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

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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