Locks, Snubs, and Other Awards Season Myths

Year after year, certain words and ideas get tossed around throughout awards season. Some have become meaningless through overuse, while others have started to take on different definitions entirely through misuse. Because it is November and these are already starting to ramp up in earnest, today, let’s talk a little bit about what people get wrong about the concepts of “lock” and “snub” and “searching for awards” and the concept of the “overdue” Oscar.


Melissa Leo in NOVITIATE, written and directed by Maggie Betts — Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

A favorite game for awards aficionados is to declare as early as possible that certain likely nominees and winners are “locked” for a category. This often starts to happen around September or October, as the buzz from the fall festivals puts a few films ahead of the pack as frontrunners. But this sometimes gets tossed out into the ether as early as a movie’s Sundance premiere in January.

The problem with the term is that it suggests a film or a potential nominee could stop campaigning right then and they would still be assured the nomination. This almost always false. Sure, Academy voters tend to rally around certain things and part of why the awards prediction game is so popular (and fun!) is because there are patterns and indicators and that make predicting and prognosticating possible. Although if it was easy, everyone would have perfect ballots every year and it would be a lot less entertaining.

The term “lock” is also a shifting goal post. As soon as the momentum in a race changes, the same people who once declared someone a shoo-in seem to have collective amnesia when the tides turn for that hopeful, and another “lock” emerges. Do you remember the Best Actress race for the 89th Oscars? It was the 2016 film year and nearly everyone was certain Amy Adams was {finally} winning an Oscar for Arrival. And yeah, she definitely deserved the accolade because it was a terrific performance. But then she wasn’t even nominated. The next year, some were convinced Melissa Leo was a lock for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Novitiate. Others were absolutely certain Holly Hunter was locked for The Big Sick. And of course, none of us will ever forget last year’s Best Actor race.

Here’s the thing about “locks.” They aren’t real. The thousands of Academy members casting ballots aren’t setting up alliances and factions to ensure that certain nominations happen. They vote for who they like, and with many, many options to choose from, and without ever getting to see the breakdown of voting numbers, nothing is certain. Especially before the eligibility year is even over. So, yeah, it’s perfectly legitimate to have Jessica Chastain in the top spot in your predictions this year. But there’s still a long road until the ballots go out at the end of January.

There are no locks in November.


In a similar vein, “snub” is a word that is so overused it has become the accepted term for anyone we love that doesn’t manage to get one of Oscar’s extremely limited number of nomination slots. Surely if the Academy didn’t nominate them then it was because they have it out for that person. It can’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that there are hundreds of eligible films and only 5 (or 10) spaces.

The actual definition of snub means to “rebuff, ignore, or spurn disdainfully.” And while that does sometimes happen, it is very rare for actual snubs to happen. The truth is that voters pick what they like much more than they actually try to ensure losses for what or who they don’t. A popular one is Ben Affleck. It can be argued that Affleck was “snubbed” when Argo emerged in 2012 and nabbed seven nominations, excluding its director and his lead performance. But when you look at at the Director lineup for that year, all five directors’ films also made it in Best Picture. And considering the way the voters ultimately rallied around Argo and made it the Best Picture winner that year, Affleck’s miss looks a lot more like an “oops, not *quite* enough of us voted for him” than an intentional rebuffing of him or his work.

Similar cases can be made for any number of supposedly ignored films, performers, or craftspeople that we would have liked to see nominated but who ultimately fell short in the votes. Jojo Rabbit earned 6 Oscar nominations, but director (and screenplay winner) Taika Waititi wasn’t nominated. Little Women also earned 6 nominations but not Greta Gerwig. Were they snubbed? Or was it just a tight race that could have gone any number of ways?

It’s also silly to claim that a nominee was snubbed when they don’t win. You’ve got 5 people to choose from there, and with no objective way to measure the best, surprises are going to happen. The nomination is always a win, even if you don’t get to take home the statuette.

Snubs definitely do happen. But throwing the term around so freely lessens the impact of when and why. Is this about the person, or about a pervasive problem within the industry? When we can examine why an artist was overlooked, we can see where changes need to be made.


Glenn Close in THE WIFE — Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Another topic awards pundits love to debate is which artists are “searching for the Oscar.” Sure, some films come together in such a way that they fit the profile of Oscar Bait. They pull together a cast of previous nominees and winners, “prestige” directors and screenwriters, and they tend to be particularly dramatic and emotional stories that often involve some sort of transformation of one or more of the central stars.

Studios certainly care about the attention and longevity of potential award-winning films. But do the artists themselves care about it as much as we do? Think of it this way. Out of hundreds of thousands of performances in nearly 100 years of AMPAS, 77 individual women have won the Oscar for Best Actress. The chances of winning that particular award are so astronomically small and so dependent on a huge number of factors, that to say Annette Bening was searching for the Oscar when she signed on to play Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool or that Steve Carrell joined Foxcatcher for the awards. Who hasn’t dreamed of standing on the stage with that little gold man and imagined the speech they would give? But let’s be clear, these are artists who love the work and who do the job they were compelled to pursue and they would do it even if the awards ceased to exist.



If the Academy’s priority was to reward artists whose time had come and gone, Peter O’Toole would have been an Oscar winner. So would Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, and, yes, probably Glenn Close. We as lovers of film and awards have our thoughts about who should have received those precious prizes years ago and many times over. We can agree or disagree that Julianne Moore really should have won for Boogie Nights or Far From Heaven, but that wasn’t the reason she won for Still Alice. It was because she was great in Still Alice and people liked her work. Meryl Streep didn’t beat Viola Davis because everyone thought it had been too long since Streep’s last acceptance speech. And Roger Deakins’ cinematography for Blade Runner 2049 was why he finally won in 2017. Not because he “should have won” for The Shawshank Redemption or Skyfall or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

The reality is, when voters have their ballots in hand, a ballot no one else will ever see or judge them for, they tend to vote for what they like best. There’s not secret formula or alliance or conspiracy, regardless of whatever intention we like to assign them.

These are a few of the thoughts and ideas that swirl around every year with renewed levels of fervor and enthusiasm. Some are fun to talk about and debate, but when they become the basis for conversations about what will happen, etc, they tend to set up expectations that the awards season can’t live up to. For fans of this crazy game, assigning motives and blame to people who can’t or won’t speak up only makes things divisive and destructive. Instead of embracing what we love, the focus too often shifts to what makes us angry, driving a wedge and also making the awards bigger and more meaningful than they need to be.

Like what you like, celebrate what you love and enjoy the ride.

Written by
Karen Peterson is the Awards Editor for We Live Entertainment. She previously worked as the Assistant Editor at Awards Circuit, now owned by Variety. Her work can also be found at Citizen Dame and at the Watch and Talk podcast. Her non-awards season hobbies include Angels baseball, taking pictures of other peoples' pets, and tweeting about The Bachelor franchise.

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