MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: The Race & Race – Part 3: All Fixed

This has been an unpleasant week. And yet, there should be unrestrained celebration amongst all Academy members and all believers in efforts to seek greater (and ultimately achieve) racial and gender diversity in all film industry organizations, including The Academy.

The Academy announced last Friday (January 22, 2016) that the 2020 program, which has essentially already been in effect for three years, was announced officially at the Governor’s Awards in November, and was intended to double membership by people of color as well as the membership of women in The Academy by 2020.

This was a direct, specific, measurable effort by The Academy to make up for 80-plus years of extreme inequality of membership within the organization. This effort is pretty much unassailable. Unless you actually were anti-color or anti-woman, you would have to see this as positive.

The only exception being that you were amongst some odd group of Academy fundamentalists who would claim that the voter count was sacrosanct. But even that claim is not historically valid, as The Academy has made adjustments to deal with issues over the history of the organization.

So what is the problem?

Well… The Academy leadership, anxious to stamp out the public discussion of a boycott of the Show, didn’t seem to think this was enough. So they added two more measures that do not have a clear cause-and-effect relation to the gender or race equality of the organization.

First, they are adding three Board of Governor seats to be selected by the CEO and the President. With 50 votes on the Board of Governors now (plus one for the CEO in case of a tie), three more may not seem a big deal. But the Vice President sometimes has to break the tie in the U.S. Senate. A swing vote of 6% controlled by the CEO and/or President is not nothing.

Also worth noting… five new Board seats were added in 2013.

What is the purpose of this choice? Well, there is the equality on the Board of Governors on the surface. In the most recent election, there were 7 people of color running for the Board. Only one was elected. (There were 5 newcomers elected overall, including one person of color and two women, the group that is also in focus in this situation.) So there are only two people of color on the Board… 4%. Adding three would push that to 10%. (Women are currently at 32% of the Board.)

How do you balance the issues of a membership that, branch by branch, didn’t vote for these people of color? And when the President and CEO make choices, what elements do they take into consideration? A number of people who didn’t get elected to the Board are 25 year-plus veterans of the industry (such as Guillermo Navarro, Ruth E. Carter and Terilyn A. Shropshire), while there are other more high-profile names that are relatively inexperienced.

The legitimacy of this board expansion is up for grabs, reliant on the choices that are made in filling the slots.

Secondly, and far more controversially, The Board of Governors decided to impose a new set of rules meant to take voting rights away from members who have not worked in the film industry for more than 10 years.


On the surface, without any context, this seems like a reasonable idea. But there are landmines in every direction as soon as you start adding context.

The biggest problem is that the idea of taking away the votes of what will inevitably be older members (average age of membership invites is probably mid-40s to high-40s… start adding 10-year chunks from there) is that the issue of older members has been politicized over time. The Academy will not say this officially, but the idea that older voters are less open to other races, women, and “modern” filmmaking is repeated on a loop through many conversations about “what’s wrong with The Academy.”

Of course, as is too often the case in these kinds of uncomfortable discussions, there is denial from people who say they have no issue with this rule. It’s not about older members… or they aren’t calling older people racist or sexist… or that when some of these members publicly complain that they feel they are now being discriminated against, it proves they should lose their vote… all either wrongheaded or rationalizations/lies.

As a result of announcing this as part of “a sweeping series of substantive changes designed to make the Academy’s membership, its governing bodies, and its voting members significantly more diverse,” confirms and memorializes this idea, which comes down to blaming a segment of the membership. This fact does not mean that all older members are blameless. But there is not objective measure of the group that proves that the group being targeted – or older voters, in general – vote against people of color or women… that this group is holding back The Academy.

Moreover, The Board of Governors have set out exceptions to this rule that instantly takes everyone on the board out of harm’s way. Power wins.

Also, the definitions of the details of the rules (“active in motion pictures”) are unclear. And the rule about the dates of said unclear “activity” are bizarre. It was presented as “members will receive lifetime voting rights after three ten-year terms.”

Then, a few days later, came this wild variation on the “30 year” theme: ” Let’s say you were admitted to the Academy in 1980 and you worked on one film in 1989. That covers you for your first ten years. Then you worked once in the ’90s, which covers you for your second ten-year term, and once again in 2001 for your third ten-year term. That’s only a twelve-year period, but you have worked in the three ten-year terms of your membership, so you’d qualify as an active member with voting status.

So if you were at admitted in 1980 and you next worked on a film in 1992… are you out? If you were admitted in 1981, then made 20 movies from 1981 – 1999, but haven’t made one since, you’ve only worked in two decades, but someone who worked three times over 12 years is still in?

The response of the supporters is, it seems, that this kind of case is what the ability to appeal to your branch is for, but the fact that you have to make this appeal is, in and of itself, an imposition.

If this rule was really well considered and had a clear set of achievable goals, it could be viable. Just off the top of my head, how about a standard of having made 10 films in the field in the branch in which you are a member? If you attain that criteria, you keep your vote. For executives/publicists, make it 50 movies (as they in almost all cases work on at least 10 films a year). If you do not, then you have to have worked/actively developed/worked under consulting contract at some time in the last 10 years… or out. No exceptions for the more powerful or, for that matter, Oscar nominated.

You know, over the years, not everyone who is nominated gets an invitation to join The Academy. So if there isn’t an auto-entry for getting nominated, why should they be an auto-exemption for having been nominated? Make up your mind, Academy!

By the way… the President of The Academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, hasn’t had a full-time job in publicity since 1999, when she left New Line and started her consulting business. She also didn’t work in three different decades after getting into The Academy (entered in 1988, last job in 1999). She has, very successfully, consulted. So she remains qualified to vote, right? Does anyone know a member of the Publicity or Executive branches – all very nervous, since there is no Oscar nomination out – who doesn’t consult from time to time? Is The Academy going to asking for check stubs? Is there going to be a dollar amount that makes a consulting gig “active in motion pictures?”

Subjective standards that can be manipulated do not make for good – or legally sound – rules for a large organization.

The inclusion of this rule is either an intentional smokescreen, with no significant number of members expected to be affected or it is a poorly-considered, legally indefensible mess.

As for the issue of whether older, white members (presumably mostly male) are keeping more films involving people of color from getting nominated, it cannot be proven. However… we all have experience with older voters who don’t want to watch a movie about rappers (who rap and curse and use drusg for more than two hours) or don’t find themselves rushing to watch Creed because aside from Sylvester Stallone, the trailer is filled with black faces, or who can’t get through even 20 minutes of a beautiful, horrifying exploration of child soldiers in Africa.

We also have this experience with some younger viewers in some cases. I know younger, hipper people who don’t want to see Beasts of No Nation, no matter how I rave. They are afraid… and they aren’t crazy. It’s a terrific movie, but brutal. People who don’t have an emotional connection to NWA may not be interested in Straight Outta Compton without being old. And I have taken my disc of Creed to my brother-in-law’s house a few times (and bring it home with me each time) and have not been about to get him, his wife, his mother, or his teenage kids excited enough to put the disc in the Blu-ray.

Some of these issues exist, by the way, for Sicario, Love & Mercy, and The Hateful Eight, amongst others, and even for nominees like The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road and Room.

If The Academy, as an institution, said, “We want to make membership younger for the sake of choosing cooler movies, so we are stopping voting at 80,” it would be wrong. But at least it would be honest.

But the new voting rule, as it seems to exist, has a lot of arbitrariness. It clearly will focus disproportionately on older members… but not members who have shown any particular tendencies. Does an Oscar nomination keep you from being racially biased? Does working on movies in the right 12 years? Does working in movies instead of TV in the last decade?

And don’t even get me started on this one… “The Academy will also take immediate action to increase diversity by adding new members who are not Governors to its executive and board committees where key decisions about membership and governance are made. This will allow new members an opportunity to become more active in Academy decision-making and help the organization identify and nurture future leaders.”

They can’t even be honest about this. “New members” does not, I suspect, mean new members, but new members of color or female gender. Why not just say that? And why not explain how many, how this might affect operations, etc.

But the most explosive problem remains that The Academy, in attaching this rule to their “sweeping series of substantive changes designed to make the Academy’s membership, its governing bodies, and its voting members significantly more diverse,” are confirming the impression that those most expected to be the focus of this rule are guilty of inhibiting diversity.

There are certainly cases in which this is true. But there are certainly many – the majority, most would agree – in which it is not.

And we go back to the start of this column – my last on the subject for this season – and the fact that we should be excited about celebrating. The Academy has re-affirmed a commitment to broadening the doors of entry. That is good… even if it means the overall standard that had been used is lowered. That is not the point at this time. An expansive Academy should be a better Academy.

But the overreach (those that people aren’t much discussing and the one that is getting daily headlines still)… that is a problem. That is antithetical to the idea of being expansive. It is doing to a group who had no reason to anticipate this, allowing them to address the new standards, pretty much what the overall group has arguably done to people of color and women.

Is turnabout fair play?

If you really think it is, say it out loud. If you can’t say it out loud, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

12 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: The Race & Race – Part 3: All Fixed”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    They anticipated troubles with the show’s advertisers. Penneys, for example, sells a lot of merchandise to minorities. They can find other ways to spend their advertising dollars.

    Ultimately, voters are going to have to be convinced to take a hard look at minority films and performances.

    Get rid of all campaigning. Oscar campaigns are political. The movies should stand on their own. I would get rid of all the panels, too, for the same reason.

  2. David Poland says:

    Yes… but that would take an actual effort by The Academy with no benefit in their public appearance. Not the modus operandi of the current leadership.

  3. YancySkancy says:

    Looks like lots of good liberal non-racist babies will be thrown out with the bathwater. As you suggest, the new rule seems based on a false, or at least unproveable assumption — that the members most likely to withhold votes from people of color are those singled out by the rule.

  4. palmtree says:

    Yeah, this is a terrible way to make the Academy more liberal, but something tells me that’s not what they’re trying to do. It sounds more like they’re trying to make the awards more relevant, which is not necessarily a liberal or conservative thing. And relevancy means that the members who vote are still involved in the film industry and film culture. That way the vote ends up better reflecting the zeitgeist.

  5. Monco says:

    The Oscars are not the people’s choice awards. There is no greater example of “modern” filmmaking than Fury Road. Are you
    saying that not nominating The Force Awakens is the reason for restricting votes from older members to “better reflect the zeigest”. The Force Awakens is a poorly made, bad film. It shouldn’t have been nominated. These same old members nominated Avatar, District 9, and again Fury Road. They are fully capable of nominating a popular movie when they feel the movie is deserving. If they want the show to turn into the MTV movie awards by nominating a movie like TFA then they will become truly irrelevant.

  6. Ben Kabak says:

    Basically the Academy is calling their voting members all racist. And that they need to change most of them. Seems nice of them to do.
    The fact that they think members don’t take their jobs seriously and only vote in whites because of racism is ridiculous. It is so insulting to everyone that votes and takes their vote seriously.

  7. thespirithunter says:

    Has anyone even thought about the women or people of color who voted for this year’s Oscars and who might’ve voted completely for white nominees?

    Say I’m Samuel L. Jackson, and by goodness, my favorite performances were all done by white actors. Has this not occurred to anyone? How much hypocrisy is involved behind the scenes here of #OscarsSoWhite? I like how you put it in another post, David. Lets’ disenfranchise someone else because we’re being disenfranchised ourselves. What happens when they take these votes from these older “unhipper” voters, and then once the Academy has doubled for diversity, we get another whitewashed Oscar show, because, gosh darn it, the best of the year happened to be white?

    I’m all for better diversification in these circles, but we all know that there will always be more white nominees, because these are the stories that filmmakers are making, and studios are greenlighting. Quit blaming the Oscars for celebrating a year’s worth of fine films, that were predominantly about the white, male experience because that’s what’s being produced and screened for the masses.

  8. palmtree says:

    I never said anything about Star Wars. And in fact, I haven’t heard many people wanting to nominate Star Wars for best picture, unless you’re only talking about die hard fans.

    I’m not saying let’s nominate fan favorites or box office behemoths. Far from it.

    I’m saying let’s nominate the films that mattered last year, and those films, the ones that will still be talked about for years to come and that have something important to say, let’s try to reward those movies. To me, that is the meaning of “relevant.”

  9. pat says:

    Nobody knows what films will be talked about for years to come.

  10. Frankos says:

    The Force Awakens, Staight Outta Compton, Sicario and Creed will be talked about a lot longer than Brooklyn, Room, The Big Short and Bridge of Spies and I’m a huge fan of Spielberg.

  11. palmtree says:

    “Nobody knows what films will be talked about for years to come.”

    Actually, nobody knows anything.

    But at least people should vote like they care.

  12. Mostly Lurking says:

    You said that being nominated does not guarantee membership, but what about winning? I always assumed that if you win an Academy Award, you’re in. If that is the case, I would hope that one of the exceptions is that those who have won Oscars have voting privileges for life.

    I don’t know enough about the criteria for getting in to give an educated opinion as to the appropriateness of any limitations, but I would think that the Academy could have addressed the same diversity concerns through the less drastic step of letting everyone keep the ability to vote for the Oscars and just place limitations on who can participate in the nomination process than do away with some member’s voting privileges altogether. Any insight into whether something like that was even floated?

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