Why Do So Many Care about the Preferences of So Few–The Oscars!

Movie awards season is well in swing.  All those films we saw in 2014 (actually most of us only saw a very few if any) are now vying for the status of “award-winning” from all sorts of competitions.  But the ones that we pay most attention to are the early January Golden Globes and the late February Academy Awards.

There are plenty of other prestigious awards—The American Film Institute honors pictures that represent the best in collaboration; the various guilds (Screen Actors, Directors, Writers, etc.) recognize excellence among their peers; the Critics’ Choice Awards are given by broadcast film and television critics; and the Film Independent Spirit Awards recognize films with budgets under $20 million.  It’s the Oscars, though, that have become an annual phenomenon.

The live broadcast of the Oscars attracted more than forty million viewers last year making it the most watched non-sports telecast over the prior ten years.   Since its founding as a modest insider dinner among Hollywood elite in 1929, the awarding of the Oscar statuettes has become one of America’s and the world’s most shared three plus hours of radio, television and now live streaming on a mobile device near you.  Office pools abound as the annual event nears—newspapers and websites provide ballots for marking the choices.  Oscar-watch parties have become yet another popular reason to costume and consume.

What is this all about? I mean how do these few movies, their stars and makers, grab the fascination of millions and millions around the globe for a couple months culminating in a TV show each year?  And how do the votes of about 6000 Academy members make a difference to those millions?  Being one of those 6000 potential voters, I marvel at it all each year.

I became a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1993.  After several years financing and producing motion pictures, I was sponsored and then elected to membership.  The Academy requires that two of its existing members sponsor a new member based on significant accomplishments connected to the creation of theatrical motion pictures.  Once a year, the Board reviews the sponsor applications and decides on the invitations it will offer to new members. Oscar nominees automatically receive membership, but not many other folks are given the nod.

No doubt that getting the invitation was a very big deal.   But being honored by membership in the Academy, doesn’t begin to help me understand why the results of voting for the Oscars makes for such a mega-conversation every January and February.

The 6000 +/- Academy members are mostly like me—white, male, in their early 60’s.  According to a best guess survey in a recent LA Times article (the Academy does not provide specifics on the demographics of its membership), 94% of the members are white, 77% are men. Hence, the annual criticism about the lack of diversity in the Academy and, this year, the controversy about the lack of diversity in the actor/actress categories.  The motion picture industry has a reality of demographics among its makers that does not mirror those of our country, but I doubt if it is much worse that so many of our professional communities.  Certainly the industry has work, lots of work, to do, but as Tim Gray points out in VARIETY, but the voting of the Academy may not be the best place to target in strengthening the diversity of our country’s films and filmmakers.

Take a look at how the voting works—each category of Oscars (actors, directors, costume design, screenwriters, etc.) is nominated by its “branch of members.”  Given the number of eligible voters in each branch, the number of votes needed to secure a nomination is pretty small.  Steve Pond in an article in THE WRAP shows how a best actor nomination takes about 190 votes to secure a place on the ballot.  Because of the number of voters in the various branches, a best director nomination can be had for about 45 votes, best cinematography takes 38 votes and so on.  The whole membership votes on best picture nominations making that category the toughest to assemble enough votes to get on the ballot—about 550.  Given such small slices of the overall membership, the numbers get diced pretty thinly and, when spread across a little over 300 eligible films, a lot of excellence is left on the side-lines.

So, I am unsure regarding how much we can deduce from the votes of a few hundred people when making sweeping cultural generalizations about the best of any Oscar categories.  I am reminded that the step-sister awards show to the Oscars, the Golden Globes, which reaches an annual audience of about 20 million (half of the Academy telecast) has results decided by a vote of 90 Hollywood Foreign Press members.  Ninty!  And we pay attention.

Once the results of those 90 reporters turns into a television event and tons of red carpet photos and unrelenting dish about who said what or wore whom, we then march relentlessly to the Oscars.  And the world awaits.  The reason we can’t not pay attention to the Oscars must be that the motion picture has always given us a reminder of what can be bad and what it is to be good—characters in conflict and celebration, adversity and triumph, the predictability and surprise of life and living.  Movies allow us to see our reflected dreams, nightmares, attitudes and beliefs.

The stories motion pictures present are often dully formulaic and not worth our time and money, but others take us on rides to other galaxies, future dimensions, back in time or into the human mind faced with unbelievable challenge.  Those are the kinds of films that catch my vote: INTERSTELLAR, AMERICAN SNIPER, BIRDMAN, SELMA, BOYHOOD, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.  Notice that not all these made the official list announced by the Academy.  I expect that all of the members had films left out of the final list that they hoped would get a nomination.  This is why I think the movies mean so much to so many—they do represent the incredible diversity of their audience.  There is always a story, a character, an image that connects.  And the connection makes a difference for that moment in time—enough of a difference for us to spend a couple months every year talking about it, hoping it will be recognized by others and cheering when it wins the Oscar.

It is an honor being a member of the Academy and it is fun to vote each year.  I do take my voting seriously—checking the box for what I think represents the best of those 300 or so films of the past year.  But then I probably only saw about 40 of those eligible—thanks to the screeners they send us—so how comprehensive and well-evidenced can my judgments be?  After all it’s not as though anyone really cares, right?  Only just about everybody.

Written for AU College of Arts and Sciences website January 2014.

 

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