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  • Writer's pictureVal Agnew

OSCARS: Can a Film Have No Leads?

The Academy Awards nominations just came out, and for the most part, people are quite pleased. There is an unprecedented amount of diversity across nearly every category. Even a couple of really great--albeit long-overdue--historic firsts.

However, a number of people latched onto something that I found quite interesting. Both LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya are nominated as best supporting actors for their work in Judas and the Black Messiah. Firstly, people seem annoyed because these two actors are pitted against each other in the same category. Plus people seem confused as to how a film's two primary actors could both be supporting, leaving no one to count as a lead.

While I can't know for sure what someone else's motives are for pointing this out, the act of pointing it out seems to imply at least mild consternation over the situation. And it makes me think that a lot of people don't understand how awards nominations come to be. So I just wanted to lay it out real quick.

Awards nominations are campaigned for, much like political office. Only the companies who are funding the campaigns don't have to even pretend they aren't involved. Just like in politics, the films/shows/actors with the most money behind them stand the best chance of landing a nomination. People involved with the film do the talk show circuit, they hold press junkets, talk backs with academy members, they send out screeners to make sure everyone possible has seen the film. They even run ads.

The studio execs (presumably at least in discussion with the actors themselves) decide what category to campaign any given actor in. Then the actor members of The Academy use rank choice voting to decide from the available options who will end up on the five actor slate for each of the four acting categories. This is a very intentional process. In fact, in recent years there have been accusations of "category fraud" in cases where there are obviously two leads in a film but a studio wants to get both of them nominated with a chance of winning. By pushing one into lead and one into supporting categories, they get two bites of the apple, but the legitimate supporting actors get short shrift.

In the case of Stanfield and Kaluuya, there was likely some kind of calculation made as to why to put forward both actors as supporting rather than lead. Perhaps the lead category seemed too competitive this year and the distributing studio (Warner Bros) felt that pitting the two actors against each other was the lesser of two evils because it still gave at least one of them a better chance to win. Perhaps, although I admit this is maybe less likely, there was some deference being given to Chadwick Boseman in the lead category and a reticence to compete with his legacy. No matter what the motivation behind it, the important thing to remember is there was intention on behalf of the submitter. The Academy members who voted on the nominees were selecting from a list and that list was created from submissions by the studios. It's not like the Academy members just were like "I'm going to throw these two into supporting actor." They can't do that.

All this to say, whether or not you think it was the right choice, LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya were at least a part of the decision process to put themselves forward for the supporting category. There was calculation behind the decision. And they were not surprised when the nominations came out (at least not at which category they were in).

There have been calls, much like in politics, to remove money from awards campaigning. The current setup means that unless an indie film is picked up by a powerful distribution studio that they stand very little chance of getting any nominations. It also allows studios to manipulate the categories. And unlike in politics, they don't have to hide or mask their spending at all. It is expected. It would certainly be interesting to see an awards season where people simply submitted their own work without campaigning. I wonder if the results would be radically different. Certainly more low-budget films and lesser known actors would at least be considered. It could very well work to democratize the process to some extent. But much like in most areas that showcase inequality of some kind, the very people who have the power to change the system, benefit from it as it is now. So the likelihood of a giant shift is slim to none.

As I've written about in previous posts, the entire awards system is pretty broken. While the awarding organizations have tried to diversify their voting base and shift the way the voting works, that is only one side of this. The other is what we see on stark display in this situation. The studios can throw their weight around to influence the results, no matter how much effort goes into shifting the way the selection process works. Until both sides of the process are modified, we will continue to see weird anomalies and other evidence of cold calculation rather than be able to focus on simply celebrating the deserving folks behind the movies we love.

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