This Is What the Oscars Can Actually Do to Prevent #OscarsSoWhite From Happening Again
This year's Oscar nominees are regrettably monochrome. Nonwhite actors have been ignored. Prominent stars and creators, both white and nonwhite, are angry. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president wants change.
So what does that change look like?
After yet another year of #OscarsSoWhite, it's clear the status quo will not stand — and change will not be easy. The academy is a fairly static group, with its lifetime membership resulting in entrenched tastes and mindsets. President Cheryl Boone Isaacs could invite no one but members of color next year and the next round of Oscar nominees could be just as white as ever. There are over 6,000 members of the academy. Shifting how such a big group votes will require more than just adding a few new voices.
Before diving into potential solutions, let's be clear: The academy may be complicit, but the real crime is how terribly homogenous Hollywood is. In 2014, 73.1% of all characters in the top 100 films were white. Directors, producers and casting agents must do better at looking for actors of color — an easy play, considering more representation actually makes more money. This is a systemic problem, and pruning the Oscar garden won't do anything when the roots are nothing but weeds.
That said, even if Hollywood suddenly embraces diverse casts in the majority of its hottest films, the academy still has to hold up its end of the bargain. What follows are a few ideas on how they can do that. Not all of them are perfect, some are admittedly radical, but all are specifically designed to shake things up.
Reduce membership to only the most active voters.
Academy membership is a lifetime commitment. But what if it wasn't? What if, instead of adding a bunch of new voters, the academy pruned its membership to only the most active members?
As of 2014, the academy was 94% white and 77% male. The average age was 64. These are not people who are, on the whole, going to fall in love with a movie like Selma. Remember that director Ava DuVernay got blasted last year for allegedly mischaracterizing President Lyndon Johnson's role in the civil rights movement. With only one other nomination, it's still a minor miracle Selma even got nominated for best picture.
Pruning out some of the retired or inactive academy members, many of whom will be among the older voters, would instantly revitalize the membership. Is it harsh to revoke membership? Perhaps. But the academy is not a government agency. Membership is not a right, it is a privilege. It's also not a matter of ageism — those who are still working and thus likely connecting with younger, more diverse voices would stay in.
Then, as the academy adds more inclusive future classes, the voting body would continue to stay fresh and relevant. If Isaacs really wants to change what the academy looks like, she should look at a more complete overhaul like this versus just throwing new tinder on a dying fire.
Decide nominees by committee, then require members to see all the movies.
Taking a page from the Tony Awards, which decide all its nominees by committee, this plan would see the academy convene individual groups for each category. The members of these groups would be required to watch all the eligible films and performances. They would then vote to determine the nominees. The nominees would be voted on by the full academy in order to determine the winner.
This would mean each member would have to watch a ton of movies, which makes this plan kind of impractical. Technically, every film released in Los Angeles for a week is a potential nominee. To make it work, there would have to be some kind of extra step to become an "eligible" entry, akin to how networks are required to submit their TV programs for Emmy voting in order to make it on the ballot.
While this is a hassle, it's also maybe the most effective plan on this list. Movies like Creed, which was totally ignored this year except for supporting actor Sylvester Stallone, would benefit from voters being required to see it. What seemed like a strangely timed Rocky reboot could actually be seen for what it is: an artful, sports-themed, sharply directed drama. This would've given star Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler a fighting chance.
Would it require a year or two to work out the kinks? Sure. Would it leave the academy in a better place than it is right now? Almost certainly, yes.
Prominently feature diverse films and performances in messages to voters.
This is probably the most controversial option, because it violates one of the central tenets of Oscar season: The academy should remain unbiased. To have them offer up any kind of campaign, even if just an email message, on a film or performer's behalf violates a sacred covenant. The solution to that problem would be to offer all eligible films some kind of promotion from the academy itself. Yet that's basically awards season socialism, a contradiction in itself since not everything eligible can win.
So the films featured by the academy would have to be select. Yes, it would compromise the fairness of the awards for a few years. Here's the counterargument: Oscar voters have proven two years in a row that they are incapable of putting together an inclusive nominee pool. They actually need to have their hands held.
This wouldn't be a permanent solution, nor should it be used to benefit any particular film or actor too heavily. Here's an example from this year: Had the academy featured Tangerine, a small movie starring trans performers of color, it would have opened voters' eyes to future films like it. They'd see films like The Danish Girl, starring Eddie Redmayne in an Oscar-nominated turn as a trans woman, along with other films actually featuring trans performers. Voters could then judge the performances on the merits — not on which film is more available to them.
After a few years, voters would be trained to seek out the diverse and inclusive, and then the academy could return to its previous impartiality. This would be a dramatic move, but considering the situation as it stands now, drastic action may be what the academy needs.