Robert Redford's Oscar Snub: Who's to Blame?

'The Gray Zone'
Ruven Afanador

"Every film I've ever done is about some part of America," says Robert Redford. "But most of it is in what I would call 'the gray zone.' I like the idea of ending films with a question: Don't wrap it all up, just leave it open-ended."

The star pointed a finger at distributors Roadside and Lionsgate for failing to support the film, but others say Redford's at fault for refusing to campaign enough -- says one observer, he "made some appearances, but he didn’t really work it."

To hear Robert Redford tell it, a penny-pinching Roadside Attractions may have cost him an Oscar nomination for his performance as a man of few words, struggling to stay alive on the open sea in J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost -- at least that’s what the actor suggested as he faced the press at the opening of the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday. Others, though, are countering that Redford simply didn’t campaign hard enough to ensure himself a nom.

Earlier in the day, Redford’s name was conspicuously absent when the nominations were announced for the best actor Academy Award. The snub wasn’t a total surprise. Redford earlier failed to pick up a Screen Actors Guild nomination, but having earned some of the best reviews of his career, the actor did score nominations from the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice Awards, the Spirit Awards and Gotham Awards. He also won the best actor award from the New York Film Critics Circle.

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So why didn’t the Academy reward him with his first acting nomination since 1973’s The Sting? (Redford won an Oscar for directing 1980’s Ordinary People and an honorary Oscar was bestowed on him in 2002.) Instead, the five best actor nominations were American Hustle's Christian Bale, Nebraska's Bruce Dern, The Wolf of Wall Street's Leonardo DiCaprio, 12 Years a Slave's Chiwetel Ejiofor and Dallas Buyers Club's Matthew McConaughey.

At his traditional appearance at Sundance’s opening press conference, Redford said he was “not upset” by the lack of a nomination. But by way of explanation, he laid much of the blame at the foot of the movie’s distributor. “Hollywood is what it is, it’s a business, and so when these films go to be voted on, usually they’re heavily dependent on campaigns,” he said. “In our case, I think we suffered from little to no distribution. And so as a result, our distributors -- I don’t know why -- they didn’t want to spend the money, they were afraid, they were just incapable, I don’t know.”

Lionsgate/Roadside, which had handled Chandor’s previous film, 2011’s Margin Call, picked up domestic rights to Lost in early 2012 before the $9 million, independently financed film began shooting. (Lionsgate has a 43 percent minority ownership in Roadside, which is an autonomous distributor, and Lionsgate handles home entertainment on the films Roadside distributes theatrically.)

Roadside launched Lost, which is more an existential art film than a sea-faring adventure, on Oct. 18 in six theaters, where it earned a promising but not sizzling $15,597 per screen. The distributor slowly added theaters until the film was playing in 483 locations on Nov. 15 -- the widest point of its release. By then, the distributor also knew that it would face a challenge holding on to screens as holiday releases hit the market, and though it kept Lost in circulation, the movie saw its screen count steadily decline until it was playing in just 70 locations over the Jan. 10 weekend. During the course of its 13-week run, the film has grossed just $6.1 million domestically.

That was actually slightly better than the theatrical performance of Margin Call, which took in $5.4 million domestically. But Margin Call was greeted as an indie hit because it collected another $5 million from its day-and-date VOD release. By contrast, amid the crush of year-end awards contenders, Lost began to look as an also ran.

In the case of Margin Call, the filmmakers had to pressure Roadside, after the press began trumpeting their movie’s awards potential, to pony up more than the distributor had originally planned to support an awards campaign. And Chandor ultimately received an Oscar nom for original screenplay, and the film also won two Spirit Awards.

But as the first phase of awards season played out, the Lost filmmakers wondered why Roadside and Lionsgate (which chipped in with an assist on the awards campaign) weren’t spending more, particularly given all the cash Lionsgate was raking in from Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Spokesmen for Lionsgate and Roadside had no comment.

Other observers, though, thought the bigger problem was Redford’s reluctance to jump into full-on campaign mode like many of his competitors.

In fact, Redford did make select appearances on behalf of the film. He accompanied it to both the Cannes and Telluride film festivals. He took part in official Academy and SAG Q-and-As in both Los Angeles and New York and sat for interviews with the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Hollywood Reporter. He’s also agreed to a career tribute on Feb. 7 at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, which reps for both the festival and the actor say he still plans to attend, even though he won’t be in pursuit of an Oscar.

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While Redford may have felt he was actively supporting Lost, the perception among awards handicappers is that he was holding back from the campaign circuit. Redford, one indie exec noted, “made some appearances but he didn’t really work it. It felt scattershot. Awards season is such a popularity contest.” The exec pointed to others, like Dern and Nebraska director Alexander Payne, who stood out as making an effort to be everywhere and to be friendly. And both got nominations for their efforts.

Added another veteran of the indie scene, "You’ve really got to work the awards circuit these days, and if you don’t do that, your chances are slim to none."

Other factors may also have come into play. Lost, which ultimately earned just one nomination for sound editing, is a movie that probably plays best in a theater -- to a captive audience. While Roadside sent screeners out early -- to ensure the film got seen -- the nearly dialogue-free movie could have lost some of its impact in a home setting, where it’s all too easy to pause and move on to other distractions.

Comments one awards consultant, “The big lesson this year is the nominees were either movies with super-effective screening programs or movies that were great on DVD. Wolf of Wall Street, Nebraska, Philomena play really well on screeners. But All Is Lost is cinematic in a way that doesn’t mesh with that medium. You have to watch your screeners on the shittiest TV you have, because people think Academy members have great TVs, but I tell you some of the older members don’t.”

In the end, of course, it finally came down to the fact that were only five available slots, and this year there was a deep field of serious contenders. Others who failed in their quest for best actor noms included Tom Hanks for Captain Phillips and Forest Whitaker for Lee Daniels' The Butler. So, unlike the man he plays onscreen, Redford wasn't totally alone.

Sharon Swart, Pamela McClintock and Tim Appelo contributed to this report.