How Hollywood Strikes Affected This Year’s Oscar Race

Throughout the history of the Academy Awards, there are plenty of external historical events that have influenced when, how and why a lucky winner is chosen. When future awards watchers look back on this year’s 96th ceremony, where might the contentious Hollywood labor battles of 2023 fit into the story?

For most of last year, the town was gripped by devastating work stoppages thanks to strikes launched by the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA. SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild emerged with new contracts that stretched the studios on issues like residuals and provided protections around emerging technology like artificial intelligence. The path to those new deals, however, was lit by burning bridges: Ugly public dustups between figures like Disney CEO Bob Iger and SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher created friction between powerful check-writing executives and the stars they rely on to open movies and promote them for awards such as the Oscars.

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The uncertainty surrounding the strikes and the restrictions guilds placed on promoting contenders played havoc on Oscar campaigns. But some fared better than others thanks to the labor unrest, according to half-a-dozen industry watchers and awards experts who spoke with Variety.

The Writers Guild walkout began May 2, with actor counterparts striking as of July 14; the scribes reached a deal Sept. 27, but it would not be until Nov. 9, deep in the heart of the usual awards season, that SAG-AFTRA ended its walkout. The most prohibitive tactic SAG-AFTRA used was a press blackout, wherein no actor working for a “struck company’ could engage in publicity or marketing to promote a given project. This meant huge frontrunners like “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” could not trot out starry casts — Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling for the former; Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr. and Florence Pugh for the latter — to gain the kind of momentum that catches Academy voter attention.

This left the field wide open for smaller movies released by companies that are not members of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (the collective bargaining group that negotiates with Hollywood unions on behalf of the studios).

Notably, indie powerhouse A24 had free rein to promote projects like Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla,” the Sundance sensation “Past Lives” and Jonathan Glazer’s tour-de-force “The Zone of Interest.” They are the only studio in this year’s crop to have two films nominated in the best picture category (“Past Lives” and “Zone of Interest”).

Neon, A24’s closest competitor in taste and street cred, also had the buzzy Cannes title “Anatomy of a Fall” to roll out, which led “to a considerable advantage” for its star Sandra Hüller, one campaigner said. A subtle and diverse performer who had been earmarked for potential Oscar gold since her 2016 global breakout “Toni Erdmann,” Hüller was able to sit for lush profiles with the likes of Vanity Fair where many of her competitors could not. The same playbook was not effective for “Past Lives” star Greta Lee, who came painfully close to a lead actress nomination in what another pundit described as “an insanely competitive year for the actress category.”

Late-fall arrivals to the movie release calendar had the biggest hurdles to clear for visibility, numerous sources said. Films like “The Holdovers,” Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro” and Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction” were all touted in the final days of the actors strike in November.

Once the SAG-AFTRA strike concluded, strategists scrambled to reallocate their resources, intent on ferrying talent to appearances with glam squads at the ready. As Hollywood slowly roared back to business, it also became evident that streamers and legacy media companies will need to be as conservative as possible with content spending thanks to battered stock prices and the new labor deals — adding to the pressure on campaign spending.

“I think they all found their attention,” said one C-suite marketing executive. “The strike threw the typical sequence of precursors into a disarray — shows like the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards happened in short order, and the SAG and PGA awards are now within final the voting window for the Academy.” The executive also noted that fall film festivals like those in Venice and Toronto did not have strong awards launches because of absent talent.

Don’t go weeping for “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” by the way.

“The good news for those films,” one longtime strategist tells Variety on the condition of anonymity, “is that they both had huge summer releases that mostly completed press. The box office kept them relevant through the strike, and they re-entered the conversation at a good time.”

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