Founded in 1927 by 36 of the most influential men and women in the film industry, the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences now totals over 7,000 artists and professionals.
As the 89th Academy Awards ceremony approaches, news of its nominations has engulfed entertainment news, with endless debates and predictions of how the well the nominees’ fare at a chance of winning one of the coveted gold-plated statuettes.
However, the Oscars have not always been praised for their choices; many classic films and iconic figures do even not feature on the Academy’s winners list, notably Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles. Filled with predictions and statistics, the media has saturated the awards season with odds and opinions. By the time the awards ceremony arrives, there are very little surprises left to anticipate.
The secretive affairs of the Academy are as unpredictable and controversial as those within politics.
Here are 10 noticeable flaws with the Voting Academy.
10. Highly Imbalanced Voting
The electing campaign for the Oscars is said to rival the passions, and excesses, of the United States’ quadrennial race for presidency. Commencing in November, members are invited to special screenings of the nominated films, as well as receiving copies of their DVDs.
The entire process is aggressively monitored, particularly the mailing of the nomination ballots – overseen by a firm who has audited for the Academy since 1936. Until the night of the ceremony, only two people in the entire membership are trusted with the sacred knowledge of the winning nominees.
To secure a nomination, however, there is a significant variance in difficulty. Members from each individual branch determine the votes for the nominees within their own category. With over 1,000 members, the actors branch is the largest, whereas the costume designers is the significantly smaller, consisting of approximately 100 members.
Christopher Goodwin summarises this major flaw:
‘Only 18 votes are needed for a film to win a costume design Oscar nomination. It takes only 39 votes to win a Film Editing nomination, and so on… Because of the preferential voting system for Best Picture nominations, although 6,208 are eligible to vote, a film can secure one of the Best Picture nomination slots with only 301 votes.’
There seems to be no regulation in place to avoid the apparent devaluation of certain awards. Despite the common myths of individual Oscars holding more prestige than others, any Oscar is an equally monumental achievement. Such myths exist only because of the Academy’s seemingly preferential methodology.
9. It is ‘Overwhelmingly White’.
Inequality naturally manifested itself within the Academy’s ranks as a result of its mirroring of society. During the early stages of the membership’s existence, a patriarchal society actively discouraged women from directorial and editorial roles; racial inequality was prevalent until the introduction of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. How, then, could the Academy Awards ever hope to offer equal chances to the filmmaking community?
In 1939, Hattie McDaniel was awarded the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance of Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939); she became the first African-American to win an Academy Award. In a rather moving speech, Fay Bainter presented McDaniel with the award, detailing symbolism the Oscar represented. In 1964, Sidney Poitier became the first African-American male to win Best Actor in a Leading Role for his role in Lilies of the Field (1963) and the only black male to win the award for 38 years; Denzel Washington later won the award in 2002 for his performance in Training Day (2001), and again, this year, for his role in Fences (2016)
Although equality has made a vast improvement in contemporary society, a 2012 study of the Academy Awards revealed that the membership is still ‘overwhelmingly white’. With only 2% of the entire Academy African-American and even fewer members of Latino origin.
8. It is Largely Male Dominated
In the past 86 years of the Oscars, only one woman – Kathryn Bigelow – has ever received the award for Best Director, namely for her direction of The Hurt Locker in 2008. This year the category lacks any female nominations.
Nancy Schreiber of the Academy’s cinematography branch comments on the issue: “You would think that in this day and age, there would be a little bit more equality across the board, but that’s not the case.”
With their problems mirroring issues within the industry as a whole, we can not solely criticise the Academy for its prevalent demographic flaws. However, with 90% of five branches being occupied by men, perhaps there is room for improvement?
Writer-director Phil Alden Robinson, an Academy governor, addressed the issue in 2012: “We absolutely recognise that we need to do a better job” he stated. “We start off with one hand tied behind our back… If the industry as a whole is not doing a great job in opening up its ranks, it’s very hard for us to diversify our membership.”
7. The Average Academy Member Is 62 Years Old
A mere 14% of the entire Academy is younger than 50 years old – hardly an accurate representation of the film-making community. Now, this is not to criticise older members who, undoubtedly, will possess more experience. The sheer volume of the older members, however, has sparked a fair amount of controversy.
The 2011 Academy Awards saw The Social Network, originally nominated for 8 awards in total, scoop Oscars for Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Music (Original Score) and Film Editing. The King’s Speech unexpectedly won 5 awards including Best Actor, Best Director and the prized Best Picture Award. Understandably a little piqued, Sony Pictures Executives insinuated that the true reason they lost out to The King’s Speech was a result of Oscar voters feeling alienated by the Internet-based story.
6. Oscar ‘Bait’
Oscar ‘bait’ films are typically released in the later months of the year when the Academy is set to compile its ballot. Typically addressing important societal issues, they are often stirring dramas or historical epics. Featuring acclaimed actors, emotionally charged scores and a moving story, the producers certainly hope to grab the Academy’s attention with these films.
Last year’s Best Picture nominees featured the likes of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant (2015) alongside Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015); Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs (2015) and Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl (2015) – films so vastly different in genre and production values that could only boil the award down to the most accomplished.
Unique, visually impressive films also fare well: the third instalment of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, won an impressive 11 Oscars during the 76th Academy Awards in 2004. Arguably, this success is attributed to the fact that there was nothing, in terms of genre and length, to rival its ambition. Although these films don’t always win, we can certainly expect to see at least one historical drama or philosophically-imbued film each year.
5. Excessive Campaigning
Nominees are competitive – that much is clear when someone else claims their Oscar. From red carpet events to tactical marketing, actors and producers alike will grace as many public events as possible in the build-up to the Oscars. Bigger budgets and influence often affects a film’s chances at gaining exposure. A notably larger effort has been afforded to advertising in recent years. As well as internet pop-ups, many films’ teaser trailers are featured intermittently during the duration of a TV programme at a rate that very easily becomes annoying.
Oscar Isaac, of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) fame, actively participated in the campaigning process for the film’s Oscar bid, performing intimate gigs to promote his film. Actors and actresses from each of the nominated films showed an equal fervour for promotion through an extensive number of interviews and public appearances.
Not every actor appreciates this aggressive focus on campaigning. Michael Fassbender, having been snubbed from the Best Actor category in 2011, admitted to GQ that he felt particularly jaded as a result of rigorously campaigning for Shame: “You try and help and facilitate as best you can. But I won’t put myself through that kind of situation again… I’m not a politician. I’m an actor.”
The Academy’s alikeness to politics certainly seems appropriate.
4. Suspicion of Fake Voting
It is important to note that the Academy never fully discloses its membership list. There has long been a suspicion that some members have in fact passed away; failing to notify the Academy, family members then complete the ballot. The process has reportedly shifted to a digital submission format and therefore, the identity of the voter would remain anonymous, open to corruption and manipulation – so long as the correct login details were used.
If nothing else, this is a clever method to acquire contending DVD’s.
It is also entirely possible that many members do not even cast a vote during the nomination ballot. Due to the imbalance of branch members, respective categories require a certain amount of votes to guarantee a nomination. Once this number has been reached, any further votes for the film are in excess. Consequently, many members have the liberty to not even bother voting, whilst others may have their votes completed for them.
There is no proof otherwise; behind the closed doors of the Academy, we can only speculate.
3. Voters Don’t Watch Many of The Films In Contention
“The deep, dark secret about the Academy is that few people actually see a lot of the movies in contention.” reports Scott Feinberg. “They will even vote for films they have never actually seen, persuaded of their worthiness by the movie studios, with their multimillion-dollar advertising and promotional budgets. Meanwhile, worthier films may be completely overlooked.”
Being swayed by money completely undermines the event. As film budgets grow, their economic potential rises making the issue entirely plausible. Most likely, the Academy members may see a lot of the films up for nomination, but not all of them. This preferential treatment will naturally encourage them to vote for the best film they have seen.
This knowledge encourages producers to indulge in their excessive campaigning methods.
2. The Best Films Don’t Win
Due to all the reasons listed, the Academy has become a homogenous entity. As the voting system relies on a majority vote, the older, white male demographic has a better chance at putting forward a dominant opinion that isn’t always the right one, especially in the eyes of the Box Office. In the voting environment, there will always be a difference in opinion that may not necessarily reach the nomination ballot.
Some of the most successful films have been snubbed for an Oscar, and in some cases even a nomination: take Pulp Fiction (1994), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Se7en (1995), for example – the latter of which failed to even receive one nomination, despite its critical and audience acclaim. For lesser-known films, the Oscars do provide an opportunity to showcase a selection of excellent cinema – the primary purpose that Louis B. Mayer set out to accomplish in 1927 with his co-founders.
With both its positive and negative repercussions, the Academy does not always award the better films.
Naturally, the extravagant spending figures tied to the Oscars are to be expected. The iconic, star-studded event is as lavish and gold-plated as we could ever expect it to be. Approximately, the full expenditure of the Academy’s awards ceremony and its subsidiary events costs $40m. Although maintaining an impressive archival library as well as its investment in scholarship programmes and centres for motion picture study, the Academy reportedly possesses assets of around $300m – including properties in Beverly Hills.
The Academy itself states: “Because of the Academy’s successful efforts to eliminate splashy gimmicks and gifts, the “race” to be nominated consists principally of attempts by studios, independent distributors and publicists to make sure that each of the nearly 6,000 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sees their film.”
The Academy itself holds to its claim of the “members being the organisations greatest asset.” As an assemblage of the ‘finest artists and craftspersons of the art form’, the Academy’s ranks are certainly a testament to the most acclaimed artists of the collaborative media – they can be granted a little freedom in their quest to host the most extravagant congregation of film stars and creatives in the awards season. With a revenue that exceeds $150m, we can only assume that they know how to throw a good after-party.
In a league of its own, the Academy represents the elite of the film industry. Its flaws mirror issues within the industry itself: there is inequality and probably too much money spent on the wrong things. Nevertheless, the film industry is still thriving. In an age where other media texts are becoming a risk to its popularity, Film is, arguably, more affluent and successful than ever.
The 89th Academy Awards Ceremony takes place on Sunday, 26th February at the Dolby Theatre in LA. You can view UK coverage of the Awards from midnight (7pm in New York and 4pm in LA.) The actual ceremony is slated to begin at 1.30am in the UK.
Sound familiar? This article was originally published on WhatCulture in 2013 (written by myself).
Having only spent a brief writing with the company, I’ve since reclaimed my article and refurbished it for the purpose of the 2017 Academy Awards.
Thanks for reading!