By Contributor Todd Lu
Most of the political headlines in the news for the last two months have been dominated by a combination of coverage of the Democratic Primary, President Trump’s impeachment, and international election news, most notably the UK general election. However, during this time of year, there’s something even more political than politics itself. In addition to the ongoing political developments within Washington D.C. and around the world, is also a time of increased political developments in Hollywood as filmmakers and production companies gear up for the annual awards season in which thousands of films compete for global recognition.
The process sounds almost too familiar to how we elect our presidents: filmmakers and production companies invest millions of dollars in advertising campaigns to influence a group of people to cast their ballot to nominate their films and their actors, in the hopes that they will win the ultimate prize at the Academy Awards. Similar to political campaigns, awards season campaigns are also all about the strategy and all about a certain level of “buzz” that often begins well before the film is actually released.
Most of the time, the process begins at acclaimed film festivals such as Sundance or Cannes, where films with a desire to become part of the awards season conversation allow themselves to be assessed and reviewed by filmmakers and film critics worldwide. For films like Call Me By Your Name and Get Out, their premieres and subsequent critical acclaim at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival created the kind of momentum that distinguished them from other films and made potential Academy voters aware of their accolade potential. In American political terms, this can be compared to a candidate’s preparation for a future presidential campaign by making a run for the Senate or for the governorship of a state. Similar to films competing for the attention of Academy voters, this process allows political candidates to gauge their electability and allows them to test the kind of coalition-building that is necessary for them to win a presidential primary and eventually a general election. Former President Obama utilized this strategy for his 2008 presidential campaign. Similar to the films that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, the popularity he gained with voters as a new senatorial candidate in the state of Illinois in 2006–building on the big splash he made with his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention– brought about media attention and presidential buzz that propelled him toward victory two years later.
The next major part of the awards season process is the act of campaigning. This comes in many forms including television interviews with the leading cast members hoping to become contenders for acting awards and social events with critics, Academy voters, and journalists. This allows the films competing for recognition to make their mark in the minds of potential voters throughout the awards season and creates a media conversation around these films. Politically speaking, this directly corresponds with the campaign period for a presidential candidate during the primary election. Similar to members of a production team for a particular film, presidential candidates spend time interacting with voters, media personnel, and big-dollar donors, many of whom continue to provide the funds and attention necessary to continue their campaign.
The final step of the awards season process lies in the nominations and awards themselves, where the long campaigns mounted by production companies finally translate to the ballot box at the Academy Awards. Though many films and companies endure the process of campaigning during awards season, not all campaigns come out of it with the results they desire, as every year many films and many performers are snubbed or overlooked in favor of other performances. This year, the Supporting Actress category is a great example, with Jennifer Lopez’s Academy Award buzz for her performance in Hustlers overlooked by Academy voters. Similarly, in this year’s Democratic presidential primary, some candidates that were once considered to be top tier contenders for the party’s nominations have been overlooked or passed over in favor of other candidates in the race, with the most notable examples being Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke and California Senator Kamala Harris.
In both the case of the 2020 presidential campaign and the awards season campaign in Hollywood this year, controversies have been stirred by the lack of nominees of color, despite a year full of noteworthy performances by diverse actors. As the Democratic National Committee has steadily raised the bar for debate participation for its 2020 primary, many candidates of color including Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker all failed to qualify for the December Democratic debate, raising concerns on the part of the DNC for the increasing failure to include diverse candidates to important national conversations. Similarly, the #OscarsSoWhite controversy in 2015 and 2016 caused widespread backlash and prompted the Academy to directly address the lack of diversity among its voting body through reforms designed to increase the invitations of people of color into the Academy. This proved effective in the subsequent awards ceremonies in which a variety of diverse filmmakers and performers were nominated for their work as part of various films, including Greta Gerwig for her direction of Lady Bird, Dev Patel for his performance in Lion, Viola Davis and Denzel Washington for their performances in Fences, and Yalitza Aparicio for her performance in Roma. This year, however, the Academy seemed to have backtracked on the progress made in the past few years, with no women nominated for directing, and Cynthia Erivo being the only person of color nominated for an acting performance, shutting out highly acclaimed work by Greta Gerwig, Awkwafina, Lupita Nyong’o, Jamie Foxx, Michael B. Jordan, and Eddie Murphy.
In a political environment that is becoming ever more polarizing, the state of Hollywood politics throughout film awards season appears to be paralleling this political landscape. Political candidates on the national stage want a chance to represent the best in the country, while films and filmmakers want a chance to represent the best of the film industry. But in the end, ongoing political developments both nationally and in Hollywood leave more and more people wondering what it means to represent the best, both in the country and in the film industry, and what it will take for these contests to be truly reflective of our nation’s ideals.