After a strange, strange movie year, the 2022 Oscars are nearly upon us. And when nominations were announced on February 8, the usual round of hollering about snubs and outrages and records and surprises commenced.
But in the midst of trivia trading and fist-pumping, those who don’t watch the Oscars for a living — and even some of us who do — can sometimes get lost. What are these Oscars anyhow? Why didn’t my favorite song from Encanto get nominated? Hasn’t Steven Spielberg been nominated for, like, forever?
The Oscars are in a state of rapid change, just like the industry to which they give awards. So it’s worth knowing some of the stranger facts about the awards, as well as what they really mean. Here are nine questions you might be mulling about this year’s Oscars, and my best attempt to answer them in plain, non-film-nerd language.
What’s the difference between the Oscars and the Academy Awards?
They’re the same thing. Where the “Oscars” name comes from is a hotly debated topic among awards watchers — Academy librarian Margaret Herrick said the statue looked like her uncle Oscar, or maybe Bette Davis named it because its butt reminded her of her second husband’s — but it’s commonly used to refer to both the awards and the actual gold statuette that the winners get.
The awards are given out by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, a group of around 10,000 film industry professionals (but not journalists or critics) who are invited to join after attaining significant achievement in their field.
What will win Best Picture this year?
Nobody ever knows for sure. But the best guess I have is: Netflix.
Twenty years ago, few imagined that the company that mailed people DVDs of movies would someday be gunning for the biggest prize in American cinema. But Netflix is an empire, one of the “big six” movie studios (along with Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros., Sony, and Universal) in Hollywood, and they’ve been trying to get a Best Picture Oscar for years now, with films like Roma, The Irishman, and Marriage Story.
None has yet nabbed the top prize, but the streamer has two dogs in this year’s fight: Adam McKay’s end-of-the-world comedy Don’t Look Up and Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. One is a relatively conventional Hollywood blockbuster-style movie populated with a bevy of A-listers — Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Timothee Chalamet, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, that’s just a handful — and the other is the kind of arty drama-thriller that Campion is known for, starring its own list of stunners, all four of whom (Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee) are nominated for their own prizes.
The Power of the Dog feels like a favorite for the prize; it raked in 10 nominations, the most of any film this year, and has the right balance of artfulness, accessibility, and big names attached to it. (Campion is, among other things, the first female director to ever be nominated twice for an Oscar; the first time, in 1994, was for The Piano.) In that way (and perhaps only that way), it’s not unlike recent winners such as Spotlight or The Shape of Water.
But Don’t Look Up seems just as likely to win — a hugely popular film about a current topic (in this case, climate change) with loads of big names. Most importantly, Don’t Look Up has been presented by its filmmakers as the most “timely” film, a movie that aims to make a difference in the world, and it’s a comedy, which moves it into roughly the same category as, say, 2019 winner Green Book.
Either way, Netflix wins.
But could something else win? Absolutely. These two seem to make the most sense, but each of the nominees has something going for it. One truth about the last six or seven years of the awards, roughly since Spotlight’s 2016 win, is that the Oscars have grown more and more unpredictable. There’s little similarity between, say, Moonlight and Green Book; in 2020, the Academy anointed Korean-language super-dark comedy-drama Parasite as the winner, a thing few people expected to happen.
The reasons have to do with the shifting makeup of the Academy, as we chronicled last year — and that makes the contest just a bit more chaotic and thus more exciting.
How can a movie be nominated for both Best International Film and Best Picture?
This is a question about the Japanese film Drive My Car — and it’s worth noting that Parasite won in both these categories in 2020 — but I’m going to expand it to explain a little about “niche” films and the Oscars.
A few Oscars categories silo films into specific slots — notably Best Animated Feature, Best International Feature, and Best Documentary Feature, added in 2002, 1956, and 1941, respectively. The aim here is a noble one: to make sure that movies in categories that aren’t typically nominated for the big one (a.k.a. Best Picture) still get recognized.
But no good deed goes unpunished, and the unfortunate result of this siloing is that international features, animated movies, and documentaries rarely actually show up in the Best Picture category. Technically, any film that’s eligible for an Oscar is eligible to be nominated. (There are also categories for short films, which arguably might be worth bringing into this discussion.)
But in nearly all cases, the nominees are English-language live-action fiction films. In more than nine decades, 12 non-English films have been nominated for Best Picture, including Drive My Car; only one, Parasite, has won thus far. Only three animated films have been nominated for Best Picture (Beauty and the Beast, before the Animated category was created, plus Up and Toy Story 3). No documentary has ever been nominated for Best Picture.
Some of that is due to simple and perhaps even understandable bias: The Oscars are based in Hollywood, the center of American filmmaking, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is largely made up of American film industry professionals: actors, writers, producers, directors, editors, sound and art designers, animators, publicists, studio heads, and so on. The bread and butter of Hollywood — English language fiction movies with actors performing live and in living color — is precisely the kind of film they are inclined to nominate. (Notably, critics and journalists are not allowed to be members of the Academy.)
But one might make the argument (and I certainly would) that the Academy needs to broaden its horizons a bit. The nominations this year for international films that go outside the international category — like Drive My Car (up for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay), Flee (Best Animated Feature and Best Documentary Feature), and The Worst Person in the World (Best Original Screenplay) — indicate a small creep toward change. And yet none of those films’ stars are nominated in acting categories. We’re still waiting for a nonfiction movie to be considered in categories outside the niches (though Flee was nominated in all three). And animation is often relegated to the “children’s entertainment” land.
If winning Oscars at least partly helps determine the directions in which Hollywood’s money flows, then an expanded definition of what can be a “Best Picture” can only lead to more variety and creativity in film.
Why isn’t Spider-Man: No Way Home nominated?
The easiest way to explain this is that not enough people voted for it.
Of course, it’s slightly more complicated because this is the Oscars. The first reason has to do with ranked-choice voting, which means that even if a lot of people did put it on their ballots, it likely wasn’t on enough ballots to make the final cut. Ranked-choice voting is strange and byzantine and if you want to read about it, you can, but you could also go out and live your life and nobody would blame you.
The real reason this question comes up is that some have posited that the film, which got pretty decent reviews from critics and was a massive, record-breaking success even during a pandemic where most movies have faltered, should be a shoo-in for at least a nomination. But mass-market superhero films (and mass-market films generally) have often had a harder shot at the Oscars, presumably because voters don’t consider them “serious” enough. Or, if you want to get a little more facile about it, because Oscar nominees have to be “serious” and arty films for snobs with monocles.
A glance at the nominees quickly puts that notion to rest. Dune is a mega-budget blockbuster based on an enormously popular novel that did brisk box office business (and features a lot of big stars, including Spider-Man’s Zendaya). According to Netflix, Don’t Look Up, populated by a whole bevy of Oscar winners, was hugely popular. West Side Story is a remake of one of the most popular films of all time by one of the most popular directors of all time; CODA is a feel-good family comedy pitched straight at the average moviegoer; Nightmare Alley is a big, scary, and kind of goofy melodrama that’s more at home in a multiplex than an art house, and the feel-good accessibility of a classic sports drama like King Richard (starring one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, Will Smith) is hardly snooty fare.
In the end, the answer to this question is that not enough of the 10,000-ish film industry professionals who decide the Oscars thought it was worthy of a Best Picture slot. And no matter how you feel about that, it’s far from unusual.
What happened to Passing/Lady Gaga/Parallel Mothers/that Bruno song from Encanto/the other thing I really love that didn’t even get nominated?
Here’s the thing: The limited number of slots in any category, combined with the large number of voters, means that things get left out or, in the preferred parlance of the entertainment industry, “snubbed.”
Sometimes that just feels like a fluke. (Remember when the Mister Rogers documentary failed to even get a nomination in its category?) But in most cases there are very real, if not totally satisfactory, reasons that your favorite movie or star or song didn’t make the list.
- Passing was well-reviewed and beautifully crafted, but Netflix threw its awards season budget behind what it perceives to be its two best bets: Don’t Look Up and The Power of the Dog. (Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, which did garner a handful of nominations, probably fell prey to the bigger movies too.)
- Lady Gaga campaigned long and hard for House of Gucci, but I suspect a lot of people hated that movie — which is, admittedly, not good — and simply refused to vote for her in it. (It’s also possible that some members, perhaps particularly the vast older group that still makes up the membership, still don’t perceive her as a serious actress.)
- Pedro Almodovar is a celebrated filmmaker and Penelope Cruz has earned one Oscar (for the Woody Allen movie Vicky Christina Barcelona), but Parallel Mothers — a great but very melodramatic movie that’s at least partly about the Spanish Civil War — likely didn’t land on enough radars to garner votes for Best Picture. And Spain chose, for whatever (possibly political) reason, not to submit it for Best International Picture.
- There’s a very specific reason that “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” the breakout hit tune from Encanto, wasn’t nominated, and it’s that Disney submitted a different song from the film for consideration. Why? There are a few factors.
- Also, movies are only eligible if they were released in the previous calendar year. But because, thanks to the pandemic, the Academy extended last year’s Oscars eligibility window by two months — movies released between January 1, 2020, and February 28, 2021, could be nominated for the 2021 Oscars — the eligibility window for these Oscars is only 10 months long, starting March 1 and ending December 31, 2021. That means that, for instance, Judas and the Black Messiah was in last year’s Oscars, not this year’s. Yes, it’s weird.
In any given year, there will be some things that never get nominated, and that can be a shame for the filmmakers, actors, and producers. But that’s the nature of the beast, and if a film is great, often history will reclaim it.
Okay. So did anything cool happen with these Oscar nominations? Any firsts? Anything I can tell my friends about?
Given the changing shape of the Academy and of the film industry more broadly, every year’s nominees come with their own set of records or cool facts. So if you’re looking for some trivia on Oscar night, here are some of the highlights:
- Jane Campion became the first female director to ever be nominated twice for Best Director. If she wins, she’ll become only the third woman in 94 years to attain that honor, along with Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) and Chloe Zhao (Nomadland).
- Drive My Car, with its four Oscar nominations (including Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best International Feature, and Best Picture), is the first Japanese film to be nominated in more than one category.
- Flee, an animated documentary that’s in a variety of languages (including Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Russian, and Dari), is nominated in three categories at the same time: Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature, and Best Animated Feature. It’s the first film to pull that off.
- Troy Kotsur, nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work in CODA, is only the second deaf performer to be nominated for an Oscar (along with his CODA castmate Marlee Matlin, who won Best Actress in 1987 for Children of a Lesser God).
- For West Side Story, Steven Spielberg earned his eighth Best Director nomination — one of only four directors in history to do so — and perhaps more impressively, he’s the only director with nominations that span six decades. (His first was in 1977, for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)
- Will Smith is nominated for Best Actor in King Richard, but he also produced the film, which means he shares its Best Picture nomination with the other producers. That makes him only the second Black man (and ninth person overall) to be nominated for acting in a film and also producing it.
- Denzel Washington’s nomination for Best Actor in The Tragedy of Macbeth is his 10th overall; he’s the most-nominated Black actor in Oscars history.
- Kenneth Branagh, whose Belfast earned seven nominations, is the first person in Oscars history to be nominated in seven different categories: Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Live Action Short Film, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture.
- Kristen Stewart and Ariana DeBose both landed nominations (for Best Actress in Spencer and Best Supporting Actress in West Side Story, respectively), which means it’s the first year that two openly queer performers have been nominated in the same year. If either win, they’ll be the first openly queer women to do so in history.
- For the first time, not one but two couples are nominated at the same time. Javier Bardem (Best Actor for Being the Ricardos) and Penelope Cruz (Best Actress for Parallel Mothers), and Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons (Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor, respectively, for The Power of the Dog).
- The Oscars have long rewarded historical dramas, but it happens that this year, eight of the 20 acting nominees are up for their portrayals of real people. For more on why that might be, here’s my interview with the author of The Method, Isaac Butler.
So what happens now? How do you win an Oscar?
Winning an Oscar is a lot like running a political campaign, and I’ve written about the process at length. The playbook is so similar that political campaign experts are sometimes hired to consult during Oscar season. You have to tell a good story (about your film’s “importance,” or the great lengths an actor went to in order to craft their performance); you have to meet and greet the voters; you have to make myriad media and event appearances to stay in people’s minds.
Opposition research is also a big part of the Oscars, due largely to Harvey Weinstein, who managed to eke out a win for Shakespeare in Love over the heavily favored Saving Private Ryan in 1999 by running what’s been called a “bully campaign” — starting negative whisper campaigns against the opposition and pestering members to vote for his film. Winning an Oscar is expensive and time-consuming, but studios and artists often engage in it because of the glory of winning the award and the career boost it provides.
In practical terms, the various Academy branches are now engaged in the process of deciding which films to vote for in their particular categories (everyone votes for Best Picture). Starting March 17, they can cast their ballots, and the nail-biting begins.
What does winning an Oscar really mean?
Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean. You don’t get money. Depending on your category, you may not get fame, either. You don’t get a trip to Disneyland or something. You don’t get the guarantee of everlasting glory and success forevermore.
But you do get the respect of at least some of your peers. You (and all your fellow nominees) get the opportunity to join the Academy, if you aren’t already a member. You’ll be in the history books, and it’s more likely that people will return your calls. You might have an easier time securing funding for your next project or landing a juicy acting role. Your movie might get a box office bump.
And you get a gold statue to put on your mantelpiece.
When are the Oscars?
Glad you asked. The Oscars are on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at 8 pm ET. Wanda Sykes, Amy Schumer, and Regina Hall are the hosts, and the show will air on ABC. Get hype.