Editor's note: Fawn Lebowitz is an executive in the motion picture industry writing under a pseudonym. Fawn's opinions don't always reflect those of the staff of BIRTH. MOVIES. DEATH., but we do think the thoughts of an insider deep within the system are always illuminating and interesting.
It’s been well documented that there is something rotten with the Academy Awards and how they recognize achievement in motion pictures. The uproar got so loud that the Academy’s Board of Directors made what they claimed were significant changes. In a supposedly unanimous vote they looked to force out older members with the hope that a younger Academy will allow more actors of color to receive recognition. The vote was done quickly and without input from the wider Academy. Not good.
But the real question is whether this will have any actual effect on the voting results. The board put in rather large loopholes allowing automatic life memberships to folks who have been working “actively” for a thirty year block or have been nominated. Also it seems questionable to assume that just because a member isn’t active (with the assumption being they are old), they aren’t voting for people of color. Considering 12 Years a Slave won multiple awards just two years ago, including awards for its black producer/director, writer and supporting actress, it’s not logical to assume this. In fact, it may be downright stupid of the board to approach a fix in this manner, even more when you consider this was already attempted by the Academy more than forty years ago.
I think the point we are trying to make isn’t capability but tendencies, and it’s wrong to exclude a group based on tendencies as every voting member has them and they are unique to each individual. Therefore, it seems prudent to focus on what affects the Academy’s tendencies and how to work with the aspects the Academy can control. Until this is addressed, the voting body will continue to face questions about how they award merit.
Let’s start by identifying the Academy’s biggest problem: they don't watch very many movies. This is the organization our culture has trusted to evaluate the best of the best in a given year and the truth is they flat out don’t watch enough films to truly evaluate what the best really is. Given that the Academy and their viewing habits have zero transparency we don’t know what their actual viewing habits are, but we can be aware of trends in the results of the voting. For example, if we just look at the top eight categories over the past few years since the Academy moved beyond just five nominees for Best Picture, a picture emerges of their viewing habits.
Each year, around 300 films are eligible out of the thousands that are released, and the Academy recognizes merit in an average of seventeen of them. Again, we don’t actually know how many they watch, but the fact that 45 films are potentially possible to be nominated in the top eight categories (ten for best picture + five for best director, actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress and original and adapted screenplay (35) = 45) but only seventeen find representation suggests extremely selective viewing habits by the voting members.
Why they don’t watch enough movies to fairly judge the pinnacle of the greatest is likely due to a number of factors: the influence of PR campaigns, the concentration of studio-backed “Oscar-bait” films in the last two months of each year, and the cost of mounting an effective awards campaign likely being the most important ones.
So, what is the solution?
#1 – All Academy voting members must watch a minimum of 100 films each year to vote in a given year. That’s two a week, which does not seem like a huge burden on an organization we are asking to be the arbiters of quality.
#2 – Immediately move to a digital system of viewing and voting. As soon as a movie is released, a digital, HD copy is available for each member via iTunes (which iTunes already provides to the academy for all nominated films) that can be watched at home securely through an Academy-provided Apple TV. After each viewing, the Academy member logs into a secure site and rates the film on a scale of 1-10 (the system will allow changing of votes at any time as all our opinions change over time). This improves a few issues. One, it allows films vying for awards to be released any time of the year which spreads the “burden” of watching 100 films a year over twelve months. Second, it reduces the cost of award campaigns as the film is only delivering a digital copy of the film to Apple. It’s important to note that the in-theater screening program should remain intact with the important exception of…
#3 – No marketing or PR campaigns toward academy members are allowed. Period. No awards publicists can be hired for films. No event screenings with aspects used to entice voters. Academy members are not allowed at PR events during the film’s release. Films are still given a dedicated in-theater screening for the academy for members that wish to see films in theaters, but no talent is allowed at these screenings. Additionally, any member of the Academy’s PR branch who is working on the film’s PR campaign during its actual release cannot vote that year. While the desire here is not to exclude academy members from voting, we cannot ignore the culture that has been built around awards season where multiple awards groups give out awards and publicists directly benefit financially if a film they manage gets nominated, shortlisted, or wins. This is a direct conflict of interest in trying to determine the highest quality film vs the most popular film, so there is a need to curtail the influence of PR campaigns on what the Academy votes on.
These first three proposals aim to focus on merit. We all understand quality is subjective. Everyone has their own opinions and there are no set criteria about what the best is. By forcing the Academy to watch more films, by spreading the voting period over the whole year and by eliminating PR campaigns for any film, we will see a greater range of films getting recognized.
However, the outrage over the last week has been over diversity. Now ideally, a wider range of films being considered for Oscars would naturally allow for more minorities to get nominations (Tangerine comes to mind as a film with less than $1mil box office that was likely ignored by Academy voters but did receive substantial awards buzz). However, there is a prevailing sentiment that the Academy is biased towards white men, and several years ago the Academy instituted an outreach to recruit more progressive members and more people of color. Recently, they’ve committed to double the number of women and minorities over the next five years.
I’ve stated previously that the belief the Academy is inherently racist is dubious and I used the example of 12 Years a Slave getting multiple nominations and awards just two years ago. So it seemed that both the Academy’s outreach was working and the Academy was capable of awarding films that focused on minorities and their stories. But the last two years of zero acting nominations for people of color suggest those efforts are not working fast enough. In fact, if one looks at the trend over the Oscars' lifetime in the acting category, it does appear that acting nominations were trending towards more diversity (again, with basically the same voting block) with the peak occurring ten years ago, but then we can see a rather sharp decline.
Now the recent downward trend is really being driven by the last two years, and you can see a similar period of zero nominations in 1995 and 1997-1998. The Academy reversed this trend with the most diverse nominations in its history fairly quickly. So the question is, can the Academy repeat this or are more drastic measures required? Knowing the pressure is mounting for something more than just words, let’s put some changes in place that guarantee results.
#4 – Create a new category: Best Female Director with five nominees. While the recent diversity conversation has been focused on people of color, the widespread conversation throughout the industry in 2015 was female filmmakers and the lack of women directing studio films. Extending the same thinking that has a separate category for acting, giving women a new category for excellence in directing ensures five women each year get deserved recognition, and that has the added benefit of getting more women more director’s chairs. Imagine movies like Mustang or Babadook or Beyond the Lights getting nominated for best director? Not only are these movies getting the awareness they deserve but it improves the career path for their directors.
#5a –One nominee in all acting, directing and writing categories must include a person of color. This proposal is inspired by the NFL’s successful “Rooney Rule” that was instituted to fix the lack of NFL head coaches that were minorities in a league that was overwhelmingly composed of black football players. The Rooney Rule insists that every NFL team with a head coach vacancy must interview at least one minority candidate. Here, we are exchanging an interview with a nomination slot. Simply, if no person of color receives a nomination, then the eligible person of color with the highest votes bumps out the person who received the fifth highest votes
#5b – An executive committee for each acting, directing and writing category has the authority to place a minority in a given category if no person of color is nominated in that category. This mimics the foreign language branch’s executive committee which has the authority to place up to three films of the foreign language short list and one nominee in the five finalists. The foreign language executive committee was created when several non-English speaking films that were widely awarded in international festivals were ignored by the foreign language group (most notably Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days). The similar situation has emerged here, so maybe the same fix can be implemented.
These five suggestions, working with the Academy’s plan to diversify their membership, would help improve the chances that merit is rewarded instead of popularity and the individual categories are more reflective of both our culture and the world. The Academy is right in thinking that they shouldn’t wait for the industry to fully embrace diversity, but they shouldn’t wait and should make even more dramatic changes.