How the Oscars Were Reinvented in the 21st Century

We examine how the Oscars have changed, and changed a lot, from the Harvey Weinstein effect to #OscarsSoWhite and an embrace of Joker.

Oscar Winners in the 21st Century

Last week’s Oscar nominations came earlier than usual, but the surrounding noise remained the same: who got snubbed and who got slighted? Many of the headlines justifiably critiqued the sameness of the Academy’s favorite movies of the year. With Joker earning 11 nominations, and Once Upon… a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman each picking up 10 nods, violent movies about white men breaking bad took center stage.

However, the common complaint that the Oscars never change is misleading. While there are, for better and worse, certain types of drama and aesthetics the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences favors, the Academy has changed and changed again in the 21st century. One could even speculate the embrace of retro dude-bro movies is in response to the Academy’s current state of transition. After all, The Dark Knight couldn’t get a Best Picture nod 11 years ago, and now Joker is the most celebrated Oscar contender of 2020. How did that happen? Well…

The Weinstein Effect

If you took a survey about what many think an “Oscar movie” is, you might hear the words “indie,” “period drama,” and “small.” The common expectation is most moviegoers will have never seen, or possibly heard of, the Best Picture frontrunners. This is belied by the fact that eight of the last 10 Best Picture winners didn’t gross $100 million in the U.S. Half of them didn’t even earn $50 million, with The Hurt Locker and Moonlight having the lowest domestic earnings of $17 million and $28 million, respectively.

After decades of this being the case, it’s easy to assume that Oscar tastes, and the bait tailored for it, is almost strictly the province of arthouse and holiday-centric releases that played the festival circuit. But that’s flatly wrong.

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read more: Oscars 2020 Predictions and Analysis

The Academy Awards were originally conceived as a way to celebrate (and control) the most successful Hollywood filmmakers of the 1920s. MGM head Louis B. Mayer hoped an academy would dissuade filmmakers from unionizing, and likewise created the awards because “I found that the best way to handle [show folk] was to hang medals all over them… if I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted.” From the beginning, the Oscars were a self-congratulatory affair, but one meant to keep the most profitable stars and moviemakers in line.

For this reason, mainstream American entertainment, and the blockbuster bucks that came with it, usually beat more niche artistic achievements. As recently as the 1990s, major box office hits like Dances with Wolves (1990), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Unforgiven (1992), Forrest Gump (1994), Braveheart (1995), and Titanic (1997) won Best Picture. They also beat more auteur-driven pieces like Goodfellas (1990), Pulp Fiction (1994), and L.A. Confidential (1997). Seriously, it was a decade when Ghost (1990) could be nominated for Best Picture.

So why did it change? Part of the marginalization of mainstream adult dramas could be blamed on recent studio output increasingly favoring formulaic franchise movies. But another big thing that happened to awards voters is Harvey Weinstein. And it happened during the turn of the 21st century.

At the end of 1998, most industry insiders and critics would have told you Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was going to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It was a World War II drama (i.e. an Oscar darling in any era) and another sobering one from Spielberg who just won his first Best Director and only Best Picture Oscar five years earlier for Schindler’s List. But more than its subject matter or Tom Hanks at the height of his movie stardom pedigree, Saving Private Ryan was a masterclass in tension and drama that visualized the growing reevaluation of “the Greatest Generation.” It also made almost $500 million worldwide back when that was a big deal.

Harvey Weinstein at Miramax didn’t want that Oscar win to happen though. As Rebecca Keegan and Nicole Sperling wrote in the definitive account of Weinstein’s war of attrition against Spielberg, Weinstein realized that if his prestigious (and light) period comedy about the Bard, Shakespeare in Love, hoped to win major Oscars, he’d have to knock out Saving Private Ryan. A gifted political fundraiser on top of being one of the most successful arthouse producers of that decade, he treated Oscar campaigning like political campaigning, complete with months-long wining and dining “for your consideration” parties that allowed Academy voters to have meet-and-greets with the actors. Suddenly the press circuit didn’t end for the filmmakers after opening weekend, but lasted for months across “awards season.” And then there was the whisper campaign.

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“They tried to get everybody to believe that Saving Private Ryan was all in the first 15 minutes,” marketer Terry Press told Vanity Fair. “I said [to Spielberg], ‘Listen, this is what’s going on.’ Steven said to me, ‘I do not want you to get down in the mud with Harvey.”

But after Weinstein made the audacious move of being a studio head who accepted the Best Picture Oscar that Shakespeare in Love won over Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg did just that. The whole industry had to if it wanted to compete.

“That was at least among the first times, if not the first time, Hollywood recognized an extremely aggressive Oscar campaign, and that was Harvey Weinstein,” Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz told me in 2018. “It ranks pretty low in the list of lousy things that Harvey Weinstein did, but it’s on the list.”

It also set a precedent that awards themselves could be the end goal. Weinstein had already succeeded at building Miramax as a tastemaker studio—one with a grotesque horror show underneath—but by making the studio’s primary focus the winning of Oscars, which could then act as advertising for nominated films that only roll into wide release in January, he created a template for the rest of the industry. Smaller films were tailored to important themes and subject matters that appealed to Academy voters, and increasingly that formula shut out both major studio hits as well as independent cinema that didn’t look like the status quo dictated by the Academy’s mostly older male and mostly white tastes.

The result is the 2000s and early 2010s Oscars being dominated by tiny movies that spent months building buzz, beginning with the fall movie festival circuit kickoff in Venice, Toronto, and Telluride every September. An entire cottage industry of awards watchers and prognosticators breathlessly follow it all, turning the Oscar season into a six-month affair. Even as attitudes changed again, that aspect has not.

The Acceptance of Genre

Historically, the Academy has turned away from genre, particularly of the popular kind engineered in a post-Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) world. Spielberg was famously snubbed from a Best Director nomination for his work on the shark thriller—and had the bad sense to record his disappointment for posterity—and Star Wars lost to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. But this has more or less always been the case for “lesser” mass entertainments. Alfred Hitchcock never won a competitive Oscar for his cinema-defining thrillers, and the only horror movies nominated for Best Picture in the 20th century were pop culture phenomena like The Exorcist (1973), Silence of the Lambs, and The Sixth Sense (1999). That began changing in a major way in 2009, and once again the founder of the Weinstein Company was grimly part of the inflection point.

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Prior to The Dark Knight’s release, the Academy would occasionally acknowledge a major cultural achievement with at least nominations, even if it was in a genre they didn’t care for. For example, Fellowship of the Ring (2001) earned itself and Peter Jackson Best Picture and Best Director nominations, even if Jackson’s work wasn’t actually rewarded with statues until after three back-to-back global and critical tidal waves culminated in Return of the King (2003). So when the similarly popular, and artistically merited, The Dark Knight went snubbed for Best Picture and Best Director, it was a shock to many.

The Dark Knight had been nominated by the Producers and Directors guilds, and even had won a number of critics group prizes on top of its then-stunning $1 billion gross, but the Academy collectively sniffed at a Batman movie being worthy of its five nominated slots. Instead those nods went to Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Milk… and a surprise nominee, the Weinstein produced The Reader.

A mediocre slice of Oscar bait, The Reader is a Holocaust-related film that earned tepid critical reviews. But it had a hell of a Weinstein Oscar campaign, complete with whispers about superheroes being beneath the Academy. The fallout of placing now-forgotten bait over The Dark Knight, however, led to a major overhaul of the awards format: For the first time since 1944, there’d be 10 nominees for Best Picture instead of five. This was a naked attempt to appeal to television audiences who’d begun tuning out of the Oscar telecast in droves after movies like The Reader beat out The Dark Knight for major nominations. And while whining within the Academy led to a reversal again in 2011, with five to 10 nominees being eligible for nomination depending on voting popularity, the change has mostly stuck.

It had an immediate, if somewhat token, effect toward genre films like District 9 and Inception getting nominated for Best Picture in 2010 and 2011. More acutely though, it slowly allowed for a widening palate of taste for what is considered “Oscar worthy.” Notably as Weinstein’s influence declined in the 2010s, and younger voices were admitted to the Academy at the end of the decade due to social changes in the culture, the organization increasingly began accepting popular movies fairly regularly… even genre movies.

In 2016, Mad Max: Fury Road was nominated for 10 Oscars, winning six of them. Admittedly, its wins were entirely on the technical side, but it was still nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. And in 2018, the ceiling seemingly cracked open when horror maestro and cult favorite, Guillermo del Toro, took home Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. His winner? The one about a mute woman making love to the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Technically Doug Jones does not play the Gill-Man in The Shape of Water, but for all intents and purposes, he is the Universal Monster whom del Toro tried to get the rights to for years before making it completely his own. The end result is a horror movie in the Gothic sense, just as it is a love story in the Gothic sense, and a musical-comedy in the gonzo sense. It’s unlike any other Best Picture winner, pulling from a cinematic legacy always ignored by the Academy—it also did this in the same year that Logan became the first superhero movie to be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, and a year before Black Panther was the first of that genre to get a Best Picture nod. Hence Joker getting nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay when The Dark Knight couldn’t get out of the Best Supporting Actor category.

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Perhaps the most public transition the Academy is currently going through, however, is its fitful attempts to break away from only rewarding white, mostly male, perspectives.

The tide appeared to be turning in the right direction when #OscarsSoWhite crossed over from being a Twitter hashtag to a movement that gained headlines throughout the world. Activist and culture commentator April Reign created the hashtag in 2015 after noting all 20 Oscar nominees across the four acting categories were white. When the nominees were all white again in 2016, it became a publicly untenable situation for the Academy.

That same year then-Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson made a concerted effort to have more people of color and women admitted to the Academy. And the enterprise only became more urgent in 2017 when the whole industry found itself at the center of the #MeToo maelstrom beginning, again, with Weinstein.

Prior to #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo, a study conducted in 2012 found that 94 percent of Oscar voters were white; 77 percent were male; and only three percent were black (the numbers were even lower for Asian and Latin voters). By 2019, the Academy had added 2,046 members to its previous 5,800-plus voting blocs—half of them women, and many younger people of color. Even so, it only moved the needle to people of color comprising about 16 percent of the Academy instead of six, and women representing 32 percent of the Academy, up from 23 percent in 2012.

At first glance these new voters at least appeared to change the tone and tenor of the organization. With the “New Academy” helping lead the way, Moonlight surprisingly won the Best Picture Oscar over La La Land, and in the years that followed, more diverse films (and genres) were recognized. Roma won Best Director, and  in addition to The Shape of Water and Black Panther making headway, horror movie Get Out uncharacteristically saw nominations in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay, with Jordan Peele winning for the latter. Spike Lee also finally won an Oscar for his BlacKkKlansman screenplay; that movie was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Director.

Yet this appears to be a case of at least two steps forward and one step back. It’s even easy to wonder if the mostly older and still 84 percent white and 68 percent male Academy is resisting change. For instance, the year BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther were nominated for Best Picture, they lost to Green Book, an affable (and largely fabricated) buddy movie about racism in America told from the point-of-view of a white racist who redeems himself by protecting real life African American musician, Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali). The movie was criticized by many in the press, including Shirley’s family, for its fabrications that likely made the movie more appealing to white audiences.

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And it won in a year where more sophisticated and challenging films about race in America (from actual black directors) went overlooked, including Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk. Despite winning Best Picture for Moonlight, Jenkins’ follow-up was largely ignored by the Academy beyond Regina King’s performance. Similarly, women directors who find themselves celebrated one year by Academy voters were ignored the next, as seen in Greta Gerwig’s surprise snub for Little Women’s direction, despite the film being nominated for Best Picture and Gerwig previously earning a Best Director nod for Lady Bird. In fact, of the five women nominated for Best Director, none have been nominated twice.

This coupled with 2020 seeing 19 of the 20 acting nomination spots going to white performers, and the Best Picture frontrunners including white male-centric war stories (1917), crime stories (The Irishman and Joker), and Hollywood stories (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) suggest there is pushback in the Academy against what is seen by some as a political demand for inclusion. Just last week, Academy member Stephen King tweeted, “I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong.” The social media backlash was swift, leading King to qualify several hours later that everyone deserves a fair shot regardless of background. 

In the years to come, the debate about what is diversity, and what is “quality,” will continue in the Academy, and it will change the organization again. Because while there will always be a certain type of “Oscar movie,” what those actual films look like, as well as who makes them, can always be negotiated one little gold man at a time.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.