Rachel Zegler at the EE British Academy Film Awards 2022 in London, England.
Karwai Tang/WireImage
March 21, 2022 3:12 PM EDT

Over the weekend, social media users were shocked to learn that Rachel Zegler, the co-lead of West Side Story, wasn’t invited to the Oscars. While West Side Story was nominated seven times, including for Best Picture, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ (AMPAS) seemingly didn’t have room for her: “I have tried it all but it doesn’t seem to be happening,” she wrote on Instagram.

On Tuesday, however, the Hollywood Reporter reported Zegler was invited to be a presenter at the ceremony following the backlash. Still, many questions lingered over how the leading lady of one of the most celebrated films of the year was initially unable to score a ticket.

Zegler’s predicament is a function of both an unusual year and a long history of intense competition and internal politics revolving around Hollywood’s biggest night. An annual process rife with backdoor dealing and hurt egos has been exacerbated by restrictions due to the ever-lingering pandemic.

The Oscars invite process is overseen by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ (AMPAS) Membership and Awards team, which works to fill each seat of the Dolby Theater’s 3,300 capacity. This year, however, only 2,500 to 2,600 of those seats will be filled in order to promote social distancing. (The audience will also be required to show proof of vaccination against the coronavirus and at least two negative PCR tests.) The 800-seat deficit means that ticket allotments are squeezed across the board. The annual lottery, which Academy members can sign up for in the hopes of winning a ticket, has also been scrapped.

The first invites go to the nominees themselves, who get a pair of tickets for each nomination they’ve received. Jane Campion, for instance, is nominated three times—for writing, directing, and producing Power of the Dog—so she gets six tickets. With regards to Best Picture nominations, the only people from those movies who get individual invites from the Academy itself are the producers listed on the Academy’s website. For West Side Story, that means Steven Spielberg and Kristie Macosko Krieger and their plus ones.

Given that there are approximately 216 individual nominees this year, that’s about 432 tickets gone right off the bat. Then each presenter and performer gets a pair, as do various other related entities: slots for the show’s broadcast network ABC, the telecast’s sponsors, the production team, and media.

After that, the Academy cleans its hands of the decision-making process by handing out to each studio blocks of tickets that are roughly proportional to the nominations they’ve received. (In a 2018 Los Angeles Times article, however, indie studios complain that major studios often receive more tickets than they mathematically deserve.) This year, Disney has a slew of nominations across its subsidiaries—including for West Side Story, Nightmare Alley, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye—so it would have the opportunity to invite cast and production members from each of those productions as they see fit. That block of tickets also might be used on executives or other significant figures inside the organization.

But Zegler was apparently not among those chosen by Disney to attend. A representative for Disney did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Six years ago, a similar controversy emerged when the cast for Straight Outta Compton, which depicts the rise of the rap group N.W.A., did not receive invites to the ceremony; only the film’s white writers who were nominated for Best Original Screenplay were invited. At the time, an Academy spokesperson deflected responsibility: “The Academy invites the nominees only, and each studio gets a limited ticket allotment, based on the number of nominated films, to use at their discretion. It has been this way for decades,” the spokesperson told People.

Meanwhile, the competition to snag an Oscars ticket is only getting more intense. The AMPAS has grown significantly over the last few years in response to criticisms about its lack of diversity: it now has some 9,400 members, up more than 3,000 from just five years ago. It was already very hard for even high-profile Academy members to get a seat: Rosie Perez, for example, has complained about not being able to attend the Oscars since her nomination in 1994. So whether or not Zegler shows up, it’s likely that these sorts of skirmishes will continue to play out in the years to come.

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