Like many Academy members, I was embarrassed and disappointed when this year’s Oscar nominees were announced, but I wasn’t shocked. After all, no season passes without several scathing articles about the lack of diversity in Hollywood, both on the screen and in executive suites. On the other hand, when fingers were pointed at the membership of the Academy as the cause of the problem, I bristled at the implications.
To my mind, the lack of diverse nominations is a symptom, not the cause, of the problem. So when the Academy quickly moved to change its membership rules in response to the controversy, I was both proud and disappointed — proud of the organization for taking action, any action, that could alleviate even a small part of the problem, but disappointed that once the new rules were fully revealed, it became clear that there would be little, if any, impact on the desired results.
The question for me is, what actions can an organization like the Academy take to increase diversity when they have no control over the process by which people are hired, films are green-lit, and movies are marketed? After reading all the various #OscarsSoWhite articles over the last few weeks and digesting a multitude of opinions, I’ve come up some concrete suggestions that may not change Hollywood overnight, but might incentivize the industry to try much harder.
1. Create new categories that will encourage diversity, such as Best First Feature, Best Breakthrough Performances (male and female), and Best Ensemble Cast. These and other categories are already used by other organizations. And if one looks at those results, it definitely allows for the embrace of younger artists and a wider net. It might also incentivize the industry to create more films that could qualify for these categories. I understand the inherent risk of “ghettoizing” these films, but no more so than is true of Best Animated Film or Best Documentary, for that matter.
2. Automatically offer Academy Membership to everyone who gets nominated in the above categories. That should jumpstart the membership diversity effort. It would certainly get some younger members.
3. In order to make up for the additional categories, give out technical awards prior to the telecast and just show quick highlights at some point during the show. They do this on other awards shows and it works just fine. It might have the additional benefit of allowing winners to finish their speeches.
4. If promoting diversity in Hollywood is a goal of the Academy, create a yearly honorary award to reward someone who has done just that. This year’s award could have been given to Donna Langley for the incredibly diverse and successful slate she put together at Universal. This sort of achievement needs to be feted — perhaps at the Governor’s Awards, along with other honorary awards — so that the studios understand that diversity and box office are not mutually exclusive. An annual award could motivate others to do the same.
5. Change the way the Oscar votes are counted. The current byzantine system of “preferential ballots” may sound good on paper, but seems to have the unintended result of favoring safe, middle-brow choices. If members are asked to rank their top five or top ten films, give all of their choices graduated points and tally those points up. With the current system, even if every single voter were to list a particular film in third place on his/her ballot, that film could conceivably not get nominated. That’s very strange, and certainly cuts out possible nominees that might make the selection more diverse.
6. Do not allow anyone to vote in the nomination process unless they confirm that they have seen a certain percentage of the eligible films. And in the final round, do not let anyone vote in any category unless they’ve seen ALL the nominees. This can be done on the honor system, much like the way the British Academy does it. When a member logs in to vote for the BAFTA awards, it offers up a list of all the eligible films and asks you to check off the ones you’ve seen. Then it only allows you to vote in the categories where you’ve seen all the films. Obviously, if someone wishes to cheat, they can. But I guarantee that, faced with the question directly, the vast majority of Academy members would do the right thing.
7. The Academy has to do something to reign in the rampant campaigning that has been distorting the process. So much money and glad-handing is thrown at winning Oscars that it has become a self-perpetuating process, which promotes the most obvious, clichéd, middle-brow movies to the fore, at the expense of the films that would increase diversity. For starters, how about making Academy members sign a pledge that they won’t participate in Q&As, dinners, and other events that are clearly meant to sell Academy members on voting for their films? We are already told that it’s against the rules to solicit votes directly. This could be the next step.
8. Finally, something needs to be done about the prognostication by the press, which ludicrously begins projecting the odds of Oscar nominations before anyone has seen the films in potential contention. This “sport” only succeeds in giving enormous power to publicists who start whispering the attributes of their clients’ films long before they are released. When the press says that “Straight Out of Compton” doesn’t have a chance, it’s no wonder that many Academy members don’t bother to see the film. I have no solution to offer, but this needs to be dealt with.
I believe that if these steps are put into place, the Academy can have
some (perhaps small) impact on the industry as a whole — which is a lot better
than taking the heat for an unacceptable and frankly unfathomable institutional
issue that it really has no control over.