It’s Time to End An Old Conception About Academy Voters

Oscar Nominations Live Stream

The Oscar nominations prove it’s time to end an old conception about Academy voters: You can’t call them “they” any more.

Pundits always use the word when handicapping nominations or wins: “They don’t like that kind of film” or “He’s a shoo-in, they love him.” These observers think the voters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences are out-of-touch fossils who think with one mind.

The nominations for the 86th Academy Awards offered a list that’s inconsistent — which is a good thing. Longtime vets like Bruce Dern and Judi Dench are there, but Tom Hanks and Robert Redford aren’t. And you have to love any roster that includes “The Lone Ranger” and “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa.” Patterns? There aren’t any.

As many folks in Hollywood know, it’s hard to shake an old image. The “they” characterization dates back to the early days, when the Academy voters consistently embraced high-minded films like “The Life of Emile Zola” and honored sentimental favorites. A turning point was 1996, when Lauren Bacall was nominated for the first time in her 50-year career. She was considered a shoo-in to win, but Juliette Binoche won for “The English Patient.” It was a sign of change, which will continue.

On Nov. 15, Variety first wrote about the shifting demographics within the Academy, a fact that other media outlets have since picked up. As we stated then, a slow transformation will accelerate as the Academy continues its aggressive move toward diversity. This year, AMPAS invited 276 new members and at least one-third of them were women, foreign-born artists and people of various races and ethnic backgrounds, who have different tastes and sensibilities than many in the Old Guard Hollywood.

If an awards observer wants to talk about “they,” it’s possible to make a case for the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., whose roughly 80 voters often see a film together, so it’s easier for strategists to gauge the group’s reactions. And many critics groups, consisting of a few dozen people, sit in a room together when they vote. Most of their reviews are a matter of record.

Even then, it’s dangerous to use a word like “they” because HFPA members and critics can have wildly divergent opinions. But it’s the pundits’ an attempt to understand voting patterns without any evidence: No voting group reveals the numerical results, so people try to understand it by saying “I guess they liked this, but not that.”

I’m not saying the Academy voters are perfect. There is ongoing grumbling about this year’s song choices, and the documentary and foreign-language categories. But the point is that things are slowly changing. The nine best-picture contenders are prestigious, but not in the boring-safe-retro sense.

And it’s hard to talk about “typical” Academy fodder when recent winners include “Django Unchained” and “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” and when best-pic nominees include “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “District 9” and “Amour.”

So whatever Cheryl Boone Isaacs, Dawn Hudson and the staffers at the Academy are doing, keep it up! And speed it up! The film biz needs all the help it can get.

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  1. David K says:

    i always say that too–Ball losing was the sign of change–if only this were in place before and we could have seen Michelle Pfieffer take home the gold for Fabulous Baker Boys over sentimental favorite Jessica Tandy,

  2. Joyce says:

    The industry has ALWAYS been about group think, and it was much worse when there was a “studio system.”

    • Truth says:

      I slightly disagree as the independent film movement did bring some diversity of thought and some interesting filmmaking. However, when the studios absorbed the indies that pretty much ended everything. Now we here that everything is an “indie” and that six of the Best Picture nominees were independent films – which is a joke because that word indie means next to nothing now.

      The Studio System was bad I agree, but it at least led to some independent films being made in the decades following. Now, with the Hollywood-ization of indie films we’re really screwed. I think it’s much worse now. Just look at some of the nominees for this year and compare with films shown on TCM – is there really an argument as to which is better?

  3. Truth says:

    “They” may be more diverse but “they” all think alike. How are the Oscars nominations wildly different from the Globe nominations, and how are the Globes wildly different from the guilds, and how are the guilds wildly different from the Critics’ Choice Awards?

    The reality is that this “diversity” is only skin deep – when it comes to true diversity (of opinion) these awards organizations are all the same. Supposedly, these awards are voted on by all different groups of people who are supposedly intelligent, creative, professional leaders of their fields. And yet, with a one (maybe two exceptions) they all nominate the exact same films, directors, actors, etc.

    What was the biggest surprise with the major Oscar categories? Jonah Hill getting a nom for supporting actor? Wow. . . blown away by that one, especially considering how hard Paramount and Wolf’s cast/crew were pushing/campaigning for these nominations.

    These awards shows are important because they highlight the intellectual and creative bankruptcy of a once great industry – where group think, lack of independent thought, big money campaigns and lobbying, and connections determine who receive noms and wins. It’s the Truth (and everyone familiar with these issues knows it).

    • Joyce says:

      “Now, with the Hollywood-ization of indie films we’re really screwed. I think it’s much worse now. Just look at some of the nominees for this year and compare with films shown on TCM – is there really an argument as to which is better?”

      Just because Hollywood stars are signing on to indies certainly doesn’t mean there’s a complete Hollywood-zation going on. If that were true, indies wouldn’t have such a tough time getting decent distribution. And, while I like many of the films shown on TCM and have seen most of them several times), I don’t like every film that’s on TCM, and I do like a lot of the films (indies, multi-national co-productions, and even studio or large production company films) that are made today.

      • Truth says:

        It’s more than Hollywood stars signing on to indies though . . . You’ve got films such as Wolf of Wall Street and Nebraska (with production entirely financed by 1 major company) and they’re both considered indie. They both had no trouble with distribution. Then, you’ve got labels like Fox Searchlight and Focus Features (which are owned by studios Fox and Universal, respectively) who distribute movies called “independent.” The Hollywood indies (with big stars, big money from established producers/studios/prod. companies) have no trouble getting distribution.

        Now Jo Blo from the corner who makes a movie on a shoe string budget after his waiter job – yeah, he’ll have a tough time.

        The word Indie means nothing nowadays because nobody can accurately develop/define a standard definition. The Indie Spirit Awards say a budget under “20 million.” So what does that mean? Any film (even from a studio) with a low budget is indie now?

        And finally, I’m glad you enjoy the films of today – but most film scholars wouldn’t agree. Most individuals who’ve studied, appreciated, and understand the films of yesteryear, you will find that they rarely go to or enjoy contemporary cinema. Hell, even Scorsese says he doesn’t see many contemporary films.

  4. Golkar says:

    Oh please! It’s not as though you folks are doing something worthwhile like curing cancer. It’s an awards show where rich people give one another little gold statues for Pete’s same!

  5. Joyce says:

    I think you’re correct. But you have to realize that the Oscars have been from the beginning puclicity for the movie industry; a means by which the studios could enhance profits, or, in some cases, reduce losses. After the winners are announced, the next thing you’ll be reading in the Hollywood trade papers is how big a bounce in ticket sales the winning films had at the box office.

  6. Troy Milsap says:

    How can you even say which is the “best” in any category? They are all very different and most of them worthy of recognition. Dare I say there are plenty of others equally worthy of recognition. For example how can one pit “12 Years a Slave” against “Gravity” or “Philomena” against “The Wolf of Wall Street”? They are so fundamentally diverse that calling one “the best” is really absurd. I think the AFI has it right when they announce a list, in ALPHABETICAL order only of the top films of the year, those making the greatest contribution to cinema considering all departments together.

  7. Johnny says:

    The Academy consists of only professional filmmakers who are invited to join by their peers. This membership is taken very seriously by all and has members with a multitude of individual opinions as you would expect from serious filmmakers.

    It is an on-going process of recognizing potential new inductees to the Academy which happens through out the year by the members themselves in committees and such, where a very rigorous attention is put to the work of the recommended artists.

    There are no “they,” but only individuals who all have and express their personal tastes and feelings by their voting.

    Nice article, well informed.

  8. Steve H says:

    The next step is to get entertainment journalists to stop using the word “snub”. Correct me if I’m wrong (and I’m not in Hollywood so I certainly might be wrong) but unless there’s an actual organized campaign to prevent a person or film’s nomination, NOT getting a nomination simply means not getting enough votes. It could even mean getting just *one single fewer vote* than another person or film who *does* achieve nomination. That’s not a “snub” at all. The implication of the word “snub” is an ugly one, do we need to keep popularizing ugliness?

    • Joyce says:

      A nomination-worthy actor or filmmaker not getting enough votes due to the misguided notion of a block of Academy voters that “everyone else” is going to nominate that actor or filmmaker, so they might as well cast their vote for someone else results in a snub. And “snub” IS an ugly word, but there are much uglier ones.

  9. Joyce says:

    Still, suggesting that new Academy members nominate new filmmakers as a way to encourage them resulted in snubs for Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck last year. The Academy needs to get its priorities right and instead of increasing the number of best picture nominations, introduce some new categories.

  10. Greg Watzka says:

    What news on when is the next movie from the Mortal Instruments coming?

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