Beau Salant ‘18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
It didn’t take very long after the Academy’s announcement on Thursday morning for the world to be outraged by the 2015 Oscar Nominations nominations. Reporters, bloggers, celebrities and the general public were quick to point out the lack of films seen by a large audience such as Gone Girl and Interstellar in favor of films yet to be released in most of the world such as American Sniper and films with low box office returns like The Theory of Everything, as well as a severe lack of diversity: the only minority representation in a major category is from Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, who is Latin American and nominated for Best Director for Birdman, which tied for the most nominations received by a film with a total of nine (Iñarritu and his writing team, also Latin Americans, are nominated for Best Original Screenplay as well).
Of the twenty actors and actresses nominated for their performances this year, every one of them is caucasian, and the only one to not hail from either the United States or the United Kingdom is French-born Marion Cotillard, nominated for Best Actress for her work in Two Days, One Night. And in a year where two major films were directed by women: Ava DuVernay’s best picture-nominated Selma and Angelina Jolie’s unnominated Unbroken, many were quick to point out that the Best Director category is comprised completely of men.
A major point of criticism has been the lack of recognition given to the aforementioned film Selma, one of 2014’s most acclaimed, directed by Ava DuVernay (who, if nominated, would have been the first African American woman to receive a Best Director bid) and starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. The film received only two nominations: Best Original Song for “Glory” and…Best Motion Picture? How can a film be one of the year’s best yet its only individual aspect worthy of recognition is a song (albeit a very good one) that plays over its end credits? Oyelowo’s failure to receive a Best Actor nomination for the film is also fairly irking, as it is a powerhouse performance equal to that of Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, a performance that took home the Best Actor Oscar in 2012.
How did these major snubs happen, and how did a film playing in only four theaters in the entire world on the day nominations were announced (American Sniper) earn so much recognition? The answers lie in the rules the Academy laid down years ago to cover their coveted and prestigious awards, often considered the highest honor somebody working in the film industry can receive, as well as the demographic of the people who vote for the awards.
Let’s start with the rules: perhaps the most glaringly problematic rule is that in order to be eligible for that year’s Academy Awards, a film needs only to play one full showing in one single theater in Los Angeles on one single day between 12:01 AM on January 1st and 11:59 PM on December 31st. Theoretically, a one-hour and thirty-minute film that is shown in a theater in Los Angeles for the first time at 10:00 PM on December 31st, 2014 could be named Best Picture of 2014 by the Academy Awards (voters are often invited to complimentary early screenings and/or receive complimentary DVD’s of films like this to ensure that they get seen). Another rule states that a film is automatically ineligible for the Academy Awards if it streams on a video on-demand (VOD) service such as iTunes, Netflix, Amazon, etc. before having a theatrical release. This disqualified Jennifer Kent’s fantastic The Babadook, one of 2014’s best films, which was released on various VOD services two weeks for being released in theaters.
Now let’s get to the people who actually vote for these awards: the membership of the Academy. The Academy is made up of people who work or have worked in the film industry in all different areas. It is divided into branches for respective crafts: there is an actors’ branch, directors’ branch, cinematographers’ branch, and so on. Each branch votes for the nominees in their category: actors vote for actors, directors vote for directors, etc, and every branch votes for the nominees for Best Picture. However, the entire Academy membership votes for the winners in every category, meaning that a sound editor gets a vote as to who wins Best Adapted Screenplay, and vice versa (this is why the film with the most nominations often wins Best Picture, or is at least a major contender to do so). This often creates trends: the actors’ branch is by far the largest, so a film rarely wins Best Picture unless it has at least a nomination in an acting category.
But who really are these Academy members? Well, a recent study by the Los Angeles Times revealed that the Academy is roughly 94% caucasian and 77% male with a median age of 62. Blacks and Latinos combined are about 4% of the Academy, and people younger than 50 are only 14% of the membership. And these numbers represent the entire membership. Not every Academy member is going to take the time to fill out a ballot for the Oscars, even though all are invited to do so.
It is with these statistics that the true problem lies.
I’m going to be frank: how does anybody consider this okay? Judging by these statistics, it would appear that the Academy is an old white man’s club. And everybody knows the old saying: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. These elderly men are extremely likely to vote for the same type of film year in and year out. This is why we often see films about World War II, famous British people and the lives and troubles of near middle-aged white men directed by near middle-aged white men getting nominated for all of the Oscars (they’re also very clearly big fans of Meryl Streep). In 2008, outrage erupted when The Dark Knight failed to earn a nomination for Best Picture. The reason this happened? Elderly white men simply aren’t going to vote for a superhero movie aimed at teenagers, no matter how critically acclaimed it is. And when The King’s Speech defeated The Social Network? Why are a bunch of old geezers going to like a movie about Facebook, something many of them probably don’t understand? Perhaps more importantly, these elderly white men are not going to feel compelled to vote for films about civil rights (Selma) or films about the lives and troubles of women (Gone Girl, Wild).
I am not calling these Academy members racist, sexist or anything similar. I know none of these people personally and am not qualified to make that kind of statement. What I do know; however, is that somebody is more likely to enjoy and react positively to a film that they can relate to. A group that is overwhelmingly white, male and close to retirement age won’t relate to stories about social injustice due to race, as historically they probably never experienced anything like it. Nor will they see the importance of nominating a woman for Best Director when one deserves to be, since they are probably unaware of how insanely hard it is to be a female film director.
So we’ve identified the problems: the rules allow virtually unseen films to get nominated, widely seen but non-theatrically released films are ineligible and the voting body lacks even the slightest glimmer of diversity. Now how do we fix these problems?
Ever heard the expression that the simplest answer is often the correct one? In this case, that happens to be true.
Step One: Raise the number of required theaters a film must play in.
It’s simply unfair to the general public that a film released in one theater for one day (expanding to more theaters usually after the day of the nomination announcement) can be considered the best film of the year, as that means that a huge majority of the people of the world have not seen this supposedly great film. A more reasonable number of required theaters for a film to play in would be around 300. This obviously won’t mean that a film will be in every theater in the country (that would be around 3,500 theaters) but it does mean that most major areas and markets would be covered, and that the majority of the people in the country will get to see the films vying for the title of “best of the year” before the year actually ends. If more people see the nominated films, more people will tune in to the telecast to see what wins. More viewers means higher ratings, which means more money made from ad revenue. Everybody wins.
Step Two: Recognize the validity of VOD.
In this world of ever-growing technological dominance, more and more films are starting to get released for video on-demand and online streaming before they hit theaters, if they even hit theaters at all. Many of these films are terrific, many of them are Oscar-worthy, many of them are incredibly popular with audiences, all of them make money just like a theatrically released film, all of them are ineligible for the Oscars. VOD is becoming a common release platform, and the Oscars will seem more relevant and open themselves to a wider variety of terrific films to recognize and that can be easily accessed by the public. Once again, if more people see the nominated films, more people will tune in to the telecast to see what wins. More viewers means higher ratings, which means more money made from ad revenue. Everybody wins.
Step Three: Introduce equality to the Academy.
It’s not as hard as it sounds. The Academy may be 94% caucasian, but the world isn’t. The Academy may be 74% male, but the world definitely isn’t. It’s time for the Academy to finally meet the equality standards that should be expected of the 21st century. Find the female filmmakers, find the Latino filmmakers, find the Asian filmmakers, find the European auteurs. Send scouts to film festivals and film schools to find the talent. I promise you, it’s out there. Perhaps introduce a program that allows filmmakers of all ages, race, creed, color, gender, etc. to apply for an Academy membership, have their work reviewed by a (preferably diverse) panel of proven masters of the craft and let the panel decide whether they deserve to be invited or not. Invite film journalists, critics and historians (people who watch and adore films) to vote. And by no means eliminate the current Academy members. More members means more voters, and more voters means more competition and more films, seen by more people, in the mix. Yet again, if more people see the nominated films, more people will tune in to the telecast to see what wins. More viewers means higher ratings, which means more money made from ad revenue. Everybody wins.
If the Academy chooses to make these changes, the result will be a set of Academy Award nominations consisting of films seen by the public, telling a wide variety of stories, about important and interesting topics, appealing to a wide variety of people, made by visionary filmmakers. The Academy Awards will become a barometer of culture, more respected than they’ve ever been. Everybody wins.