind of a limelight. And that widely is considered to be one of the reasons, you know, he didn’t end up doing as well with A Star Is Born as he wants.

SEAN: I mean, is it a bad thing, the campaigning? I mean, is there a better way to do this or is this just the nature of the beast? Everyone still wants an Oscar, I guess, right?

ALISSA: Everyone wants an Oscar because they want to keep working. And an Oscar really makes it more possible for you to keep working because an Oscar winner gets hired. Right. Or even an Oscar nominee. On the other hand, you know, the campaign is kind of distasteful to a lot of people. And the academy likes to keep up this fiction that it doesn’t actually happen, that this is oh, these are people just going around and sort of going to parties and they’re winning on the merits. And it’s better if we remember that people are winning partly because they campaign really well. At the end of the day, I think everyone maybe wishes that the genie had never been let out of the bottle. But it has happened, and unless the rules are really tightened, it will probably continue to go the way it is.

SEAN: And like the Academy isn’t changing anytime soon, which means movies like Little Women or female directors like Greta Gerwig might just suffer under the weight of this sort of old guard.

ALISSA: I think that at some point a critical mass will be reached where enough of the Academy looks at a movie like Little Women and sees that, ‘Hey, this is actually a genius movie, right?’ This is great writing. Just because all of the characters in this film are women doesn’t mean that it’s not for men. But that does not seem to be what’s happening right now.


ALISSA: It’s going to take a while. You know, once you’re in the academy, you’re basically in for life. And so it’s going to take a long time for the composition to change.


SEAN: This whole time we’ve been talking about the big categories. The big movies. What about those little ones? After the break, how David got Goliath to notice he existed.

It’s Today, Explained.


MARSHALL CURRY (DIRECTOR): I’m Marshall Curry and I am a director. I directed the short live action fiction film “The Neighbour’s Window,” which is up for an Oscar this year.

SEAN: You’ve been to a few Academy Awards ceremonies. Is that fair?

MARSHALL: Yep, that’s right. So this will be my fourth. But the first for fiction. So I’ve had two feature length documentaries that were nominated and one short documentary.

SEAN: Cool, so, I mean, most of this episode we’ve been talking about the big campaigns that people like, you know, Harvey Weinstein have run

MARSHALL: <Laughs>

SEAN: …and big studios. It sounds like your experience might be slightly different, but I still have to ask, like, do you still run a campaign for, you know, best short, best documentary, short stuff like that?

MARSHALL: Yeah. I mean, so my first film came out in 2005, 2006. It was called “Street Fight.” It was about Cory Booker’s first run for mayor.

SEAN: I remember that!

MARSHALL: And that year we were up against March of the Penguins, which had made more money than any movie up for best picture that year.

SEAN: Mmm. I remember that, too.

MARSHALL: We had a screening in New York. We hosted the screening in L.A. I remember sort of putting my pennies together and buying a quarter page ad, a for your consideration ad that a friend of mine who’s a graphic designer designed for me in the documentary edition of The Hollywood Reporter and in Variety. And I thought like, wow, that’s that’s a real campaign. I like cut it out later and stuck it in my scrapbook as this… this was my campaign. But of course, when I got that addition in the mail, I saw that March of the Penguins had bought the entire cover.

SEAN: Oh, no!

MARSHALL: I just thought, oh, well, I did my part.

SEAN: So what did you do after your March of the Penguins experience? Because you got nominated again after that. Right?

MARSHALL: Right. Last year I had a short documentary that was nominated and it was called “A Night at the Garden.” It was only seven minutes long. It’s the shortest film nominated for an Oscar in like 50 years, I think people were saying. And it is all archival footage of a Nazi rally that filled Madison Square Garden in 1939. At this rally, 20,000 New Yorkers arrived carrying American flags. They said the Pledge of Allegiance.

        <CLIP> MAN: I pledge undivided allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…

MARSHALL: And there was a huge 30 foot portrait of George Washington with swastikas on either side of them. And there were swastikas all over the room.


MARSHALL: And the leader takes the stage.

<CLIP> FRITZ JULIUS KUHN: You all have heard of me through the Jewish controlled press as a creature with horns, a cloven hoof, and a long tail.

MARSHALL: He attacks the press for lying about him. And he tells the audience that we need to take back America from the minorities who are destroying it. 

<CLIP> KUHN: We, with American ideals, demand that our government shall be returned to the American people who founded it.

MARSHALL: And a protester runs out on stage and gets beaten up.


MARSHALL: While the crowd laughs and cheers.


MARSHALL: It felt weirdly contemporary, and so the entire film is just this archival footage with no commentary, no interviews. And for that, we decided that we would buy a 30 second television ad on Sean Hannity’s show. It was only archival footage of the rally. And then at the end, it says, “It can happen here. For your consideration.” But The Washington Post wrote a story about the fact that we had bought the ad and the CEO of Fox News must have seen that story because she personally intervened and killed our ad from being allowed to run on Sean Hannity’s show.

SEAN: Wow.

MARSHALL: And she made a big mistake, which is that she told the booker of the ad that she had personally rejected it.


MARSHALL: And so suddenly it became a huge story. What is it about America’s history that Fox News doesn’t want Sean Hannity’s viewers to know? What is it about this story that’s so frightening that they’re going to turn down an ad? So we took it to CNN, we took it to NBC, both of whom happily accepted the ad and aired it. And it became a story with hundreds of news stories about the fact that Sean Hannity’s show and Fox News’s CEO had personally rejected this thing from being allowed to be shown on Fox News. 

SEAN: Wow. So this is like a real, like, advertising coup for you.

MARSHALL: It was crazy. I mean, it turned a very small ad buy into, you know, ten thousand times as much publicity.

<CLIP> THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: Fox News has rejected a national ad for the Oscar nominated anti-Nazi documentary short “A Night at the Garden” But The Hollywood Reporter has learned that a Fox News ad sales representatives said network leadership deemed it inappropriate.

SEAN: Do you have any idea why? Like a Fox executive reached in to personally reject your ad?

MARSHALL: I think that they recognized that we were trying to warn Hannity’s viewers that in 1939 there were demagogues who were attacking the press and during violence against protesters and and scapegoating minorities and wrapping all of this stuff in patriotism. And I think Hannity is an enabler of that kind of demagoguery today. So I was trying to go around him to speak directly to his audiences. And I think the people at Fox, the CEO of Fox, recognized that and didn’t want us to speak to his audiences.

SEAN: So by your own measure, did that really work as a campaign? Did you get more people watching your short documentary?

MARSHALL: A ton. I mean, the film was online, so you could just see the numbers explode. And I think it also helped us. You know, with the Academy, we didn’t end up winning. But I heard from lots of people that they had heard on NPR, they’d heard on CNN and MSNBC and places like that about the controversy. And it had made them watch the film and they saw the relevance in it.

SEAN: Well, I hope you win it this time around I’ll be paying extra attention during the best live action short film category and I’ll be listening for the name Marshall Curry.

MARSHALL: Thanks. Thanks. Nice to talk with you.


SEAN: You know what they say fourth time’s a charm.

MARSHALL: Is that what they say? I’m not sure about that.

SEAN: <Laughs>

PRESENTER 1: And the Academy Award for Best Daily News Podcast…

PRESENTER 2: You’re impossible! Come on… The Daily!

ANNOUNCER: This is the Daily’s third nomination and first award.

MIKEY B: Today. The Academy has given us the greatest honor in podcasting. So why now?

EFIM: I’m sorry no! There’s a mistake! Today, Explained. You guys won best podcast.

AUDIENCE: <shocked>

EFIM: This is not a joke. I’m afraid they read the wrong thing. Today Explained… You’re the best daily news podcast.

ANNOUNCER: This is Today, Explained’s first nomination and first award.

SEAN: Oh my goodness! Thank you. I wanna thank the Daily first and foremost. Love your work. Mom, dad, Nim, we did it! And oh my gosh. Umm… the producers. We wouldn’t be here without YOU. Haleema Shah, Brigid McCarthy, Amina al-Sadi, Noam Hassenfeld. Noam made so much music, too. Along with the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. I can’t believe I’m saying your name on this stage right now Breakmaster. Thanks to Efim “THIS IS OUR DREAM” Shapiro. We did it, brother! And Jillian Weinberger who’s always been there for us. Ohh, mann… I know I’m forgetting someone.


SEAN: Cecilia Lei, thank you for having us back throughout this project.

And to everyone at the Vox Media Podcast Network, I know you’re staying up extra late to watch this on the East Coast, but we did it! Now, go to sleep! See you guys back at work on Monday. Thank you!