"Selma" and "American Sniper" premiered at the AFI Fest on the same November night. Those standing in line outside the Egyptian Theatre for the 9 p.m. "Sniper" showing could hear the ovation from inside when "Selma" ended and the clapping continued long after writer-director Ava DuVernay, actors David Oyelowo and Common, and producers Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner walked onstage for a post-screening Q&A.
It felt like a best picture powerhouse premiered that night. And it did. It just wasn't "Selma."
Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper," a tough-minded portrait of Chris Kyle, the real-life U.S. Navy SEAL who became the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history (160 confirmed kills over four tours in Iraq), received six Oscar nominations Thursday, including nods for picture, actor Bradley Cooper and screenwriter Jason Hall.
"Selma" received a best picture nomination too. But outside of a nomination for its original song, that was it for DuVernay's civil rights drama.
How did "Sniper" elbow its way past "Selma" and into the hearts of academy members? Demographics offer a partial explanation. A 2013 Los Angeles Times survey of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters found the academy membership to be 93% white, 76% male with an average age of 63. In other words, this is the target audience for an Eastwood war movie, not necessarily the one for a historical drama made by a black woman that shows black people changing the course of American history.
Yes, just last year the academy gave its best picture prize to "12 Years a Slave" and an Oscar to its black director, Steve McQueen. And the academy has been making real attempts to add youth and color to its membership over the past three years, an effort that "will increase," academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs reiterated Thursday morning.
So race may be a part of the story — but perhaps just a small part. "Selma" and "American Sniper" screened unfinished prints at AFI. But Eastwood's crew finished its post-production faster than DuVernay's did, enabling DVD screeners of "Sniper" to be sent to guild members, many of whom are also academy members. Paramount did not order the 150,000 DVDs necessary to blanket the guilds, and it cost "Selma" dearly. These groups vote early and feel entitled to view contending movies from the comfort of their homes. "Sniper" ended up scoring six guild nominations, including from the producers, directors and writers organizations. "Selma" landed only makeup and costumes.
"With the late arrival, they needed to make the DVDs a priority," one veteran awards consultant told me. "They didn't, and it cost them. They didn't have time to build momentum."
There's also the issue of another kind of timing, that of locking in with how American audiences want to feel about themselves — and their country — right now. "Selma" remembered the 1965 voting rights struggles led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and, in doing so, felt contemporary to the nationwide protests over the deaths of unarmed black men killed by white police offers. It's also relevant, as DuVernay has often noted, as recent laws have weakened the Voting Rights Act in many states. These are thorny issues, and they make many people uncomfortable.
DuVernay's movie found itself in the news, not for these reasons but for the accuracy with which it portrayed the relationship between King and President Lyndon B. Johnson. Joseph Califano, a former senior aide to Johnson, wrote a Washington Post op-ed column saying that "Selma was LBJ's idea" (a claim he later backtracked on) and that the movie should be "ruled out ... during the ensuing awards season."
Califano almost got his wish. "Sniper," meanwhile, had its own issues with truth, though mostly these had to do with claims Kyle made in his autobiography (namely that he punched Jesse Ventura in a bar). Some critics have also contended that the real Kyle liked killing a bit too much and wasn't nearly as anguished about it as Cooper makes him out to be in the film.
This criticism hasn't really stuck, however, in part because of the power of Cooper's acting. "American Sniper" scored an A+ with audiences on its opening weekend, according to marketing research firm Cinemascore. Eastwood's film has broken box office records in its limited release and appears ready to take in $50 million-plus as it goes wide this holiday weekend. Its portrait of an American hero — and the costs of his service to his family and his own psyche — connects with people on both sides of the political aisle.
"This man had a sense of purpose, a sense of duty and then he came back and found himself lost," Eastwood told me recently. "The movie shows what people in the service go through, which is something we take for granted, particularly these days with wars that go on for so long that some people almost forget we're fighting them. And we can't take them for granted. When they come home, they need our help. They need to be remembered."
The academy did just that Thursday, providing a finish to a story few saw coming nine weeks ago.