MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

20 Weeks To Oscar: The Race & Race – Part 2: Four Suggestions To “Fix” The Academy

So… if The Academy needs to change, how can it be most effectively changed?

There are all kinds of theories. I find that most of them are random and hope that A + B = C, but have no empirical evidence to suggest that it actually will. It is the perverse nature of life and free will that causes reverse engineering to fail in most attempts to achieve specific intended goals.

Many at The Academy thought that expanding the Best Picture nominees from 5 to 10 would create a place for quality films with bigger box office that might boost the award show ratings. And indeed, it left space for animated nominees Up and Toy Story 3 and an exceptional action film (District 9). But mostly, it turned one of the consistent dynamics of Academy voting – the need for a certain level of box office success – into a non-issue. Instantly.

In the 10 seasons prior to the expansion, the #1 or #2 box office grosser had won ever single year. When The Hurt Locker, which grossed only $17 million, won Best Picture, it seemed like a fluke. But it turned out to be the new normal.

There has been no Best Picture winner since then that has ranked higher than #4 in grosses amongst the nominees. (This bodes well for The Big Short or Spotlight.)

There will be an exception. It could happen any year. But the trend shifted. And it shifted in a way that no one saw coming.

The Academy made another change to the Best Picture system in 2011. Instead of having 10 Best Picture nominees, the number would be determined by a complicated system that kept films without a certain amount of the most passionate support from being nominated. Pretty much everyone aside from The Academy sees this system as a disaster. But the Academy has kept it, leading to 9 Picture nominees for three seasons and 8 nominees in the last two seasons.

It’s hard to say exactly what the result of this shift was, except that no animated film has made the cut in the five seasons since the change and while the top grosser of the year made the cut in those first two years of 10 nominees, only American Sniper has made it since (and in that case, it only became the top grosser after the Oscars had been presented.)

Unintended consequences.

So if you believe that Star Wars: The Force Awakens would get the Oscar show better ratings and you want that, go back to a flat 10 immediately.

In terms of race, it is hard to make a clear line through these last five seasons. In the 10 seasons prior to the change, there had been one film nominated for Best Picture with a black lead, Ray. Asians led Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Letters from Iwo Jima and there were multicultural casts in Traffic, Crash and Babel.

Since 2009, we have seen films with black leads nominated in 2009 (Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire), 2011 (The Help), 2012 (Beasts of the Southern Wild), 2013 (12 Years a Slave), and 2014 (Selma).

In the “off” year of 2010, there was only one acting nominee of color, Javier Bardem and there were no other representatives of a film connected to any people of color in directing, writing, or acting.

Looking through the last 7 expanded seasons, another reality has been that the films that have made it to Best Picture are mostly from former nominees or very well established first-time nominees. There seems to be room for a film by a couple new directors most seasons. These have been Neill Blomkamp, Lone Scherfig, and Lee Daniels (2008), Tom Hooper and Debra Granik (2009), Michel Hazanavicius and Tate Taylor (2010), Benh Zeitlin (2011), and Jean-Marc Vallée (2013). Last season, we had Morten Tyldum, Ava DuVernay, and Damien Chazelle’s films all find Best Picture slots. Only 4 of these 12 directors got nominated, never more than one in a season. Two of those 4 won the prize.

And this season, we had three “new” filmmakers in Adam McKay, Lenny Abrahamson and John Crowley, all of whom are actually veteran filmmakers and all of whom didn’t have any kind of awards profile in Hollywood before their films this year. Amazingly, two of them got Best Director slots.

My point is, the door seemed to be a little more open this year than it has been in the past five… yet not for director-co-writer Ryan Coogler and Creed.

In any case, this is where we are… the third season in the last 6 without a “black” film or black actor nominated.

That was background… here is the foreground. Three small but perhaps important suggestions about how to “fix” the problem at The Academy. And then one last suggestion that I think may actually be the most actionable and helpful of the lot.

1. Expanding Back To 10 Nominees – This is something I advocate based on the basic argument of clarity. There is no upside to having 8 or 9 nominees instead of 10. No one is judging based on that. Some would prefer to go back to a flat five. But that is a different conversation.

Would this expansion help get more people of color into the mix? Well, we had one year of 10 when there was more representation and one year where there was none, like this year.

If there were 10 Best Picture nominees this year, would one of the two additions have been Creed or Straight Outta Brooklyn or Beasts of No Nation? No one, except the accountants, know the answer to this. Sicario and Ex Machina were the other 2 PGA nominees, aside from Compton, that didn’t get Best Picture nominations. There is also Carol, which many expected to be nominated, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which some thought could be nominated (but as noted earlier, statistically unlikely), and even less likely, Inside Out and Ex Machina. And who knows what else could have popped up unexpectedly, from Steve Jobs to Son of Saul?

I think there is a good chance that one of the two studio movies would have gotten in with 10 slots.

2. Changing Voting Rights Of Current Members Based On Age Or Ongoing Employment – I could not be more against this. To start, there is no proof of any kind that older members are responsible for the vote going any particular way. We can all think of our grandparents and make assumptions, but that would be yet another bias added to a conversation about bias.

Also, who gets to define “work?” If you have been trying to get a script made for a decade, have you been working or not?

What is the actual goal of taking the right to vote out of the hands of people who earned the right to be Academy members (whether you personally approve or not)? Is it because there is some moral determination to see a better Academy or is it just in the hope – with no evidence it will change anything – that the vote will come out in a way that would make many people more comfortable?

And who, really, are we trying to get rid of? Though some glibly claim that large percentages of members are unworthy hangers-on, I have not seen evidence, documented or experiential, of this.

How deeply ironic would it be for those seeking to enfranchise a community that doesn’t feel it has a full place at the Academy table doing it by disenfranchising others?

I don’t have a problem with a rule taking the vote away from members who do not vote. But that should be the rule already. And obviously, if they are not voting, they are not causing the vote to go any which way.

3. Academy Regains Control Of Phase I – What we call “Phase I” is the period of campaigning before Oscar nominations close. It’s about 4 months long these days. And The Academy has taken a laissez-faire attitude towards it for years now.

There are debates about what The Academy can control or cannot control. History tells us that though people will always seek to push the limits, they will tend to stay within the rules if The Academy does its job and enforces its will… not its law (especially in an era when SCOTUS says corporations are people). But The Academy can make an angry face and send people scurrying. This is a game of perception. No media outlet wants to lose access. And no studio wants to be publicly accused of cheating just to feed another free meal to members. Suggestions by The Academy have the effect of law.

I would disallow sponsored – meaning, revenue producing – screenings… period. If Variety or LAT or The Wrap wants to do a screening series to pump up their ego, great. No making money on it. In fact, I wouldn’t even let the studios pay for the space. If the studio is paying for the space, they can hire whatever moderator they want. It should not be a commercial event.

And The Academy should screen more. A lot more. Big official Academy screenings aside, they own the Linwood Dunn on Vine. They should make a deal with Aero in Santa Monica and and maybe the Fine Arts in Beverly Hills or a screen in one or two of the Arclights and run full day schedules of contending movies for the entire months of October, November, and December. Play hookie, go during lunch, come from work, go at night or on the weekends… but have The Academy become the source – not just the peripheral beneficiary – of screening all these movies. Create community. Create consistency. Make it about the movies.

Deadline’s The Contenders… out. It is nothing but a marketing event and, again, another way of a media company using Academy members to generate profits. Moreover, it is a drain on every studio, which jump through the hoops because they don’t want to miss being a part of something, even if it gives them the smallest edge. Media must stop driving the process of the season.

That said, there should be a Contenders weekend… in January, controlled by The Academy. Whether it is the nominees or a shortlist, imagine a day with talent from all parts of a given film, coming together to talk about the work. Maybe do it around The Globes… one day before and one day after. Videotape it for membership and the world. The idea of all of this is to promote movies and the love of movies, right?

Fewer parties in Phase I. They put a cap on Phase II parties and events. Do the same in Phase I (and loosen the cap in Phase II, where the competition is more focused).

If you want the field to be more even, then even the field. Don’t allow it to be about who can spend the most, hire the most extravagant room, etc. You have to allow for creativity, but The Academy should also be working to widen the door on the event side too.

This may cost some money. The Academy makes money renting out their theaters, for instance. But if this is really important, drop a million dollars a year – if it costs anywhere near that – to take back control of the season. It is an investment in the future.

4. Create A Best Picture Short List – This is what I think is the best idea I have considered in the last week or so of lingering on this. I have discussed it with some Academy members, who have offered suggestions and poked holes in some of the details. No question, there are still holes. But there is something here that creates inclusion, but does not demand exclusion as a price.

On the dates when The Academy now votes for all categories – last week of December, first days of January – every Academy voter is asked to vote only for Best Picture. Top 5. Straight weighted ballot count. (#1 = 5 pts, etc)

From that vote, select the top 17 movies of the year. In addition, like the Foreign Language Committee, set up a Gold Star Committee (President, CEO, three Governors) that can add three more films the night before the announcement that the committee feels were wrongly excluded. Never, ever tell anyone which ones were added by the Gold Star Committee.

Announce the shortlist with a ton of fanfare. Here is The Academy’s Top 20 for the year.

Screen all 20 movies in the course of two weeks, one each weeknight, two on Saturdays, three on Sundays. (slotting by lottery) Encourage studios to plan for this and have Academy-run Q&As for each.

Two weeks later, the second round of voting occurs. Best Picture again, perhaps weighted as it is now, perhaps not (I prefer not). And, of course, all the branch-voted categories.

Then, sometime on the last week of January, announce the nominees… same as they do now. Vote two or three weeks later.

Welcome to the 3-Phase Academy season.

In this way, you have an Academy-voted/sanctioned short list that has a safety valve for inclusion, not just regarding race, but perhaps gender, foreign language pictures, docs, animations… anything.

If in a year like this one, Straight Outta Compton and/or Creed and/or Beasts of No Nation gets in to the 17 short list, so be it. The committee might add an Inside Out or an Ex Machina or a Son of Saul. Or the vote and Gold Star Committee might leave something out that still upsets some people. This is likely.

Whatever movies are left out, there will be complaining. But this could offer a mechanism that pushes aside the distraction of what tends to be a 50 film race and also gives branch members a chance to refocus on all the work with an Academy-driven reminder of work they might want to consider if it isn’t top of mind.

Instead of allowing the December “precursors” to remain the mechanism that causes The Great Settling each year, create an Academy mechanism to do the same thing. Remember, very few people really thought Straight Outta Compton was getting a Best Picture nod until SAG voted it in for Best Ensemble (and no individual nominations). The PGA nomination then confirmed it for some more people. But The Academy’s only word on the film was, “nominee or not a nominee.” (And please note… this is not a comment on the quality or box office of the film, but a simple truth of the award season. The subtext can be further argued elsewhere.)

And I don’t see this as a step of tokenism because no one knows who got the extra boost from the Gold Star Committee, but everyone knows what films made it to the Shortlist. It’s a primary. And not just for Best Picture, but as an extension, for all the other nominations that may be part of those films.

One problem that was brought up to me was that films not on the Shortlist might feel hamstrung in terms of other categories, like acting or screenwriting. And yes, there is a reality to that. But every year, there are nominees in these categories who are not Best Picture nominees. This is another hurdle, though I don’t think it is so significant as to turn a likely nominee into an also-ran. And of course, movies like – this year – 45 Years or Trumbo, might well make the Top 20 while they didn’t make the Top 8 this year.

The point of all of this is to celebrate films. So celebrate 20 films before you celebrate 10 (or 8 or 9 or whatever, if they insist on keeping the current system for nominations). All 20 films will feel like they were legitimate parts of the conversation. Then… when the final 10 are announced… people will still be pissed… but there will be a sense of forward motion.

As for potentials complaints about the Gold Star Committee… personally, I don’t care what they select. If they want to pick all foreign films or all black films or all women’s films or all White Guy films… all fine by me. I am looking for ways to create an opportunity for inclusion and I choose to trust the leadership of The Academy to act in the organization’s self-interest. Ultimately, the nominations will still be decided by a vote of Academy members, as it should be.

Does it change the shape of the season? Yes. Does it matter if the Oscars are never moving much earlier than the last week of February? It does not. In fact, it would give The Academy a bigger, clearer footprint on the season and slow the whole thing down a little.

No matter what changes are made, the responsibility for inclusion in Hollywood is not on The Academy… it is on the industry. Whether it is more films about people of color or more films about women or so many films of so many cultures, this conversation ceases to be needed.

Burning down this institution will not save this institution. A firmer hand at the wheel and some new structures to make the playing field less driven by commercial considerations over the artistic will help.

If you have ideas of your own, please feel free to e-mail me at poland@moviecitynews.com. If there are enough interesting ideas, I will do a follow-up column before the Governors meet on Tuesday, January 26.

Thank you for your attention. I hope we can all find a way to refocus the Oscar conversation back to the celebration of film without pushing the legitimate concerns about inequity to the side, forgotten until the next explosive event.

21 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: The Race & Race – Part 2: Four Suggestions To “Fix” The Academy”

  1. Maura says:

    I very much agree with you, but Javier Bardem is not a person of color.

  2. Kevin says:

    Jean-Marc Vallée didn’t get a nomination.

    EDIT: I re-read and I guess you mean that his film did, which is true.

  3. Daniella Isaacs says:

    Your #4 actually seems like a very good idea. It’s either that or double the size of the Academy and only add minorities or hip young minority-friendly types, which would, of course, be at least as hard to get through or harder. Of course, there should be new blood in the membership, but that alone, unless done on a huge scale, isn’t guaranteed to change anything.

  4. Molly's Dad says:

    David. I chime in here rarely. But you and I (using my real name) have communicated on Twitter several times. Just wanted to join in from the perspective of a WGA writer in New York City. One of my closest friends here is an Academy member. He has been telling me of how he has had no life to speak of for November and December except going to Oscar P.R. meet and greets, screenings, cocktail parties, dinner parties, luncheons, dessert parties, tea parties, Q and A’s, champagne parties at the Rainbow Room and The Monkey Bar, and get-togethers at every small New York club & screening room you can possibly imagine. He has met all of the players, famous and not. He has been glared at by Leo’s bodyguards and had private conversations with Quentin. He has been wined and dined, given nice gifts and has personal friendships with several Oscar winners. He will attest to your statement that Stage One is now totally, completely and utterly out of control. I’m sure he would support your suggestions. There is one more thing I have heard from him after his last two months of non-stop movie going and screenings. He is a white guy, in his mid-fifties, gay and a naturalized citizen. I asked him what he thought of the #OscarSoWhite campaign. His response was that most Oscar voters in New York felt: 1) CREED was a boring, tiresome retread of ROCKY. Neither he nor his voter friends felt the lead actor in the film or Sylvester Stallone was worth nominating for an acting award; 2) STRAIGHT OUT OF COMPTON was a terrific movie but none of the performers in the film particularly stood out. He also felt it was odd that the only COMPTON nomination went to white writers; 3) BEASTS OF NO NATION was brilliant but so horrific and violent that many of the Academy voters couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Idris Elba or the film itself; 4) CONCUSSION was a mediocre film with an okay lead performance which would have worked better on HBO; and 4) he hadn’t even heard of Spike Lee’s CHI-RAQ. My buddy also said that getting more mainstream films about people of color made by major studios is about as likely as getting more mainstream films made about women, people over the age of 40, or people with disabilities. As we’ve seen in the past few years, cable and network prime time TV are often where the best filmmaking and acting is being done, where the most interesting stories are being told and where we are more likely to see characters who aren’t male, white and/or privileged. This is especially true for women in television. Even the three Oscar Best Picture frontrunners barely have women in them unless they are quick cameos by unhappy (and Oscar-winning) wives and accountants (THE BIG SHORT), dead Native American wives (THE REVENANT) and a very smart perky reporter who somehow managed to make it into into the finished film (SPOTLIGHT). In a world where most of what we see in movie theaters now are super heroes sequels and reboots, dumb comedies and remakes of every size and shape, I’m actually grateful the Academy still exists. If it weren’t for “Oscar bait” films, what on earth would we grown-ups have to go see, besides foreign films and indies? Please continue your campaign to help fix the Oscars. As nutty and aggravating as they’ve become, they are still worth having around.

  5. Bob Burns says:

    I entirely agree with making the process more professional. Even so if they continue to privilege whites and nominate white slates they will continue to be racist.

    The problem is casting and hiring decisions. The people making these decisions are not faceless suits; they are real people with names, filmmakers who appear in DP30 interviews. It’s racist to ignore the lily white choices they make in the selection of their projects and the people they work with.

    It’s easy to be racist, even when one has not acted with intentional prejudice or malice. Hollywood has contributed to a ridiculous stereotype of a racist. People, including filmmakers can assure themselves that they are not racist because they are not like the stereotype they have fostered, an angry white southern man. Now, they are also the stereotype of a racist. It’s up to them to demonstrate that they are not racist, not just in their personal/political lives, but in their professional choices.

    Hollywood openly practices “tokenism” all the time, every day and in every way, on every project. Why is “tokenism” suddenly bad when it might benefit blacks?

  6. va says:

    Re your #4 and suggested method of a short list.
    I don’t think a short list based on a weighted vote is good idea. A single first place vote should not out-rank four fifth place votes.
    This is especially the case in an industry where people know and work for each other. A ‘big’ movie with many voters in the cast and crew would likely have an advantage in getting first place votes. If voters name five films, they could be counted without ranking or weighting thus reducing the bias in voting for movies they are connected to.

  7. Pietro says:

    This is a very thought provoking proposal that bears very close scrutiny and wide discussion.

    What I find missing, however, is an acknowledgment that the Short List should seek to represent the best films made during the year. It seems in the current public discussion that this is not a the goal. Instead, the conversation wants to virtually mandate that certain films must be represented and, if they are not, the process is suspect and discriminatory. Would anyone apply this stricture to the Nobel Prizes? And in the acting categories, are nominees undeserving if they do not mirror the larger society?

    When the Oscar becomes just another Equal Opportunity exercise for any minority group, however aggrieved, it loses its stature, credibility and importance.

    Let us always have strong views about nominees and about those that failed to make the final cut. This is a significant part of the fun and the passion of caring about the Oscars. Yes, there may be bruised feelings when a worthy effort is overlooked, but there is always tomorrow.

  8. Glamourboy says:

    Dave, for once I absolutely agree with you. The Best Picture short list is something they should absolutely do.

    Molly’s Dad, also a great assessment of the black-themed films that didn’t get in. I have a few friends who are Oscar voters who said pretty much the same thing about those films.

    Another thought that has been lost is the bias against gay and lesbian films–Carol not getting a picture nomination was just heartbreaking…and Todd Haynes, a queer, master filmmaker NEVER gets oscar love. Tangerine, one of the top rated films of the year didn’t get anything, even though it was easy to find–being on Netflix during the entire Oscar voting season.

  9. Movielocke says:

    Hollywood should embrace the Hamilton principle and not allow films like spotlight or big short to be so white and male in their casting decisions. Hamilton shows us the future of casting by looking to the past and not giving a. Fuck about the accuracy of skin color, films should do the same, no one gives a fuck about how much prettier all actors are in “accurate” casting, why should degree of melanin or possession of a penis matter when portraying George Washington, some Wall Street dude or a Boston reporter? Star Wars, snubbed by the academy, is the Blockbuster of the future with its diverse casting and leads. I’m sure it had been whiter and Maler it would have been nominated (sarcasm).

    But in terms of the academy, good breakdown. I think from the buzz that’s come out of the academy meeting about ten nominees that we can assume that they’ve been informed that under the ten nominee system one of the nominees would have been straight out of Compton or creed (like blind side, only two nominations). Probably Compton as it is has the higher awards profile and more passion. And they’ve probably also been informed the tenth nominee would have been Star Wars.

    I like the idea of limiting phase one, I think your shortlist needs to be bigger than twenty to allow space for docs and foreign films. Twenty five at least, thirty would be better to try to limit the unintended consequences of all down ballot nominations in the non tech three categories accruing to only shortlisted films. Again search engine optimization, no one outside the shortlist will ever get a nomination of you focus the field this much with a shortlist. Oscars so white may decide that the shortlist is just a restrictive housing covenant of it results in making it harder for people of color to make it in by the films within the shortlist get even whiter.

    But if a shortlist is bigger than twenty you’re fundamentally changing the season, Christmas Hanukkah and thanksgiving limit what you can do in the final six weeks of the year, and three weeks of screening in January sounds exhausting, and trying to screen before thanksgiving could easily exclude a ton of December releases, or force distributors into putting a film out before it’s finished. Ideally, you could have November dedicated to screenings, announce a shortlist in mid December and nominations in January. Once the pattern sets, post and shooting schedules will adapt within a few years to delivering for early November screenings to make it in time for the shortlist.

    Btw, I really agree about more academy screenings, the dga is nonstop, and the academy should do at least as much.

  10. LemonSauce says:

    Lots of interesting ideas, I look forward to the follow-up.

  11. Glamourboy says:

    yeah, no one gets that excited about gay and lesbian diversity or Oscar nominations.

  12. Jim Gladstone says:

    Shortlist? Aren’t you actually suggesting the addition of a Longlist. The model of say, The Booker Prize, is to announce a Longlist, then reduce it to a Shortlist (the nominees), and finally choose a winner. Semantics? Yes, but 20 is a mighty long list.

  13. Ben K says:

    A racial quota system for nominees. LOL. Excellence is color blind. The Academy should say that and move on. The host is black. The Academy President is too. This racist crap is just that. Crap. It’s been done to death and no one with any common sense buys it. Michael B Jordan was good but did racism play a part in his not getting a nom? Seriously? People buy that?

    Voters vote for the best. White. Black. Yellow. Etc. The PC world is out of control. Most people see thru the BS especially in 2016.

  14. va says:

    Are Native Americans so invisible in US society that they are not even mentioned when people talk about being inclusive? This is sad and strange when the western is a so much a part of American film history?

  15. Daniella Isaacs says:

    The odd thing about the Oscar voters, is they seem to have gotten more conservative over the years. A blogger I read, Matt Connolly crunched the numbers to find that in the first decade of the 21st century, 10 actors of color won Academy Awards for acting (25% of winners that decade); in terms of nominations, there were 38 for people of color in that decade (19% of nominees that decade).

    On the other hand, for the last five years, we had this:

    -Actors of Color Who Won Academy Awards for Acting: 2 (8.33% of winners this decade)
    -Actors of Color Who Were Nominated for Academy Awards for Acting (includes those who eventually won): 10 (8.33% of nominees this decade). So that’s going backwards, obviously.

    https://medium.com/@mattconnolly_20850/putting-the-blinders-back-on-b27fd37ce0b5#.jz2i0c2af

    Going back further, and more generally (leaving race specifically aside), can we imagine edgy films like MIDNIGHT COWBOY and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE being nominated for best picture today, assuming they were even made? People say it was absurd to expect the Academy to vote for STRAIGHT OUT OF COMPTON, but then they did nominate HUSTLE & FLOW a little while back. So, what happened?

  16. Glamourboy says:

    You know what else needs some diversity….basketball. Of the current roster that I saw for the Knicks, there were 9 out of 14 player that were African-American, 1 that was latin, and 4 that were white. Wonder if Spike Lee would want to argue for diversity in basketball. We don’t necessarily need the best players in the game, just the correct racial makeup.

  17. YancySkancy says:

    Daniela: Hustle & Flow did not get a Best Picture nod. Just a Best Actor nod for Terrence Howard and a Best Song win.

  18. Daniella Isaacs says:

    Yikes. My memory’s getting foggy, Yancy. Sorry. Guess at my age I have to double check everything. :(

  19. benutty says:

    This short list idea stolen straight from my post about it on the Gold Derby forums earlier in the day. I can’t.

  20. David Poland says:

    Lovely notion, but I haven’t been on the Gold Derby site in over a decade.

  21. joshua says:

    its absurd for them to vote for S.O.C. because all of the homophobia and misogyny was missing from that movie. listen to “Gangsta Boogie” my personal fave NWA song.

    The reason peeps of color have a lower win percentage so far this decade compared to the previous one is that most people have calmed down in their affirmative action behaviors and over P.C-ing and are now being more honest with their assessments.

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