Below the Line Artisans Help Boost Best Picture Nominees

When Oscar nominations were announced March 15, mainstream-media headlines focused on the usual topics: best picture, the four acting categories and Hollywood’s current obsession, inclusion. These are all worth talking about, but the MSM virtually ignores one key element every year: The artisans.

Those individuals are key to a movie’s success, as everyone in the industry knows. The artisans are also important to Oscar: They constitute one-third of the 9,000-plus voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which means their votes are crucial.

These nine categories also beef up a contender’s bragging rights. Netflix’s “Mank” was the nom leader with 10 — and six of those were in below-the-line races. Of the other seven best picture contenders, each had at least one BTL nomination.

Aside from “Mank’s” team, almost all of the artisans who worked on the year’s best-pic roster are first-time Oscar contenders, ranging from respected industry veterans (such as the “Judas” DP Sean Bobbitt and “News of the World’s” Dariusz Wolski) to relative newcomers (“Minari” is only the fourth feature film for composer Emile Mosseri).

Did the newbies get their break because it was a scaled-down year? Possibly, but not likely. The artisans are proof that things are changing at the Academy. Every below-the-line nominee who worked on the past five best picture winners — “Spotlight,” “Moonlight,” “The Shape of Water,” “Green Book” and “Parasite” — was a first-time Oscar nominee.

Gone are the days when Edith Head cornered the market on costume design bids, with 35 noms in 29 years, or when Alfred Newman earned 42 music nominations between 1938 and 1967.

So behind-the-camera creatives are not only important — they are symbolic of the changes in the Academy.

They also underline another fundamental truth about the Academy Awards: People who work in the industry look at a film differently than others.

As a result, Academy voters come up with different choices than critics groups, entertainment journalists and the Twitterverse. In the build-up to Oscar announcements, pundits inevitably write that a film or individual got a “big boost” from some preliminary award, as if the Oscars are a U.S. election, gathering electoral votes with each win. They aren’t and they don’t.

In addition, critics’ faves such as “First Cow,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” “On the Rocks” and the docs including “Dick Johnson Is Dead” and “Boys State” were AWOL with AMPAS.

Because Academy voters are a unique group, there are always welcome surprises in nominations that were rarely foreshadowed in other awards, such as director Thomas Vinterberg for “Another Round” and LaKeith Stanfield as supporting actor in “Judas.”

In BTL categories, many deserving nominations were given to films that hadn’t been on the radar of other voting groups. That includes VFX recognition for “Love and Monsters” and “The One and Only Ivan,” while the bid for dark horse song “Husavik” from “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” was hardly a sure thing, though many movie fans (and Icelandic elves) were pulling for this surprise.

The artisans also symbolize the growing international-ization of Oscar, such as the two noms for Italy’s “Pinocchio,” in makeup/hair and costume design. The foreign-language/international presence was felt in multiple other categories.

Last year’s “Parasite” win didn’t influence this year’s nominees, but it was a signal that AMPAS voters were changing. In the past, non-English-language films were generally relegated just to their own category. But this year, they’re widespread, including Vinterberg, two non-English documentaries, Diane Warren’s song from the Italian “The Life Ahead,” while docu “Collective” and “Another Round” were double nominees. Things are changing.

Another surprise was the nomination for the sound in “Greyhound,” from newbie Apple TV. And speaking of sound, maestro Ren Klyce is a double nominee this year, part of the teams for “Mank” and “Soul” — for two filmmakers who know the importance of BTL work, David Fincher and Pete Docter. Within the industry, Klyce is revered; in the MSM, not so much.

Some other conclusions of the 93rd Academy Award nominations:

• “Mank” got the most noms, with 10; a group of six films trailed with six apiece. But it’s not clear if that makes “Mank” the inevitable winner. For the Academy’s first 74 years, the film with the most nominations took home the best picture prize 57 times, or 77% — pretty good odds. However, when Oscar moved the ceremony a month earlier with the films of 2003 (when “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” won), the odds changed. Since then, the film with the most nominations won best pic only 35% of the time. Why the drastic shift? It’s hard to say, but it’s clear that timing has an effect on the outcome. And with an especially long eligibility this year and a later-than-ever date, the timing will definitely have an effect. So it’ll be interesting to see if this works in “Mank’s” favor or not.

• Amid all the talk about diversity in the nominations, it’s worth noting that voters saluted often-overlooked minorities such as Muslims (Riz Ahmed, Tunisia’s “The Man Who Sold His Skin” from Kaouther Ben Hania); people from the disabled community (supporting actor and child of deaf parents Paul Raci, docu “Crip Camp”), and Asians (Aside from Chloé Zhao’s four nominations and the “Minari” team, the list includes Asians in multiple categories, including animated feature and song.)

• In case there was any doubt, the 93rd Academy Awards seem to have finally ended the “Is it TV or a film?” conversations. Major studios often have a love/hate relationship with Oscar, while companies like Lionsgate, Summit and A24 have risen. And streaming services of course dominate this year. Apple TV, after one year in business, scored two nominations, while Disney Plus and Hulu also grabbed noms. Netflix and Amazon hit company bests, with 35 and 12 noms, respectively. Because of COVID shuttering most theaters, the debate has been silenced over what constitutes a valid platform. Hopefully, the debate won’t revive and we can all focus on creativity instead of delivery methods.

• AMPAS has long held a reputation for safe choices and traditional voting. It was never true, but this year definitely explodes that myth. There were a lot of “Oscar favorites” who were eligible this year but are missing. That group includes Ellen Burstyn, George Clooney, Jodie Foster, Tom Hanks, Sophia Loren, Michelle Pfeiffer and Meryl Streep. Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan and Julianne Moore appeared in films that just didn’t get awards traction. There were also established people like Delroy Lindo (“Da 5 Bloods”) looking for first nom, after years of great work.

Every individual has up and down years so there’s no shame in not being nominated, but obviously there were no knee-jerk nominations this year.

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