Snubs, protests and history makers: What to know about the 2024 Oscars

The US-based Academy Awards have long stood as a cultural touchstone, honouring some of the top films of the year.

Oscar statues sit under protective plastic sheets.
The Academy Awards will be presented at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, California [Mike Blake/Reuters]

The red carpet has been unfurled for the 96th annual Academy Awards, one of the movie industry’s oldest and most acclaimed ceremonies.

It’s a night of glitz, artistry and controversy, as some of the biggest films in the United States and around the world compete for the golden statuettes known as Oscars.

Taking place in Los Angeles, California, this year’s Academy Awards ceremonies are set to pit box office rivals Barbie and Oppenheimer against one another in a closely watched race for Best Picture.

While Oppenheimer is an early favourite for the win, other categories are harder to predict, with tight races in the two leading actor categories, for instance. And with Israel’s war in Gaza raging into a sixth month, protests and politics are expected to make an appearance at the annual award show, too.

Here’s what you need to know about this year’s Oscars.

Crew members unfurl a roll of red carpet at the site of the 96th annual Academy Awards.
Reporters photograph the red carpet roll-out at the Dolby Theatre on March 6 in Los Angeles [Chris Pizzello/AP Photo]

How did the Academy Awards begin?

While the Oscars have become synonymous with glitz and glam, their origins were relatively humble.

It was May 1929, and a crowd of black-tied celebrities crowded into the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood for the very first Academy Awards ceremony. Tickets were only $5. Hollywood heartthrob Douglas Fairbanks hosted the event, which lasted a grand total of 15 minutes — a far cry from today’s three-plus-hour runtime.

It helped, of course, that the winners had been announced three months prior in a bulletin.

The Oscars were born on the cusp of a seismic change in Hollywood: the advent of sound films. One of the films nominated in that first ceremony was 1927’s The Jazz Singer, considered the first “talkie” in cinema.

What organisation is behind the awards?

The “Academy” in the award name refers to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an organisation for filmmaking professionals that honours achievement in the industry.

Founded in 1927, the Academy was composed of 36 original members, including writers, directors, producers and other industry insiders. The swashbuckling actor Douglas Fairbanks was among them. So too was silent-movie darling Mary Pickford — though, tellingly, she was one of only three women among the 36.

Questions of representation within the Academy’s membership continue to spur criticism, even to this day.

One of the central figures in the early Academy was the head of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios, a powerful figure named Louis B Mayer. A Russian-born film producer, he feared how unions might interfere with his work — and he conceived of the Academy in part to address labour issues without union participation.

Why are the trophies called ‘Oscars’?

The nickname for the iconic golden statuette, “Oscar”, became widely used in 1934.

The origins of the name remain unclear, but one popular story credits the moniker to a future executive director of the Academy, Margaret Herrick. She reportedly observed that the statuette resembled her uncle, Oscar, and the nickname quickly caught on.

A worker puts the final touches at an Oscar statue before being placed out for display
A worker puts the final touches on an Oscar statue before it is placed out for display [File: Eric Gaillard/Reuters]

How many Oscar categories are there?

At the first Oscars ceremony in 1929, there were only 12 categories, plus two special awards given. But that number tumbled to seven the very next year.

Those original categories included mentions for Best Actor, Best Actress, Art Direction and Outstanding Picture. The directing category was split in two: one for comedy and the other for drama.

Nowadays, there are 24 regular categories, in addition to several special categories that are not awarded every year. But there’s only one Best Director category, unlike in 1929.

How are the nominees picked?

To be eligible to be nominated, a film must be shown at a commercial theatre in Los Angeles County during the calendar year. That means a whopping 321 feature films were eligible in 2023 across two dozen categories.

Members of the Academy participate in an initial vote to determine the nominees, based on their specific industry field. Actors select the acting nominees, for example.

OK, what about the winners? Who picks those?

Once the nominees are picked, all voting Academy members select the winners. There are an estimated 10,500 members in total, with nearly 9,500 eligible to vote.

But marketing campaigns, particularly from large studios, are common practice ahead of the awards ceremony to rally support for a given film or artist.

Critics have therefore slammed the role money plays in the selection process. They have also pointed to the Academy’s membership as indicative of larger diversity problems: A majority of members are white and male, leading to questions about the winners they select.

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Cillian Murphy in a scene from "Oppenheimer."
Director Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer is considered a leader in the Best Picture race [Universal Pictures/AP Photo]

What are some of the biggest films at this year’s Oscars?

There was no bigger moment in the entertainment world last year than the odd-couple double feature known as Barbenheimer. That was the moniker fans gave to Oppenheimer and Barbie, two blockbusters released on the same day in July.

Both have continued to enjoy strong momentum going into Oscars season: Oppenheimer with 13 nominations, Barbie with 8.

But Oppenheimer, a sweeping biopic of nuclear physicist J Robert Oppenheimer, is expected to dominate categories like Best Picture and Best Director, potentially delivering a long-awaited win to director Christopher Nolan.

Barbie, meanwhile, was the highest-grossing film of the year, pulling in more than $1.4b worldwide. But while it got nods for categories like Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor, it was widely seen as snubbed in the Best Actress and Best Director slots.

Legendary director Martin Scorsese is also a frontrunner in this year’s competition with Killers of the Flower Moon, a film based on the real-life story of a killing spree that targeted the Osage Nation in the 1920s.

Fellow auteur Yorgos Lanthimos is back in the running as well with Poor Things, a feminist-inspired Frankenstein tale with steampunk aesthetics. Poor Things received 11 nominations, and Killers of the Flower Moon 10.

Emma Stone in Poor Things, reading a book
Emma Stone stars in Poor Things, the surreal tale of a woman whose brain is replaced with that of a child [Searchlight Pictures/AP Photo]

Which 10 films are up for Best Picture?

  • The Holdovers
  • American Fiction
  • The Zone of Interest
  • Barbie
  • Oppenheimer
  • Poor Things
  • Past Lives
  • Anatomy of a Fall
  • Maestro
  • Killers of the Flower Moon

Are there any history-makers this year?

One of the stars of Killers of the Flower Moon, Lily Gladstone, is leading the race for Best Actress, after picking up trophies at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

A member of the Nez Perce and Blackfeet nations, Gladstone is the first Native American to be nominated in the Best Actress category. A win would likewise be historic.

The film also received historic nods for its music, which featured Indigenous artists. Osage Nation member Scott George received the first Native American nomination for Best Song, while the late composer Robbie Robertson, whose mother was Cayuga and Mohawk, is believed to be the first Indigenous person nominated for Best Original Score. Robertson died in August 2023.

The social satire American Fiction also garnered a nominating first: Never before have two Black men from the same film received acting nods. Stars Jeffrey Wright and Sterling K Brown are honoured in the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories, respectively.

Colman Domingo, the star of the civil rights biopic Rustin, made history as well, becoming the first Afro-Latino man to score a Best Actor nod.

This year also marks the first time three woman-directed films landed Best Picture recognition. They include Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, Celine Song’s Past Lives and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie.

Lilly Gladstone
Lily Gladstone starred in Killers of the Flower Moon as Mollie Kyle, an Osage woman whose family starts to die in a series of murders [Apple TV via AP Photo]

What was the biggest snub?

Barbie may have been a story of feminist awakening for its titular doll, but the film’s fans have criticised the Academy voters for showing no such awareness on their part.

The biggest box office hit of the year, Barbie was snubbed in the Best Director and Best Actress categories, despite previous recognition in those domains at the Golden Globes.

Director Greta Gerwig and star Margot Robbie had both generated significant buzz for their roles in the film, too: Gerwig, for instance, became the first woman to direct a billion-dollar film.

Robbie, however, could still receive Oscar gold as a producer if Barbie wins Best Picture — a long shot, but not impossible.

But while the women at the helm of the film got relatively little Oscar love, Barbie’s male lead, Ryan Gosling, earned a nod for Best Supporting Actor. He addressed the apparent snub in February with a statement supporting Robbie and Gerwig.

“There is no Ken without Barbie,” he wrote. “And there is no Barbie movie without Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie, the two people most responsible for this history-making, globally-celebrated film.”

Margot Robbie dances in a disco-like setting in Barbie
Barbie’s Margot Robbie was snubbed in the Oscars’ leading actress category [Warner Bros Pictures/AP Photo]

What protests are expected this year?

As stars parade down the red carpet at this year’s Oscars, protesters are expected to gather on Los Angeles’s Sunset Boulevard to demonstrate against Israel’s war in Gaza — and remind viewers of the devastation occurring simultaneously in cities like Rafah.

The film Oppenheimer has likewise prompted some backlash, particularly with its depiction of the first successful atomic bomb test in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Some viewers have criticised the film for failing to portray the long-term devastation Japan experienced as a result of the bomb. Others hope the film’s prominence at the Oscars can help shine a light on the New Mexico residents who suffered radiation exposure as a result of the tests, many of them Hispanic and Indigenous.

Tina Cordova, a cancer survivor who grew up near the test site, told the AFP news agency she felt stories like hers were largely ignored.

“They knew about us when they made the film,” she told the news agency. “They just chose to ignore us again.”

The Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) also launched a campaign in the days leading up to the Oscars ceremony, entitled “For Your Consideration: Make Nukes History”, leveraging the attention Oppenheimer received. It published a letter in the Los Angeles Times calling for nuclear disarmament, with signatures from actors like Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, Emma Thompson and Lily Tomlin.

NEw MExico
Local residents stand near the entrance of White Sands Missile Range where the Trinity test site is located, near White Sands, New Mexico [Valerie Macon/AFP]

Who is hosting?

The notoriously thankless job has again gone to comedian Jimmy Kimmel. It will be his fourth time hosting.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Kimmel said he did not plan to use overtly political material, despite the US facing a heated election year.

“It’s not really the focus of the Oscars. It doesn’t mean I won’t have a joke or two about it. But it’s not really my goal to invoke the name of he-who-shall-not-be-named at the Oscars,” Kimmel said, in an apparent reference to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

When are this year’s Oscars?

The Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 10, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. The ceremony is set to begin at 7pm Eastern Time (22 GMT), an hour earlier than usual.

How can I watch?

The ceremony will be broadcast live on the ABC network and on live TV streaming platforms in the US.

The Academy also has international listings here.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies