Why Some Negative Oscar Campaigns Work, And Why Some Fail

By  · Published on January 27th, 2015

Paramount Pictures

When it comes to the Oscar nominations, critics and moviegoers alike tend to focus on the negatives, but at least the outrage this year has been about a snub of genuine importance. Upon its rapturous reception by critics and audiences, Selma figured to be nominated in all the major categories, but it ultimately received only a pair of nods – for Best Picture and Best Original Song (John Legend’s beautiful “Glory”) – that have left its supporters furious and bewildered.

Oscar pundits have cited an amalgam of reasons one of the best-reviewed movies of the year received just two arguably token nominations – from its late release-date to a poorly-run campaign by Paramount – but everyone also seems to agree that the suspicious fact-checking campaign that emerged around its release date took a serious toll. In case you missed it, an historian and a former presidential staffer took to the op-ed pages over Christmas to complain that the film painted an unfairly antagonistic portrait of President Lyndon Johnson, who, they argue, was in reality very supportive of the film’s titular march. One of them even suggested that “Selma was LBJ’s idea.” The Hollywood trades reported on the controversy the following Monday, which, perhaps not coincidentally, was the day Oscar ballots went out. It would take a major suspension of disbelief to see this as anything but a very effective smear campaign run by a rival studio.

Of course, not all negative campaigns are so successful. This year, fact-checkers also came out of the woodwork to question the veracity of other Oscar hopefuls such as Foxcatcher, The Theory of Everything, and American Sniper, but they had little impact. What was the difference? Selma was more susceptible to these negative campaigns for the same reasons it was a bold and brilliant film: because it addressed the difficult political realities of our time head-on.

The controversy over Selma’s depiction of LBJ was not just a matter of fact-checking. Instead, it became a vehicle by which we could express our political values and discuss our racial divisions. Given that the images in the film are at times nearly indistinguishable from the footage that came out of Ferguson last year, one’s opinion of the film and feelings about those real-life events are likely to be conflated, and thus the film became subject to the same partisan values that plague nearly every other aspect of our culture.

While the last two years have clearly brought many victories for the issue of race in film, it’s equally clear that not everyone is celebrating. According to a study, only 15% of Republican voters last year felt that 12 Years a Slave deserved its Best Picture prize; 53% of Democrats agreed with the choice. With Selma, the partisan divide Two of the loudest voices to oppose the nomination of Selma from the critical community are conservatives: The Washington Free Beacon’s Sonny Bunch and the New York Post’s Kyle Smith, although they both argue against the film on its artistic merits, not its political values.

But why wouldn’t Hollywood celebrate it? The Academy, of course, is a largely liberal body, but it prefers it politics to be covert, and it rarely celebrates political films in the major categories. The purpose of the Oscars, after all, is to promote the film industry and sell tickets, not to make political statements (which is probably why winners who use their soapbox to talk politics are usually booed). It simply does not benefit the Academy in any way to insert itself into our complex racial discussions, and while many Academy members may have felt strongly about including Selma, there were surely many producers and studio executives who feared a backlash.

This is why other films about sensitive political subjects have suffered the same fate. Consider the case of Zero Dark Thirty. In 2012, Kathryn Bigelow’s War on Terror procedural was one of the presumed front-runners after initial screenings, but a furor erupted over its depiction of torture, another issue that produces extreme and disparate emotional reactions. Dozens of thinkpieces were written arguing the matter, and members of Congress even weighed in to dismiss the film’s version of events. When the smoke had cleared, ZD30 settled for just a few nominations and a single technical award, a fate that Selma is well on its way to replicating.

On the other hand, smear campaigns on less controversial, topical films don’t fair nearly as well. Negative campaigns against A Beautiful Mind (for whitewashing claims that its subject John Nash was bisexual and/or anti-semitic) and Slumdog Millionaire (for underpaying its Indian actors) did not prevent them from taking home Oscar’s big prize because their controversies were less elemental to our national character. Same goes for this year’s films that survived the backlash: Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, and American Sniper all revolve around issues that garner far less controversy than race.

In this way, negative campaigning can give us a window into our political culture by highlighting which issues are too hot for the Academy to touch. But they also have a more nefarious impact. The major movie studios, as has been well-documented, are already reticent to make films for adults. The only reason they put any money into these types of films at all is because they have a shot at winning Oscars. The failures of Selma and Zero Dark Thirty will likely give studio executives pause before greenlighting any film that directly addresses the issues of our time. Instead, we are likely to see even more lame historical dramas like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, which may get gold but only skim the surface of the issues that matter.