Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A super highly anticipated award is given out each year. For decades, the electorate has remained essentially unchanged. Industry and amateur Kremlinologists try to predict what voters will do, creating voter profiles, algorithms, and simple prediction tools.
Public outcry, especially on the internets, however, leads the longtime electorate of the award to make changes to its voting procedures. Commenters decry that many members of the electorate are out of touch. Some haven’t even been actively involved for years, but these voters swear that they still know what’s worthy of the award. Twitter wars ensue, and why won’t anyone think of the children?
That’s right, I’m talking about the Baseball Hall of Fame. No, wait, I mean the Oscars! The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced on January 22nd that beginning with its 2017 awards, it will implement new voting rules intended to bring more diversity to the electorate, the nominees, and, perhaps, the winners of the naked golden man on the plinth.
One wonders if the Academy has been watching the Hall’s variously comic and frustrating attempts to figure out how to elect the best players in baseball history. Six months ago, the Hall announced its first-in-the-nation purge, saying goodbye to voters who have been inactive for ten years or more. Now the Academy has also expunged voters who haven’t worked in ten years—unless they are prior Oscar nominees. Actually there’s a back door, too. “And a third way,” according to an FAQ the Academy provided to Variety, “is to show that since you were admitted as a member you’ve worked in motion pictures during three ten-year periods.” (Nonconsecutive, only requires a single motion picture credit in any of three decades.)
There’s a nice parallel to be drawn between these organizations. On one hand, the BBWAA elects members this way:
A: By the Chapter Chair, who each year shall judge the qualifications of his or her city’s applicants, according to Section 2 of this Article.
B: By the National Officers and Board of Directors, who each year shall judge the qualifications of all applicants, drawing when necessary on the counsel of Chapter Chairs.
C: By the Board of Directors, acting upon the questions of eligibility appealed to its consideration.
Lotta room for squishiness there, I’d say. You meet a whole bunch of requirements, then you have to go through two or three hoops where people judge your qualifications.
The Academy’s process is actually pretty similar only worded differently:
The Academy’s membership process is by sponsorship, not application. Candidates must be sponsored by two Academy members from the branch to which the candidate seeks admission.
Additionally, Academy Award nominees are automatically considered for membership and do not require sponsors.
Nominees and sponsored candidates are reviewed by branch committees and recommendations for membership are considered by the Academy’s Board of Governors. The Board decides which individuals will receive invitations.
Membership review takes place once a year, in the spring. The current cycle deadline for candidates is Thursday, March 19, 2015.
Sponsoring a candidate is somewhat similar in nature to the local BBWAA chapter judging credentials then passing them up the chain to its Board of Directors. In both cases, it’s obvious to see how political this thing can get, even more so, surely, in the Academy, which by the way has about ten times as many voting members as the BBWAA did before the purge.
In the same FAQ, the Academy provides this defense of its new rules:
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. There are a number of Academy members, however, who had brief careers and left the business. We want to strengthen, uphold, and maintain the credibility of the Oscars with these new criteria.
This sounds a lot like what the Hall’s Chairwoman of the Board, Jane Forbes Clark said in the Coop’s announcement:
The Board feels that the changes enacted over the last two years ensure that the highest levels of integrity are maintained in the voting process, with the most active electorate possible considering candidates for Hall of Fame election.
In both cases, the organization also ensured newly disenfranchised voters that an appeals process could restore their status as electors.
BBWAA members previously holding Hall of Fame voting privileges who are no longer active in the game and are more than 10 years removed from active status will have the opportunity for annual reinstatement, based on their coverage of the game in the preceding year.
The Academy, in its FAQ:
And what happens if I become active again after having been moved to emeritus status?
Upon review of your request, you can be reinstated as an active member with voting rights.
So two august voting bodies take the same road. But how analogous are the situations? The Hall is trying alleviate a logjam of highly qualified candidates. The Academy is trying to get more of a particular kind of candidate involved. The electoral crisis facing the Hall is obvious and not going away. It’s likely too late unless voter behavior changes dramatically. But the reform was necessary, if tardy. But what about for the Academy? Is there a crisis of diversity here?
The numbers speak volumes.
Let’s look at the past ten years to see whether the Oscar electorate has dealt with the diversity question effectively. We’ll keep it to the big six (actors, director, picture) for convenience. That’s the 78th Oscars through the 87 th Oscars, covering films released from 2005 through 2014. Let’s look at two dimensions of Oscar voting:
- Are they doing better than before?
- Do nominees and winners reflect US gender and racial demography.
Of course, it can be dicey to determine who is a minority and who isn’t. I searched lists of African-American/Black, Hispanic (US and international), and Asian nominees and winners. I’m counting Omar Shariff as “Asian” but not Yul Bryner. It’s not a perfect science.
For demography, I’m using a benchmark of 35% minority representation. This is a conservative figure given that the 2000 census reported whites to be 75% of citizens, and the 2010 census reported a drop to 63%. Of course there are nominees from many countries, but we’re going to use the US population because it’s simpler, and we don’t need a super sophisticated model, as you’ll see. This means that for the acting and directing awards, which always have five nominees, we would expect in ten years to see 17 or 18 diverse people nominated out of 50. The chance of winning in any given year is 20 percent. Each actor and director category has roughly 380 nominees in the Oscars’ first 77 years.
For the acting awards, we’ll just look at diversity since women have equal representation.
- 1st through 77th Oscars: 10 diverse nominees (3% of all nominees) with one winner (1% of winners)
- 78th through 87th Oscars: 3 diverse nominees (6%) with no winners (0%)
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
- 1st through 77th Oscars: 19 nominees (5%) with five winners (10%)
- 78th through 87th Oscars: 10 nominees (20%) with 1 winner (2%)
- 1st through 77th Oscars: 19 diverse nominees (5%) with four winners (5%)
- 78th through 87th Oscars: seven nominees (14%) with one winner (2%)
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
- 1st through 77th Oscars: 27 nominees (7%) with 8 winners (10%)
- 78th through 87th Oscars: 3 nominees (6%) with zero winners (0%)
It should be obvious here that Oscar does not nominate or crown enough diverse actors. And in two of the categories, they are doing worse now than when Jim Crow laws and Dixiecrats were on the scene.
For directors, we can include both women and diverse directors. Of course, we’d expect about 50% of directing nominations to go to women demographically. Hollywood’s director’s chairs remain a bastion of maleness, so the reality is that many, many fewer women direct than should be represented to begin with.
- 1st through 77th Oscars: 5 diverse directors (1%), and three women (1%) nominated with zero winners
- 78th through 87th Oscars: Seven diverse directors (14%) and one woman (2%) nominated with four diverse winners (8%), and one woman winner (2%)
Evidently, the Academy has become more open in recent years to diverse and female directors. It’s fair to point out, however, that Ang Lee and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu have four of the seven recent diversity nods and three wins (and the latter received a nomination this year as well). Like in the other categories, we’d have expected about 10 more nominations for diverse directors. And women are getting hosed.
With the big prize, best picture, we’ll separate things out again, and because there are multiple producers on most pictures, I’ll express it a little differently.
- 1st Oscars through 77th Oscars: Ten pictures were nominated with diverse producers, nearly all of whom were Asian or Asian American. None won.
- 78th Oscars through 87th Oscars: Nine pictures were nominated with diverse producers, with five African Americans, three Latinos, and one Asian producer. None won.
Look, I don’t have to even bust out the percentages. This is incredibly low, not even one picture a year with a diverse producer.
How about the women producers?
In the last ten years, 40 best picture nominees have had at least one female producer, a far better percentage than directors. Of the total number of producers credited by the Academy (210), however, only 49 were women. That’s 23%. Believe it or not, this is progress. The first female producer on a best picture was 1973, when, Julia Phillips, won with the team that produced The Sting. She was also the second female nominee in 1976. Despite dribs and drabs for about fifteen years, no Oscar season has passed since 1994 without a woman producer in the Best Picture fold, and the number of female producers included in Best Picture credits is incrementally increasing. Still, we’re not seeing nearly enough women.
As liberal as Hollywood is caricatured by the right wing to be, it’s not so liberal when it comes to supporting diversity in its chief awards. The film industry has issues of representation, and it’s showing on Oscar night. The outcry over the lack of representation underscores that particularly at this late hour in our country’s struggle toward equality, things are never as equal as our aspirations want them to be. Well, unless you’re a bigot.
Both the Hall and the Academy face electoral issues that are threatening to undermine their credibility. For the Hall and its surrounding area, which make their bread on election weekend each year, it’s vitally important that the works not be gummed up by unqualified voters. At the Oscars, careers are made by a nomination or a win, and films can get a boost during the run up to the telecast. Oh, yes, the telecast is a big ticket item, too. There’s money to be made. But public perception is where the credibility lies, and these organizations cannot afford to lose face.
It’s hard to imagine bigger differences than chaw-packed, dirty uniformed, pine-tar helmeted ballplayers and the tuxedo-and-gown red-carpet crowd. But money and face are at risk. Ain’t that always the way?