DGA Noms: The Story Behind the Snub Everyone's Talking About (Analysis)

Was 'Selma' director Ava DuVernay excluded because she's black, because she's a woman or because Paramount never mailed DGA members screeners of the film? THR's awards analyst suggests the answer may be none of the above.
Atsushi Nishijima
David Oyelowo and Ava DuVernay on the set of 'Selma'

The Directors Guild of America announced its nominees for the 67th annual DGA Award for direction of a feature film this morning: The Grand Budapest Hotel's Wes Anderson, American Sniper's Clint Eastwood, Birdman's Alejandro G. Inarritu, Boyhood's Richard Linklater and The Imitation Game's Morten Tyldum.

You'll notice that the list does not include Selma's Ava DuVernay, Gone Girl's David Fincher, Foxcatcher's Bennett Miller, Interstellar's Christopher Nolan, Inherent Vice's Paul Thomas Anderson, The Theory of Everything's James Marsh, Unbroken's Angelina Jolie, Into the Woods' Rob Marshall or A Most Violent Year's J.C. Chandor.

So, with Oscar nominations less than 48 hours away, what does it all mean?!

Not all that much, I would argue.

Read more DGA Unveils Feature Film Award Nominations

The DGA (currently composed of about 15,000 members, many of them primarily TV directors) and the Academy's directors branch (about 382 members, the vast majority of whom are film-specific) have only agreed on all five of their nominees on five occasions in the 66 years in which they have co-existed.

Just two years ago, the DGA famously nominated Argo's Ben Affleck, Zero Dark Thirty's Kathryn Bigelow and Les Miserables' Tom Hooper — who were, just days thereafter, famously snubbed by the Academy's directors branch in a massacre for the ages. That's right, only two of the five DGA nominees were also nominated for Oscars.

If anything, the DGA's noms tend to reflect which way the wind was blowing a few weeks before they're announced, since the guild's voting — which takes place online — began way back on Dec. 3, finally winding to a close on Jan. 12. And that can distort the actual regard held for films that only really began accruing buzz over and after the December holidays.

This is not to say that the five individuals who received DGA noms today don't appear to be in great shape for Thursday. I would be shocked if Linklater and Inarritu aren't Oscar-nominated on Thursday, and I think each of the other three also has a great shot: Eastwood, who, at 84, would be the oldest best director Oscar nominee ever by more than five years; Anderson, who has never previously received a directing Oscar nom, but whose 2014 film has clicked with just about every guild; and Tyldum, who has directed one of the year's most popular films and also has — to quote Liam Neeson in the Taken films — the "particular set of skills" of The Weinstein Co. behind him.

But there's no denying that this year's biggest "snub" is Selma's DuVernay, which pundits on social media immediately began ascribing to racism (DuVernay is black), sexism (DuVernay is a woman) and the fact that Paramount, which is distributing Selma, never mailed screeners to DGA members.

I think that's an inaccurate oversimplification. I have a hard time buying the bigotry angle: The DGA, for instance, has nominated considerably more females than the Academy. And the screener angle is also not a legitimate explanation, as Paramount knows better than anyone: Just last year, the studio sent screeners to the DGA of Nebraska (which didn't end up getting a DGA nom) but, because of its late lock-date, didn't send screeners to the DGA of The Wolf of Wall Street (which did end up getting a DGA nom); both films ended up landing directing Oscar noms.

Some may be wondering what the difference is between DuVernay's Selma and Eastwood's American Sniper, since the two films premiered back-to-back on Nov. 11 at AFI Fest. The answer is simple: that night, the Selma that was screened was, unlike the American Sniper that was screened, an unfinished cut. In fact, the film would not be locked until just before its Dec. 25 limited release, prior to which screeners couldn't begin to be manufactured. Voting to determine the DGA nominees had already been open for more than three weeks.

I don't really question Paramount's decision to pass on manufacturing and distributing 15,000 Selma screeners for DGA members over the December holidays, considering that only about 7,500 watermarked DVDs can be made in a day, on an all-out day; that screeners for the 6,000-plus members of the Academy and 6,000-plus members of BAFTA had to be made first; and that by the time DGA screeners would have made it from the production facility in Toronto (Vision, formerly known as Deluxe) to the shipping facility in Valencia, Calif., and then, in many cases, to a director's agent or manager's office — while many were still on holiday — to eventually be forwarded on to the director, it would have been so late in the game as to have been largely irrelevant. 

Instead, the studio went all-out in providing opportunities to see the film on a big screen, where one would think filmmakers, of all people, would want to see a high-profile film anyway. The studio sent invited members of all guilds, including the DGA, to many "pre-nom screenings" of the not-yet-locked cut, starting on Nov. 28 (more than 20 in the L.A. area, 11 in New York, five in San Francisco, two in Boston and others in places like London, Maui and Aspen); the DGA offered "official membership screenings" to its members in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.; and Paramount, at its own cost, then offered two additional screenings for DGA members that were followed by Q&As, one in Los Angeles moderated by Bigelow and one in New York moderated by Gayle King.

Moreover, DGA members know that they have "theater passthroughs" — the ability to use their guild membership card to see a film for free between Monday and Thursday — at most major theater chains.

The bottom line is this: We do not know why DuVernay was not among the DGA's nominees. Of course, it is certainly possible that DGA members simply preferred the work of the five filmmakers who did receive DGA noms to that of DuVernay, or that they were turned off from the film by the recent controversy over its depiction of Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson. But it seems a little suspect to me that a film that has so many many vocal champions in the industry today, in mid-January, was not nominated by a group that began voting well over a month ago, before the film was really being widely seen.

Which raises the real question, to me: Why do the guilds, generally, and the DGA, specifically, start voting so early? Really, who would be injured by having voting commence, say, after New Year's Day, as is the case with voting for the Critics' Choice Awards? A few days — even a week or 10 days — should be time enough.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg