Ready or Not, the Academy Is Ripe for a Shake-up

Governors Awards 2015
Michael Yada/A.M.P.A.S.

But while newly announced provisions are a fair response, #OscarsSoWhite remains a symptom of the disease.

In the wake of yet another slate of Oscar nominations dominated by white filmmakers and performers, plenty has been lost or exaggerated in a sea of hashtag activism. But despite any nuance about why films like “Beasts of No Nation,” “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton” underperformed with the Academy, the issue trains a harsh spotlight on one undeniable fact: the Academy — and by extension, the entire industry — has a quantifiable racial bias.

As a result of the outcry, the organization is, frankly, under siege. Phones have been ringing off the hook at the Academy’s Beverly Hills headquarters. I’m told staff members were instructed not to talk about the controversy as moves were made behind the scenes last week to address it swiftly. And to a person, every Academy member I know is brimming with resentment over insinuations and outright accusations of racism.

I do have sympathy on that last point. “Racial bias” and “racism” are two completely different concepts, and it’s been distressing to see them so easily conflated in the rush to diagnose and prescribe. One outlet boomed that the nominations reveal a “racist refusal to honor modern black heroes.” The very same outlet proposed a cutoff of 65 years of age “for (Academy) members whose tastes no longer reflect the current zeitgeist,” which might be the dumbest series of words I’ve seen strung together on the matter. Leaving the blatant ageism aside (sure, let’s amend one breed of discrimination with another), are we saying that two years removed from “The Wolf of Wall Street,” 73-year-old Martin Scorsese doesn’t have something to say about the zeitgeist?

Nevertheless, the org’s immediate response did address concerns of perceived dead weight. Under newly implemented provisions, each member’s voting status will last 10 years and be renewed only if the member has been active in the industry during that decade. Lifetime voting rights will be granted after three 10-year terms, as well as to anyone nominated for an Academy Award. Aiming to help maintain a sense of modernity in perpetuity, it’s a “use it or lose it” compromise that will immediately impact the Oscars, as retirees who don’t meet the requirements retroactively will no longer have a vote. They will, however, continue to enjoy all other membership privileges (including receiving those precious screeners).

Other options reportedly being weighed involve affecting the makeup of Oscar categories themselves to make them more inclusive. But while many would bristle at expanding the acting fields to seven or eight nominees, at the very least, the experiment in the best picture category the last five years — with the number of nominations variably floating from five to 10 — is a bust.

Would going back to a full slate of 10 yield more diverse selections? Not necessarily, but it would yield more opportunity. It seems obvious, given key guild nominations, that “Compton” was in the thick of the best picture race, and might have made it through with more guaranteed slots.

The Academy moved to the current system largely due to complaints about “undeserving” contenders landing best picture nominations. Films like “Winter’s Bone” and “The Kids Are All Right” were among those often (unfairly) singled out. Some members also complained about being asked to come up with a ranked list of 10 films on their ballots in the 10-nominee paradigm, which was used in 2010 and 2011, rather than five. Under the current system, members are asked to rank five again, with the Byzantine math of the preferential ballot producing nine nominees in 2012, 2013 and 2014, and eight the last two years.

Other strides have been made in the effort to reduce racial bias along the way — increasing the number of membership invitations to people of color, announcing the A2020 diversity initiative at the Governors Awards in November of last year — but none of it, judging by the passionate response, has addressed concerns fast enough. There are roughly 160 black members in an organization that numbers 6,200 (and even fewer Latinos); it’s hard to make up ground quickly.

So how can the Academy leap ahead?

This would probably never happen in a million years, but what about an entire class of Academy invitees that reflects cultural diversity? Every year, the org grants passage to around 300 new members. The white male demographic can afford a year off, so how about 300 men and women of color, an influx that would raise the organizational percentage to 7 or 8, from 3, in an instant? Maybe it’s splashy, maybe it’s stunt-ish, but that seems to be what’s called for at this point. (The newly revealed A2020 provisions aim to double representation more steadily, over the course of four years.)

That could be difficult to pull off, however, given the industry’s infrastructure. Perhaps the org could put resources into outreach programs akin to a studio acquisitions department, hitting the international film festival circuit with a specific eye to recruiting and grooming diverse talent. (The Academy announced plans to supplement the traditional sponsorship-based process of recruitment by launching a global campaign to seek out qualified new members who represent greater diversity, so those gears appear to be turning as well.)

What will be key, however, is to see any such Academy effort also reflected in the industry as a whole. For instance, the year’s most diverse category is animated feature film. People of color are represented in all but one of the nominees (“Shaun the Sheep Movie”). But will Disney or DreamWorks be clamoring to hire, say, Brazilian “Boy and the World” director Ale Abreu? “Creed” director Ryan Coogler, meanwhile, believes strongly in extending opportunity. But will Marvel Studios allow him to crew up as he sees fit on “Black Panther?” Ditto “Compton” director F. Gary Gray on the next “Fast and Furious” sequel?

Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs said last week that the Academy “is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up.” Be that as it may, the industry must catch up if long-lasting change is to take hold. After all, awards are merely symptomatic.

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  1. msd says:

    Back to ten BP nominations? Yes, or 5. “Somewhere between 5 and 10” is irritating.
    More acting slots? Hell no. That wouldn’t address the issues at all, it would imply that poc actors need more slots to just sneak in. It also makes this an acting issue when behind the camera things are even less diverse. And what happens when, inevitably, you still get all-white noms in some or all of the categories (a particular issue in the Best Supp Actress and Best Lead Actress categories)? Terrible idea.

  2. TheBigBangof20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    The overreactionaries to this snub with kneejerk emotion and not inclusive reason are in for a rude awakening. Those who are affected will not let ageism get a free pass in Hollywood any longer. The result is that ethnic minority membership marginalized worse than blacks will lose their votes. The idea that all whites are seen as one group with no bias segregated margins is the biggest racist snub of all.

  3. Jorge says:

    Great piece Kris. You’re right on point. One way the increased diversity efforts of the Academy may help the industry diversify in the backend is that Academy membership will give them access to the big boys in the room. But, even then, we are talking hundreds of people in a sea of millions. So the industry needs to wake up.

  4. Ishmael says:

    Though I agree that changes are needed in the Academy, this notion of expanding the acting categories is patently nonsense. It’s the actors who nominate actors, presumably the most integrated of all the guilds, and yet they still could not nominate Idris Elba (who should have been nominated, and, in my opinion, won). Perhaps it is the Actors Guild that needs whittling. It is not a secret that SAG-AMPAS members have a lot of strange bedfellows who are resistant to change.

    That said, and separate from the race question, my fear is that the continued suppression of out actors (including transgender) will continue, regardless of the upcoming changes–perhaps even worsen. Lets not forget that not once has an openly gay actor ever won an Academy Award. This year, actors like Lily Tomlin, Ian McKellin, Sarah Paulson, Victor Garber, Mya Taylor, Kitana Rodriguez, Kristen Stewart, etc,. were relegated to the after-thought category. Clearly not consider potential nominees at all.

    I lived in Los Angeles for two years, but I am a Torontonian, and my experience has convinced me that the biggest suppressors of gay/transgender people are Blacks, or in your neck of the woods, African Americans. In my homeland, Canada, I do not experience the out-right hatred, repulsion and disgust by blacks that is visibly, aggressively shown by Blacks in America towards gay/trans people. In fact it is Disneyland in Toronto compared to American cities. The 2005 Oscar upset that the film Crash (ironically, in hindsight, written/directed by Canadian Paul Haggis) made over Brokeback Mountain was a shocking reminder where gay/transgender people were on the Hollywood Totem-Pole. And one need only remember Prop 8 which was largely passed because of the over 90% of Blacks who were against gay marriage (gay anything I would suggest).

    So forgive me if I am a little apprehensive if there is a mass flood of Blacks into the voting academy, which is already homophobic. It surely will be great for them, and their closeted members, but I think it will also result in further marginalization of gay and trans people.

    • Robin says:

      There are many other ethnic groups that do not appreciate homosexuality and confused genders. Whites used to be one of them and still are in some countries where it is illegal. Your personal life and how it appeals to Black people that you have encountered has nothing to do with the fair and ethical issues of racial diversity that the Oscars and media industry on a whole continue to over look. That is the only issue that this article is pertaining to. The LGBT community are doing just fine on terms of representation and acceptance in the modern film and TV today, far better than non-White actors and filmmakers. Your comments on the whole are a reflection of what is wrong with the industry and no I do not forgive you for being ‘apprehensive if there is a mass flood of Blacks into the voting academy’ out of fear of them getting better representation while you worry about sexuality issues not getting screen time and otherwise.

      • Ishmael says:

        I don’t know if you are responding to my comments. Your misreading makes me think that you are expressing some deep-rooted aversion towards gay and transgender people. Your use of the pejorative, “confused”, and “your personal life” only highlights my suspicion. Is being Black “a personal life?” Moreover, I wasn’t saying that gay/transgender people are currently under-represented in the media. Clearly, they are gaining ground, and it has been a long time coming. Your assertion that LGBT people are more represented and accepted in film and television than non-Whites (code for Black because the subject here is no Blacks nominated) is patently false, if not delusional. If you were a cogent person you would know that. My point was that gay and transgender people are less likely to get an Oscar nomination because of bigotry or bias, like yours for instance. And I remind you that never once has a openly gay or transgender actor won an Oscar. Many black actors have. And when I said ‘forgive me’ I was being rhetorical. I don’t need, nor do I want, your forgiveness.

  5. KBJr. says:

    The more I read about the membership changes, the more annoyed I become with how they did it. They just made it complicated. If you’re going to insist on terms – just go with a set, across the board, term limit. 10 15 or 20 years of active Academy voting, and then you become emeritus. Period. That means that age isn’t really a factor – whether you became a member at age 20 or 50, you get a set term. Maybe each branch can determine the term period, but it ought to apply to everyone in the branch.

    In the LA Times article designed to clarify a number of questions regarding the changes, they write:

    “So why make these changes at all?

    We want the Oscars to be voted on by people who are currently working in motion pictures, or who have been active for a long time.”

    Yet, earlier in the piece, they explain how someone who could have worked a mere three times in the past three decades qualifies for lifetime membership. Is that their idea of someone whose been “active for a long time?” It certainly ain’t “currently working…” Just strange. Now they’ve got to employ folks to comb through IMDb to determine voting status. Kinda silly.

    20 years of voting rights would be an honor – lifetime membership is unnecessary. Set the term and build a tradition of generational torch passing – an automatic mechanism to freshen up the ranks whether the establishment wants it or not.

    • TheBigBangof20thCenturyPopCulture says:

      The effect of limiting votes to active or successful working film vets results in the same marginalization as the snub. It limits full membership to elites and those who do not suffer from bias or discrimination.

  6. frodosgardener says:

    Kris, I’m a long time reader and follower – back from the original old days – and while I read almost everything I almost never comment. I’m dropping a line here just to say well done on a thoughtful piece about a complicated subject matter. Articles like this are why I’ve followed you around the internet for the last few years. The movie business, and especially the Oscar business, can be messy, imperfect and kind of silly at the best of times – but it can also be enormously important – and you always seem to find the right tone. This is also one of the smartest “first step” solutions I’ve seen offered on the issue – which is pretty great. Anyway – just my two cents thrown into the void of the internet.

  7. luna says:

    The Revenant features people of color/diversity!
    oh wait, people of color/diversity only refers to black people…. rolls eyes

    • naim atawan says:

      Dont worry Luna, nothing will change if we are being honest with ourselves. Even if they boycott, the controversy will go away eventually and the media will pick a new story to talk about and the whites will have the Oscars all for themselves again. Feel better?

  8. jamiekins says:

    Whiners and cry babies.

    • naim atawan says:

      Dont worry Jamie, nothing will change if we are being honest with ourselves. Even if they boycott, the controversy will go away eventually and the media will pick a new story to talk about and the whites will have the Oscars all for themselves again. Feel better?

  9. EK says:

    So disenfranchising potentially hundreds of life-long industry veterans who were originally INVITED to join the Academy because they are still drawing breath beyond an undefined age is both insulting and as bigoted in its way as racism. Some of these older members know more about the industry and its product than a dozen of the proposed newbies combined and are better judges of quality besides. If you’ve ever had a meeting with one of the new geniuses who are making decisions that lead to the problems in he first place you’d know what is meant here. First the Academy bugs you to vote and now they threaten to take that privilege away. Hypocrites.

  10. Nanny Mo says:

    This is total B.S., and will (and has) weakened the awards. We will never see them in the light of fairness again as they will be based on quotas and racism, not talent. Keep telling us otherwise, it only make you look small and racist.

    • naim atawan says:

      Dont worry Nanny, nothing will change if we are being honest with ourselves. Even if they boycott, the controversy will go away eventually and the media will pick a new story to talk about and the whites will have the Oscars all for themselves again. Feel better?

  11. Sage says:

    “Every year, the org grants passage to around 300 new members. The white male demographic can afford a year off, so how about 300 men and women of color, an influx that would raise the organizational percentage to 7 or 8, from 3, in an instant?”

    2016 (and for the last several years) definition of racism:

    Blacks (and others) pushing for “diversity” (the current word for quota) is NOT racism.

    Whites response against quotas (or anything else) IS racism.

    But then that is ok as per the biased rules of “political correctness”.

  12. Donna says:

    Instant reactional changes of any kind may not be a long lasting solution. In fact those changes may very well cause the opposite effect . Are there more executive positions for women because they complained? There is no cause for institutional change. Work harder, be patient and choose the best roles and movies. I agree with Michael Csine and Robett Redford.

    • Sean C. says:

      Are there more executive positions for women because they complained?

      Yes. Sitting around and not doing anything about sexism wasn’t helping. The whole point is that there aren’t many roles and movies for non-white actors and crew due to systemic biases, and there need to be more.

    • naim atawan says:

      Dont worry Donna, nothing will change if we are being honest with ourselves. Even if they boycott, the controversy will go away eventually and the media will pick a new story to talk about and the whites will have the Oscars all for themselves again. Feel better?

  13. Bill B. says:

    Not much diversity in that picture.

    • Nanny Mo says:

      It is racism by definition. It can only weaken the whole because racism doesn’t make unity, it makes diversity, which is diverse. It’s a very sad day for an organization that has historically led out in social issues. I’m shocked the Academy isn’t in an uproar. Perhaps it’s time to let the Academy go. I for one, don’t have time to waste on racist organizations.

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