So… if The Academy needs to change, how can it be effectively changed?
There are all kinds of theories out there. I find that most of them are a bit 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 has turned out to be the new normal.
There has been no Best Picture winner since then that has ranked higher than #4 in gross 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 just having 10 Best Picture nominees, the number of nominees would be determined by a rather 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 it has been kept, 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 to say 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 2 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.)
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 5 seasons. In the 10 seasons prior to the change, there had been 1 film nominated for Best Picture with a Black lead, Ray. Asians had 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 1 acting nominee of color (if you consider Spanish to be “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 1 in a season. 2 of those 4 won the prize.
And this season, we had 3 “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, 2 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 3rd 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 for 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 5. But that is a different conversation.
Would this expansion help get more people of color into the mix? Well, we had 1 year of 10 when there was more representation and 1 year where there was none, like this year.
If there were 10 Best Picture nominees this year, would 1 of the 2 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 1 of the 2 studio movies would have gotten in with 10 slots. No way to be sure.
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 businesses 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 – of 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 going to be holes. But I think 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, 3 Governors) that can add 3 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 2 weeks, 1 each weeknight, 2 on Saturdays, 3 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 2 or 3 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 will no longer 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 email@example.com. If there are enough interesting ideas, I will do a follow-up column before the Governors meet on Tuesday, January 26, 2016.
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.