Oscar Voting 101: Academy Secrets and Confusion Explained

In Hollywood, a reputation is hard to shake. The #OscarsSoWhite protests of the past two years have been beneficial, raising the consciousness of the studios and agencies in Hollywood. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is trying to help make changes as well — but is simultaneously trying to shake the perception that it was the source of the problem.

Oscar voting runs Jan. 5-13, and nominations will be announced Jan. 24. Some AMPAS choices (e.g., surprises and omissions) will undoubtedly be criticized in the coming months, which is fine, but criticism should be based on fact. So here are a few reminders:

Oscars have a secret ballot.
When “Spotlight” wins best picture or Idris Elba does not get an acting nomination, there are no tallies revealed. So the public assumes these were the unanimous choices of every Oscar voter. In many cases, the votes were probably very close, but we’ll never know. Some critics groups actually do sit in a room together when voting, but the Academy doesn’t. The org consists of 7,000 individuals in 17 branches (directors, cinematographers, etc.) and each branch makes its own nominations. Many pundits talk about how “they” voted and who “they” ignored, without acknowledging that people and films may have come in sixth or seventh. “Snub” is awards-season shorthand for “didn’t get enough votes,” but it doesn’t mean that nobody voted for it. In other words, “Straight Outta Compton” and Ridley Scott probably got more votes than we realized.

The Academy doesn’t make greenlight decisions.
Yes, most studio heads are in the Academy. But the majority of members are workers in the trenches. The execs (and crucially, film financiers) make decisions about what film will get made based on past successes (mistakenly believing that these are “safe” choices). Last year, out of 305 eligible films, only a handful came from women and/or minority filmmakers. So when Oscar voters didn’t nominate a lot of diverse films, it could be because there were not enough choices.

Don’t focus too much on acting categories.
This year, there will certainly be some black actors nominated for their knockout work. But don’t think the industry has solved its diversity/inclusion problem. There are still not enough films from blacks behind the camera, as well as Latino/Hispanic filmmakers, Asians, women, Muslims, people with disabilities, LGBT individuals, etc. And no, this is not about quotas or affirmative action. When people aim for industry diversity, they’re talking about more opportunities for the under-represented, and expanding executives’ mindset to hire someone not exactly like them.

White and 62 doesn’t mean senile.
Academy membership has traditionally been for people with lots of experience — and the harsh reality of the industry is that this often means white men. Ever since the L.A. Times’ survey of February 2012, pundits have cited Academy demographics as alleged proof of incompetence or out-of-touch-ness. The assumption was that if you’re over 60 and white, you’re a dopey bigot with boring taste. But Tom Hanks, James Cameron, George Miller, Steven Spielberg, Ian McKellen and Jeff Bridges (aka The Dude), to name just a few, are over 60, but no one would think to describe them as doddering. Academy demographics are expanding, which is a good thing. Inclusion means broadening the demographics — it also means respecting the ones who are already there.

The film industry has a lot of work to do.
The TV and music industries are further along, but there is still room for improvement. With films, the protests were a wakeup call to the industry, which is great. Knock wood, we are already seeing signs of progress. But as a final reminder: AMPAS is a reflection of film industry imbalance, not the cause of it.

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