The rallying calls have reached a fever pitch. Since nominations for the 88th Academy Awards were announced last Thursday and — for the second consecutive year —consisted of an entirely white pool of acting contenders, demands to better diversify the Oscars have come from the likes of Spike Lee, George Clooney, Michael Moore, recent Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, and the Academy’s African-American president herself, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Jada Pinkett Smith called for a boycott, which was seconded by her husband, Will Smith.
With high-profile snubs of films that included Straight Outta Compton and Creed and performances from Will Smith (Concussion) and Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation), all coming a year after the Best Picture nominee Selma’s director, Ava DuVernay, and leading man, David Oyelowo, were left off the ballot, it’s clear Oscar’s voting system is broken.
But how can the problem be remedied? As Quincy Jones said, “You can boycott it, or you can fix it.” In the interest of striving for the latter, here are a few actionable items the Academy could consider going forward (and taking into account the nuances such armchair quarterbacking can often overlook) — and one plea to the equally culpable industry as a whole.
1. Dramatically increase the number of Academy members, and keep diversifying its ranks.
Boone Issacs has said the Academy is “taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup” of its membership, but will they be dramatic enough? The institution doesn’t need a Band-Aid, it needs a face-lift. The statistics have been quoted ad nauseam: A 2012 report from the Los Angeles Times found that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ voting body was 94 percent white and 77 percent male.
To the Academy’s credit, it has been taking steps to actively pursue more minorities and women over the last few years in light of the Times’ revelations. “I think they’re already doing what they have to do, which is to increase the diversity of the membership,” says Thompson on Hollywood columnist Anne Thompson. She points to recent years’ recruits, which have included new members who are younger than usual, and more women, indie and documentary filmmakers, and high-profile people of color, like Prince and Beyoncé.
But those are baby steps, and the last two years have proven there are still major discrepancies. So how to bring more women and people of color into the mix? First off, greatly expand the number of voters. The Academy counts approximately 6,200 members. By contrast, the Television Academy has over 19,000 members and the Recording Academy has more than 20,000; you don’t see controversies over the Emmys and Grammys being whitewashed. “The central problem is that the Academy has kept their membership at an unofficially low number that is dominated by old white males,” says Tom O’Neil, editor of the popular awards predictor site Gold Derby. O’Neil wants to see the Academy “blast open that door” and increase membership by 50 percent (to 9,000) over the next three years.
To help achieve this goal, the Academy should launch an application process. Unlike the Television and Recording academies, where industry pros can apply for membership if they possess the proper credentials, membership to the cinematic club is so exclusive it’s by invitation only and requires sponsors. “Again, it’s this elite privilege game, this inner-circle star chamber deciding who can be in there or not,” says O’Neil. “Open the doors, let everyone apply.”
Why it might not work: Um, they’ll have to hire more people to process all those ballots?
2. Remove life terms and limit voting to active members.
Yes, the Academy is currently Hollywood’s version of the Supreme Court. Once you’re in, you’re in for life. It results in an assembly that sways old. The Los Angeles Times report from 2012 put the average age of voters at 62, while a more recent study shows its crept up to 63. Many experts, including O’Neil and Thompson, say that the snubbing of Compton, the only predominantly black film to have a strong chance at earning a Best Picture nod, was not a race issue but an age issue. Whereas other recent music biopics, like Ray and Walk the Line, spoke to voters who knew and loved Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, they had no frame of reference for N.W.A.
The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern has suggested implementing a cutoff age of 65 “for members whose tastes no longer reflect the current zeitgeist,” but that seems harsh. The Academy should reflect the voices of adults of all ages (notice I said adults: We can’t risk opening this up to children and seeing Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip squeak in). What the Academy should do instead is limit voting to active members — actors or producers or directors or sound mixers who have made a film within the past five or 10 years. O’Neil suggested implementing similar requirements to the Screen Actor’s Guild, which allows only active members to vote for their awards while not forcing anyone out of the guild who hasn’t worked recently. Instead, they’re designated inactive and ineligible to vote.
Why it might not work: The Academy could be trading accusations of racism for accusations of ageism. Also, there will inevitably be some very beloved folks who have had long and prosperous careers who are forced out of the voting process because they’re retired. And Thompson makes a great point: “The whole point of the Academy is that these people earned their respect and due place in that organization based on the work that they did, and they are capable of making assessments of their field.”
3. Get rid of the 5 percent rule in Best Picture.
The Academy has proven it is willing to change – look no further than the organization’s reaction to the infamous dissing of The Dark Knight in 2009, which prompted a shift from five to 10 contenders in the Best Picture category. The idea was to open up the field to both bigger blockbusters and smaller indies. But its current incarnation (which allows anywhere between five and 10 nominees) relies on an odd preferential voting system where a movie must garner 5 percent of first-place votes in the nomination process to make the ballot. This likely hurt Straight Outta Compton’s chances; while it didn’t reach the qualifying percentage for an Oscar nod, the film had strong support among all the key guilds, proving its worthiness. Indeed, Compton was the first film to be recognized in the top category by the PGA, SAG, and WGA, yet fail to earn a Best Picture nomination from Oscar since Bridesmaids in 2012. Another film that was hailed by critics but probably dinged by the Academy’s convoluted process was the lesbian romance Carol.
If there had been 10 nominations total, both Straight Outta Compton and Carol would very likely have made the shortlist. So let’s start by returning to a field of 10 to avoid having a nonspecific number of contenders each year. And don’t make the selection process so complicated to begin with. “Everybody has a top 10 list, why not Oscar?” asks O’Neil, who would also like to see the other major categories similarly expanded.
No matter what, the Academy should do away with the 5 percent rule and go by sheer number of votes during the nomination process. This doesn’t have to be the Electoral College. Just use the popular vote.
Why it might not work: Admittedly, the current system has achieved its original goal of opening up the Best Picture race to big fan favorites and smaller art house films. Just see this year’s inclusion of Mad Max: Fury Road and Room, respectively. So we don’t want to mess that up.
4. Make more diverse movies.
In some ways, 2016 was a strong year for filmmakers and actors of color, with such acclaimed movies as Compton, Creed, Beasts, Chi-Raq, Tangerine, and Dope. (There’s also that little film called Star Wars: The Force Awakens, whose three leads are a woman, a black man, and a Latino man.)
Those are some solid films, but they are a tiny slice of Hollywood’s overall output, and many were independently produced. Ultimately, #OscarsSoWhite is a product of the industry’s shortcoming as much as it is the Academy’s.
There are simply still not enough major motion pictures being made by and for people of color. “Inside the business, there is a huge problem,” Thompson said. “An enormous problem.” That needs to change, and it’s the shot-callers inside Hollywood’s studio system who need to lead the charge — and work on diversifying their ranks as well.
Why it might not work: It has to.