So what happened to Selma?
The Martin Luther King, Jr., docudrama did just score a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. (Read the full list of nominees here.) But that nomination was joined by just one other nomination, for Best Original Song. (It will probably win that award, but that's cold comfort to Selma supporters.) As recently as a few weeks ago, the film was being touted as the one that might take down presumptive frontrunner Boyhood and certainly one that would score nominations for lead actor David Oyelowo and director Ava DuVernay.
Now, it's the least-nominated film in the Best Picture category.
Here are five reasons it struggled.
1) The Academy is really old, really white, and really male
As I said in my piece about how it still helps to be a movie about a white man if you want to win an Oscar, the Academy is old, white, and male. It's made efforts to diversify, sure, but a 2012 survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times found it was still 94 percent white and 77 percent male. The average age of an Academy member is 63. (Need further proof? Every acting nominee this year is white.)
Certainly, those demographics help in cases where a film deals with recent history (like Selma does), but they also hurt films that shift out of the white, male perspective, or films that play around with nontraditional storytelling styles. (The latter may be why fans of the movie Nightcrawler are also licking their wounds this morning.)
The Academy is diversifying, and that has led to bolder choices in recent years. (Movies like 12 Years a Slave or Her would never have won Oscars even 10 years ago.) But it's a slow process, and that's reflected in the artistic conservatism of this year's nominees.
2) Paramount bungled the campaign
Because Academy members are so old, they rely on DVD screeners of films delivered to their homes to catch up with movies. And, heck, even those who aren't so old don't mind catching up on a bunch of films from their own couches. Though Paramount, the studio releasing Selma, got screeners to Academy members, it was among the last films to arrive.
This goes doubly for the studio's campaign to win nominations at the various industry guilds, which give out their own awards. These labor organizations contain memberships that dwarf the Academy's relatively meager 6,000-to-6,500-strong membership, so shipping screeners to all of them can be expensive. Paramount opted not to do this, hoping that members would hear the deafening buzz for the film and catch up with it in theaters. They did not.
That led to a place where Selma couldn't gain any momentum, as it missed out on nomination after nomination that might have kept its name in the hunt.
3) There were a lot of other traditionalist biopics this year
Don't get me wrong: Selma is by far the best film about a real person in this year's Best Picture slate. But its natural voting bloc was likely split by The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, and maybe even American Sniper. All were movies about real people, and the former two were about important historical figures who changed the world.
Notably, The Weinstein Company, generally known as one of the savviest Oscar players around, released The Imitation Game and crowded out a lot of Selma's "this movie is about events of incredible historical importance" turf. TWC consistently trumpeted the film as being one that could strike a blow for acceptance of gay rights — even though the chief criticism of the film is that the homosexuality of its subject, Alan Turing, has been unnecessarily minimized.
4) It came out too late
It's enormously hard for a movie to get into the Best Picture race when it comes out in December, as Selma did. Furthermore, director Ava DuVernay (unfortunately snubbed, especially given the history her name would have made being read) didn't lock her cut of the film until early December, which meant that Paramount had to make do with a series of advance industry screenings.
Yes, American Sniper also came out in December, but it was locked in November and, thus, able to send out screeners much earlier. It also came from Clint Eastwood, one of the few filmmakers to successfully avoid the "released in December" curse. He actually won with his December release Million Dollar Baby.
But Eastwood was also one of the morning's surprise snubs, missing an expected Best Director nomination. Arguably, American Sniper would have been better served by an October release date as well. (Or maybe not. Then people would have had time to realized what a thin movie it is.)
5) Roger Ebert died
This sounds ridiculous, but hear me out.
Ebert was one of the foremost champions of movies about race relations and black characters. This definitely resulted in some weird Oscar choices — like when the awards went for Ebert favorite Crash — but it also meant that he endlessly banged the drum for his favorites dealing with such themes. Ebert was by far the most prominent American film critic of his generation, and now that he's dead, there's really nobody else to take his place as a heavyweight voice to sway Academy voters.
Sure, 12 Years a Slave won last year, but that was after a bruising campaign that saw it barely eke out a win over the finish line. Other prominent films about black characters from last year — like The Butler — were unable to score nominations. It's not hard to imagine Ebert backing these movies vociferously in his writing and, thus, affecting Academy viewpoints.
What about the historical controversy?
Yes, the Washington Post editorial and later pieces about the film's inaccurate depictions of Lyndon B. Johnson's stance on the civil rights movement were perfectly timed and placed to hurt the film in the nominations voting period. They probably had some effect.
But I find it hard to believe the Oscars, which have shrugged off so many similar campaigns in the past (including ones for literally every other Oscar nominee based on a real person this year), would fall for this one, out of proportion to everything else. And if Oscar voters did, it indicates something possibly more nefarious.
What really sucks here
Selma ultimately just hit a perfect storm of things it couldn't overcome. Every item on the list above is accurate, but it's also easy to imagine the film overcoming any or all of them.
The simple fact of the matter is that Selma was a film told from the perspective not of a white man, directed by a black woman, about events that are important to the history of black people in America, and that implicated white people in the horrors of the time and the ongoing horrors of racial relations in the country right now.
Imagine if this movie's point-of-view character were President Johnson. Or imagine if it were the exact same movie but directed by Clint Eastwood. Either version of that story would have racked up nomination after nomination. This one didn't, and it shows just how far the Academy has to go before it truly diversifies.