Why the Oscars Rarely Go for Underdogs Anymore

Death of the Oscar Underdog - Illustration by Matt Collins - H 2019
Matt Collins

A tighter awards window, lavish FYC campaigns and the return of A-listers en masse has limited the opportunities for indie breakouts and newcomers to reach Academy voters.

In the summer of 2013, word began to spread about a new film soon to unspool at the Telluride Film Festival and an extraordinary young actress making her debut in a major role. She was newly out of Yale drama school, was appearing in a lowish-budget period piece directed by a filmmaker on the rise, and the odds against her getting any recognition were immense — and yet six months later, she won an Academy Award.

Lupita Nyong'o's journey to the Oscars was fueled not only by her talent but by an awards environment notably more hospitable to newcomers than it is today. In the half-decade since her victory for 12 Years a Slave, you can count on the fingers of one hand the outsiders who've become serious contenders in the acting and directing categories.

True, writer-director Barry Jenkins won for 2016's Moonlight, but Mahershala Ali, who also took home a statuette for best supporting actor, was hardly a novice: He'd been a jobbing actor for two decades and found fame with House of Cards. Similarly, Olivia Colman's best actress win this year for The Favourite came after years starring on British television and onstage and was helped by her casting in The Crown.

At the 2020 Oscars, the chances of anyone without a brand name taking home a top award are slim to none. That's not because talent is lacking. Such actors as A Hidden Life's Valerie Pachner, Waves' Renée Elise Goldsberry, Honey Boy's Noah Jupe and Just Mercy's Rob Morgan have all drawn acclaim and yet none is in the serious awards conversation. Indie titles such as Kelly Reichardt's First Cow, Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse and Olivia Wilde's Booksmart once might have been must-sees, but few Academy members now feel compelled to check them out.

Instead, the race is dominated by A-list helmers (Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Sam Mendes) and stars (Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Renée Zellweger, Scarlett Johansson). The only genuine outsider, Parasite's Bong Joon Ho, has a long list of credits and is loved by cinephiles.

So why the change? Three factors play a part. First, there's the tighter awards window. Last season's Academy Awards were held Feb. 24; the upcoming awards take place Feb. 9. That means campaigners have two fewer weeks to get their movies seen — and, with an avalanche of demand for screening rooms and guild presentations, fringe contenders get squeezed out.

Second, deep-pocketed backers have inflated the sums lavished on campaigns. Harvey Weinstein once drew ire for allegedly spending as much as $10 million on some pictures; now Netflix is spending four times that amount and has an awards staff 60-people deep. The streamer is also paving the way for Oscar success with meaty campaigns on precursors such as the BAFTAs and Golden Globes. Don't think that matters? Just look at Irishman star De Niro's visibility in the past weeks with Netflix's guidance.

Third, stricter campaigning rules mean a greater emphasis on in-person events. Big names (J.J. Abrams, Regina King, Margot Robbie) are hosting screenings for friends' films along with their own. A-listers such as Pitt and DiCaprio are taking part in Q&As. Even latecomers such as Universal's 1917 and Warner Bros.' Richard Jewell are using events with Mendes, Clint Eastwood and top studio execs to promote them, an option unavailable to low-budget contenders like Neon's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which won a screenplay prize at Cannes.

One small-scale distributor says he's counting on his director to do shuttle diplomacy among groups of Oscar voters because he doesn't have the funds for anything else. "Our exit scores are incredible," he says. "I just hope people notice." Additionally, Mark Duplass held a one-man FYC campaign for his Paddleton co-star Ray Romano earlier this month.

Can anything be done to stem the rich-get-richer tide? Yes, say insiders.

The Academy could alter the rules for a supporting role, limiting the screen time an actor gets per movie. That would spotlight genuine supporting performers as opposed to stars.

The Oscar organization could also create an award for best newcomer, acknowledging performers with limited credits. In the past, it's bestowed special Oscars including a Juvenile Award to Shirley Temple in 1934.

Ultimately, the absence of fresh faces stems from a more profound change in the industry at large that cannot be finessed by the Academy: the disappearance of the indie film. With fewer low-budget pictures getting large-scale distribution and marketing campaigns, there are also fewer opportunities for outsiders to make the mark Nyong'o did.

The death of the underdog contender is about something far more troubling than the Academy Awards; it's about the demise of the underdog film itself.

This story will appear in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.