Oscar Best Picture Race Mood Swings
Illustrations by Angus Greig

Will the new crop of Academy members be swing voters?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in July invited 276 new members; of this group, more than 100 represent the org’s aggressive move toward diversity: women, foreign-born artists and people of various races and ethnic backgrounds. These new voices represent a small fraction of the 6,000 Academy voters. But they could make a big difference.

Last year’s tie in the sound editing race (the work on “Skyfall” and “Zero Dark Thirty”) was just the latest reminder that Oscar voting results can be incredibly close. One vote would have made the difference between a tie and a solo winner. So imagine the impact that 100-plus votes could make.

The day after the 2012 Presidential election, Republicans offered several theories for their defeat, including Marco Rubio’s statements that the GOP needed to acknowledge changing demographics and do more outreach to specific groups.

Awards strategists should consider that as well. It would be an extension of a long practice, where one film company will hire multiple awards consultants to target various groups: The Bay Area voters, the London members, the over-65 folks, and so on.

Last year, the L.A. Times published a exhaustive demographic profile of the Academy, which surprised few pundits in Hollywood: According to their figures, the voters were 77% male, 94% white and predominantly American. In September, new Acad prexy Cheryl Boone Isaacs told Variety the Acad is reaching out to “different voices,” meaning people beyond the standard demographic in terms of different gender, age, race and country/culture.

Will this bring about a change in voting results? Actually, the change has already started. As the industry has slowly (very slowly) expanded the workforce, that’s been reflected in the Academy. In the past few years, best-pic nominations include such titles as “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “District 9” and French pic “Amour.”

In olden times — i.e., 10 years ago — awards strategists would generalize about Academy voters, based on Oscar history, saying “They like these kind of films” or “They don’t like that stuff.” But when “Django Unchained” wins for original screenplay and “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” nabs best song, it’s getting harder to talk about “typical” Academy fodder.

And this is a great thing. Academy voters always offer a few surprises, with nominations that were unexpected after the voting by guilds, critics groups and other orgs (AFI, the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice Awards).

The 276 new invitations also represent a huge change in numbers. In 2004, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences changed their membership rules: Rather than sending out invitations twice a year, it became once a year, and the names of the invitees were made public. In the nine years since, the org has averaged 133 new invitations per year, but this year, the Acad invited more than twice that number.

So while the 276 voters remain just a fraction of the 6,000 total Academy members, the outcome of this year’s race could swing in an unexpected direction.

The 86th Academy Awards nominations will be unveiled Jan. 16.

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