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Oscars Analysis: Why ‘Oppenheimer’ Dominated, ‘Killers’ Crashed and ‘Poor Things’ Outperformed ‘Barbie’

An awards season unlike any other — during which the first simultaneous strikes of actors and writers in Hollywood history largely prevented campaigning by talent for months — came to an end Sunday night at the 96th Academy Awards.

As was widely expected, Oppenheimer dominated, winning seven Oscars — no film has won more since Slumdog Millionaire snagged eight 15 years ago — including for best picture (Christopher NolanEmma Thomas and Chuck Roven), director (Nolan), actor (Cillian Murphy, the category’s first Irish winner), supporting actor (Robert Downey Jr.), cinematography (Hoyte van Hoytema), film editing (Jennifer Lame) and original score (Lugwig Göransson).

That’s quite an achievement for not just the filmmakers, who adapted a book (Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer) that many thought was unadaptable into a riveting instant classic of a film, but also for the teams that sold it to the public and to the Academy.

Universal Pictures chair Donna Langley lured Nolan away from his longtime home at Warner Bros. and gave him $100 million to make an epic in which explosions are emphasized less than brilliant people conversing with one another in small rooms — not the easiest sell — and then, thanks to the steady hands of chief marketing officer Michael Moses and director of national publicity Jen Chamberlain, turned it into a blockbuster. Additional hats off to veteran awards strategist Tony Angellotti of The Angellotti Co., who has guided Uni’s awards pushes since 1999’s Man on the Moon and has now steered the studio to best picture wins in three different decades, for 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, 2018’s Green Book and, aided by his top-notch team including vp Dana Bseiso VazquezOppy.

The Oppy campaign started with the inarguable premise that Nolan was very overdue for recognition. It continued with a film that truly delivered, and that still feels timely and urgent, even 80 years after the events it chronicles, thanks not least to Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling. It was turbo-charged by — alongside Barbie — drawing people back to movie theaters in numbers not seen since before the global pandemic. And it was carefully managed thereafter, with subtle efforts seemingly undertaken to make the very British Nolan seem less aloof, to keep Downey on message and to help people “discover” Murphy (even though he has been appearing in films for decades, including five others with Nolan).

Speaking of Barbie, the other half of the “Barbenheimer” craze that defined 2023, Greta Gerwig’s film took home just one Oscar, best original song, for “What Was I Made For?” (making 22-year-old Billie Eilish the youngest and 26-year-old Finneas the second-youngest two-time Oscar winners ever). The Academy has never had a particularly great sense of humor, generally preferring the “gravitas” of “serious” films like Oppy to satires like Barbie. But Gerwig, producer/star Margot Robbie and the team at Warner Bros. (who, with Strategy PR, ran a dynamic push that was recognized with the best motion picture publicity campaign award at Friday’s ICG Publicists Awards) won “the Bank of America Award” — as in, more than a billion dollars at the box office — which must be a nice consolation.

Interestingly enough, a film that struck some as Barbie-on-meth, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things, secured four wins, bested only by Oppy: best costume design and production design (fending off Barbie in those two races), makeup/hairstyling (denying Netflix’s Maestro its best shot at a win) and, in the most hotly contested race of the night, lead actress. Indeed, seven years after winning that award for La La LandEmma Stone, at just 35, won it again for her most daring turn yet, holding off Killers of the Flower Moon’s Lily Gladstone, who, for a more understated performance, was poised to become the first Indigenous American Oscar winner.

On Sunday night, I caught up with a high-level awards strategist not involved with the Poor Things campaign who expressed admiration for the job that Searchlight did — on a budget — with the film, singling out the company’s impressive creative advertising, much of it attached to the clever slogan “Defy expectations,” as helping it to punch above its weight.

Meanwhile, it was a proud night for the Cannes Film Festival — I know this because I observed festival director Thierry Frémaux, a few seats down the row in which I was sitting, reacting giddily — as the event’s Palme d’Or winner Anatomy of a Fall claimed best original screenplay and Grand Prix winner The Zone of Interest best international feature (a first for a U.K. entry) and sound (a rare victory for subtle work in that category). Would Anatomy have beaten Zone for best international feature if France had submitted it instead of The Taste of Things? We’ll never know. Might this Oscar showing by films that premiered at Cannes, a year after ElvisTop Gun: Maverick and Triangle of Sadness also catapulted from the Croisette to the best picture race, encourage more Oscar hopefuls to do the same this year? We’ll soon find out — the fest’s lineup will be announced in April.

Less giddy on Sunday night were the streamers, who collectively prevailed in just two of the 23 categories.

Netflix devoted a ton of resources to its 2023 awards slate, especially Maestro, and though the company landed 19 noms across 11 films, a really impressive feat, it emerged with only one win, best live-action short for Wes Anderson’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. It’s not like its awards team could have done anything more than they did; people just weren’t buying what they were selling, particularly with Maestro. The film was polarizing; there was a weird online-driven backlash against Bradley Cooper; and not everyone was thrilled with the company following the painful strikes in which it was made the face of the opposition to artists. But a decade after the company’s first Oscar nomination — a period during which it has racked up 150 noms (including nine for best picture) and 23 wins (though none yet for best pic) — I think it’s pretty clear that this year was an aberration.

Amazon, for its part, also took home just one award, but it was a fairly big one, with American Fiction fending off OppenheimerBarbieThe Zone of Interest and Poor Things to win best adapted screenplay for Cord Jefferson.

And then there’s Apple, which had a particularly bruising evening as its Martin Scorsese-directed $200 million Killers went 0-for-10, just like Scorsese’s 2019 film The Irishman and 2002 film Gangs of New York. Only 1977’s The Turning Point and 1985’s The Color Purple had a worse 0-for, losing all 11 of their noms. This happened despite the fact that the 81-year-old master hit the campaign trail harder for Killers than for any of his previous films, and the film’s leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio, who hates campaigning, did more lobbying for it than he had done in years, apparently hoping to boost Gladstone.

So what happened? On one level, the deck was stacked against Killers from the start: in this day and age, most people have some degree of attention deficit disorder, making a 3-hour, 26-minute slow-burn of a movie a very tough sell, especially if it is being consumed at home on a TV, as Killers was for many Academy members.

Beyond that, though, a high-level publicist not involved with Killers opined on Sunday that Apple “overdid it,” essentially mounting “the most expensive best actress campaign ever,” and that it turned off some voters. Regardless, the company may be playing a different game than most of its competitors: it can afford to spend big money, and while that big money didn’t buy it Oscars, it did buy it ringing endorsements from Scorsese (who told me that he had never previously felt as supported by a distributor as he did by Apple this season), which, in all likelihood, will help to attract other top filmmakers to the platform.

One related question that is interesting to ponder: would Gladstone have taken home a statuette if she had promoted herself for best supporting actress (rather than best actress), as some felt she should have, or would she also have come up short in that category to the performer who won it on Sunday night, The Holdovers’ Da’Vine Joy Randolph? We’ll never know. But we do know that voters really liked Randolph and Oppy’s Downey, both of whom swept the entire circuit of important awards shows in their respective categories.

A final note: The results of the 96th Oscars confirmed that the Academy today is truly an international organization to an extent that it has never been before. Members from 93 countries cast ballots to determine this year’s nominees. The best picture category included an unprecedented three nominees that are largely or entirely not in the English language (AnatomyZone and Past Lives). And Sunday’s list of winners included, as best I can tell, more films that are largely or entirely not in the English language than any prior Oscars ceremony’s — six (of 23): the French-language Anatomy (original screenplay), the German-language Zone (international feature and sound), the Ukrainian-language portrait of war 20 Days in Mariupol (documentary feature) and two Japanese-language titles from Toho International, the relatively low-budget monster movie Godzilla Minus One (visual effects) and Hayao Miyazaki’s probable swan song, The Boy and the Heron (animated feature).

All this is stuff to keep in mind for the 2024-25 awards season, which, in the eyes of some, has already begun.

SOURCE: The Hollywood Reporter