Leo, the Bear and the Confounding Oscar Race of 2016

4 minute read

Did you hear the one about Leonardo DiCaprio being sexually violated in The Revenant–by a bear? The one Jonah Hill mocked at the Golden Globes and the Onion lampooned with the headline “Leonardo DiCaprio Hopes He Screamed and Cried Good Enough in The Revenant to Win Oscar”? The one the Drudge Report said was true and 20th Century Fox (accurately) said was false, but got the star more buzz than 10 Kardashians locked in a Room? In the 2016 Oscar race, truth and fabrication grapple like actors and bears, and attention is always welcome–unless it’s to point out that for the first time in 36 years, no actors of color were nominated for two years running.

It has been a strange Oscar season. Before the late-breaking Revenant took a commanding lead in January with 12 nominations, Spotlight seemed the smart-money bet (it got six), while The Big Short strong-armed its way to the front (it got five). The Revenant was touted as a grueling, arduous endeavor that deserved an Oscar because it was a grueling, arduous endeavor. Then came the fatuous bear rumor, which is the kind of thing movie marketers can’t buy. Though many would like to try.

You’ll see them on Oscar night, Feb. 28, scuttling on the red carpet with clipboards, cutting off interviews, waiting for Mad Max: Fury Road (10 noms) to upset or Spotlight to make journalism hip again. Theirs is a single-minded enterprise with real-world rewards, but there’s no magic formula, says Rebecca Fisher of PR firm PMK-BNC. “We thought we were safe with Carol,” she says of one film she promoted. Director Todd Haynes’ drama showed early strength among critics and garnered six nods, including Best Actress (Cate Blanchett) and Best Supporting Actress (Rooney Mara), but was left out of the Best Picture and Best Director categories.

That must have annoyed Carol executive producer Harvey Weinstein, known as the William Tecumseh Sherman of scorched-earth Oscar lobbying. He was also bucking for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, which earned just three nods–and not even Tarantino’s usual chit for Best Original Screenplay. The various whisper campaigns gleefully attributed to Weinstein over the years–like those against Saving Private Ryan and The Pianist–may amount to a whisper campaign all their own, but what Hollywood really seems to abhor is Weinstein’s having done to the Oscars what Citizens United did to politics. (He declined through a representative to comment for this story). Wags have pilloried Weinstein for using deep pockets to chase awards, but this year’s big-spender rap may be hung on Netflix, which ran TV ads for its nonfiction features. It paid off: What Happened, Miss Simone? and Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom are both up for Best Documentary.

While 2016 hasn’t been notable for dirty tricks–unlike 2010, when the Academy barred from the ceremony a producer of The Hurt Locker after an email campaign zinged Avatar’s huge budget–someone is always gaming the system, says Steven Raphael, who helped land Theeb a Best Foreign Film nomination. “If you look at the [Golden] Globes,” he says, “The Martian being nominated as a comedy is obviously a studio marketing department strategizing. At the end of the day, everybody was happy and The Martian got its profile raised,” winning Best Actor (Matt Damon) and Best Picture in the comedy or musical category. Now it has seven Academy nominations, including Best Actor and Best Picture. You may not be able to buy an Oscar, but it’s a bear market for filmmakers who won’t work to boost their odds.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com