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

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

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

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.