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The Oscars' Ken-undrum: The Call is Coming from Inside the Mojo Dojo Casa House

The problem with the 2024 Academy Award nominees is so much bigger than Barbie.


Every year, without fail, after the Academy Awards announce their nominees, critics and movie enthusiasts take to the internet to offer their opinions about how the 'Academy got it wrong' or make predictions for Hollywood's biggest night of the year. And 2024 was no different. This year, however, the reactions were particularly intense regarding the perceived snubs of Greta Gerwig for Best Director and Margot Robbie for Best Actress.


Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably noticed that 2023 was the year of Barbie-mania. Whether you loved Barbie, hated it, or thought it was meh, it doesn't change the fact that this film was a cultural phenomenon. While I personally wasn't terribly surprised that neither Gerwig nor Robbie received Oscar nominations for Best Director or Best Actress, I can agree that the optics that "Ken" was nominated when "Barbie" wasn't isn't...sublime.


But the issue isn't Barbie vs. Ken. It's Barbie vs. Oscar.


Before diving further into the issues, let's demystify the Academy's voting process. Given the highly competitive nature of the Academy Awards, it's worth asking how nominees are selected, who does the selecting, and what criteria are considered when shortlisting them. And how might this voting process affect films like Barbie? After reviewing the updated 2022 Academy Awards regulations, this article from PBS News Hour, and this handy breakdown from Reddit, we can break it down into five stages.


Infographic explaining how members of the Academy vote for Oscar nominees.

Stage 1: Determining Eligibility

To qualify for the Academy, a feature film should be at least 40 minutes long, shown for seven consecutive days, with three daily screenings in a commercial theatre in one of the six qualifying U.S. metro areas. It must have had some promotional campaign, be in English or have English subtitles, and premiered in the previous year in a physical theater.

Stage 2: Submission Phase
Stage 3: Compiling a Shortlist
Stage 4: Campaigning Phase
Stage 5: Final Vote Analysis

Now that we better understand the voting process, I think it's easier to see why some people were surprised by the Oscar snubs for Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie despite the Barbie movie earning an impressive eight nominations overall. I couldn't find any information about how much Warner Bros. plans to spend on its For Your Consideration campaign. However, considering that the studio spent $150 million on the initial ad campaign for the film, which is $5 million more than the filming budget for Barbie, I can only imagine that the marketing department will have a massive budget for its FYC campaign.


Barbie went on to make $162 million in its July theater debut, eventually becoming the highest-grossing movie directed solely by a woman after holding the top spot for four consecutive weeks. As of January 10, 2024, Barbie has earned more than $636 million at the North American box office and $1.45 billion worldwide. Barbie has also become the highest-grossing worldwide release of all time for Warner Bros., overtaking Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, released in 2011 ($1.34 billion, without being adjusted for inflation). It also surpassed The Dark Knight ($536 million), Christopher Nolan's 2008 superhero epic, as the studio's biggest domestic title in 100 years. 


Thanks to its successes, Barbie, intentionally or not, became a symbol of achievement and acknowledgment for women in the film industry. However, while money certainly talks, especially in Hollywood, it's only part of the equation. Barbie is a film that addresses how complicated women's lives can be through the metaphor of a doll that, for many women, didn't feel as though it represented them as little girls. It tore down toxic masculinity through a fabulous song-and-dance number. It handled internalized misogyny as deftly as blatant sexism. And it made these themes more accessible to a broad audience. That in itself is an achievement. Across the board, Barbie received positive reviews from both critics and audiences, earning a 7/10 on IMDb, 88% from critics and 83% from the audience on Rotten Tomatoes, and a Metacritic score of 80.


But considering how hard Warner Bros. fought for Barbie and the film's overall successes—both critically and at the box office—does that mean that the Academy got it wrong by snubbing Gerwig and Robbie? Not necessarily.


It's understandable to feel disappointed that the filmmakers who helmed a movie that resonated with so many women didn't receive the recognition they hoped for from the Academy Awards. On paper, films like Barbie prove that female filmmakers know how to show up and show out, and audiences reciprocate in kind. But on the ballot, members of the Academy tend to favor films that depict wartime dramas, explore race relations, the film industry, true stories, and adaptations of award-winning novels. Also known as "Oscar bait."


Infographic with images of the three women who have won Academy Awards for Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow in 2009, Chloe Zhao in 2021, and Jane Campion in 2022.

However, the more significant problem is the continued lack of diversity and representation at the awards, especially among women and filmmakers from underrepresented communities. In the Academy Awards' nearly 100-year history, only nine women have been nominated for Best Director, including this year's nominee, Justine Triet, for Anatomy of a Fall. Of these nominees, only three women have won: Jane Campion, who was nominated twice and won in 2021; Chloé Zhao, who won in 2020; and Kathryn Bigelow, who won in 2009. And, it's important to remember that many other female filmmakers made great movies this year but were not recognized, including Sofia Coppola, Chloe Domont, Ava DuVernay, Emerald Fennell, Nicole Holofcener, Charlotte Reagan, A.V. Rockwell, Celine Song, and many others. Although many people may feel that Gerwig was specifically snubbed for the category, let's not forget the achievements of these other talented women who were also 'snubbed.'



This year's Oscars also saw several notable firsts that deserved recognition. Among these:

  • Lily Gladstone made history as the first Native American Best Actress nominee for her role in Killers of the Flower Moon.

  • Colman Domingo became the first openly LGBTQ+ Best Actor nominee since Ian McKellen in 1998. He is also the first Afro-Latino nominee in the category.

  • Domingo and Jodie Foster made history as the first openly LGBTQ+ nominees to portray LGBTQ+ characters. Additionally, Foster's role marked her first time playing a lesbian character in her career.

  • Jeffrey Wright and Sterling K. Brown have made history as the first black lead and supporting actors to be nominated for the same film, American Fiction.

  • For the sixth year in a row, the Oscars had at least one non-English language film nominated for a writing category and Best Picture, which is a huge step forward in recognizing international cinema.

  • Celine Song made history as the first Asian woman nominated for Best Original Screenplay for her work Past Lives.

  • Thelma Schoonmaker, one of the most celebrated film editors of all time, received her ninth nomination and set a new record in the Film Editing category for her work in Killers of the Flower Moon.

  • In a traditionally male-dominated field, Kiyoko Shibuya became the fifth woman ever to be nominated in the Visual Effects category for her work in Godzilla Minus One, the first Godzilla movie to receive an Oscar nomination in the franchise's 70-year history.

These history-making achievements are a positive step towards a more diverse and inclusive film industry. The efforts of filmmakers, actors, and industry stakeholders to promote equal representation and opportunities for underrepresented groups, both in front of and behind the camera, are yielding results and should be celebrated. 


However, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in the entertainment industry. For example, although I'm happy about Lily Gladstone's nomination, I highly doubt that a director, even one as great as Martin Scorsese, could have secured the funding and support from Hollywood to make a movie like Flowers of the Killer Moon a decade or two ago. It's taken almost a century for actors like Gladstone to get the platform and recognition they deserve. However, Hollywood still tends to cast non-Native actors in Native roles, and non-Native filmmakers tend to have more control over which types of Indigenous stories are told. Although the industry promises to "do better," this is still a concerning trend that must be addressed from within.


And this goes for underrepresented groups across the board.


Despite recent efforts to promote diversity and inclusivity, there are still far too many instances of marginalization based on gender, race, and sexuality. Therefore, it's essential to continue advocating, educating, and implementing policy changes to ensure that the film industry is genuinely inclusive and reflective of the diverse communities it serves. Otherwise, prestigious industry awards such as the Golden Globes, the Emmys, and the Academy Awards will continue to receive criticism for their exclusionary practices.


Moreover, it shouldn't take a movie about a doll to point that out.



Looking ahead, the most pressing challenge that the Academy, and consequently the film industry, is facing is the necessity for increased transparency and diversity. Although approximately 10,000 members of the Academy are qualified to cast their vote, the distribution of voters at the 2022 Academy Awards revealed a significant disparity in fairness. According to the stats, the majority of voting members at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences identified as white, which made up 81 percent of the total voting body. Moreover, around 67 percent of the Oscars voters were men, while women accounted for one-third of all persons eligible to vote for the Oscars. However, less than 30 percent of the nominees for non-acting categories at the Academy Awards were female.


It's not surprising that the Academy's voting body is mainly composed of white men, given that they are invited by industry insiders and vetted by the Board of Governors. Although most members lost their lifetime membership status in 2016, they can still hold their voting status for ten years at a time, which is renewable. In recent years, the Academy's answer to calls for better inclusion and diversity in its membership has been to expand it. However, when the majority of eligible voters have held onto their voting powers for years—possibly even decades—it affects the films that receive Oscar nominations and, more importantly, the ones that do not.


As for big studios and production companies, what role do they play in the decision-making process? A pretty big one. While, yes, the Academy has strict rules concerning studios' FYC campaigns, studios tend to throw money at the campaigns for films they know, historically, will perform better come Oscar night, even if it may not be the studio's strongest or most critically received film of the year.


So, does the system inadvertently favor certain types of films or individuals?


Yes.


But I am hopeful that things can change for the better.


The issues facing the Academy Awards and, by extension, the entertainment industry go beyond a single snub or the absence of one particular character—in this case, Barbie. I think Billy Crystal said it perfectly at the 1992 Academy Awards when Barbra Streisand's film The Prince of Tides received seven nominations, except for one really important one:



That was 32 years ago. Filmmakers from underrepresented communities are still fighting for the same level of respect and recognition as their predominantly white male colleagues. The film industry shouldn't treat inclusion and diversity like sparingly-used buzzwords but as conditions for effective, actionable change.


In an ideal world, I'd like the Academy to be more transparent and intentional with its membership. Membership terms should be five years instead of ten, with former members—except for award winners— waiting five years before reapplying for membership. The Academy's Board of Governors should also commit to vetting a more diverse and inclusive voting body regarding voters' gender, race, and film disciplines. A voting body comprising a diverse and inclusive group of people will motivate more diverse and inclusive nominees to surface. 


I also hope that the big studios and producers out there will consider supporting more diverse films during award season. It would be great to see more movies recognized that go beyond the typical "Oscar bait" films, such as emotionally draining dramas and high-stakes biopics. It's also no secret that movies made by filmmakers from underrepresented communities tend to do well, so it's baffling to me that big studios and major producers aren't doing more to capitalize on that success.


Ultimately, just because a movie is popular doesn't mean it's not worthy of an Oscar. Similarly, a movie with all the traditional elements of an Oscar-winning film may not necessarily be culturally significant or groundbreaking. However, over the years, the Academy Awards have become so formulaic that they often exclude deserving films and fail to serve the industry or the audience.


While Barbie may not walk away with a golden statuette of her own come Oscar night, her impact on the film industry in 2023 shouldn't be ignored. Barbie sparked important discussions about diverse casting, writing, and production. The success of the Barbie-mania campaign demonstrated how fan enthusiasm can translate into a billion-dollar marketing strategy. Additionally, the perceived snubs of Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie in their respective categories brought attention to the Academy Awards' bias against unconventional Oscar-bait films. By raising important issues and sparking meaningful conversations, Barbie served as a catalyst for the film industry to address its systemic problems and work towards a more equitable and representative future.



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