So now it has been a week since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences stunned the modern world by again nominating 20 white actors for a second year in a row to compete for the industry’s highest award. The pressure, to say the least, has been mounting on the Academy to take public steps — before cries of boycott take hold beyond a few voices — and apparently they will, perhaps as soon as next week’s scheduled Board Of Governors meeting.
Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs has promised “dramatic” moves, so it will be interesting to see just how dramatic. In many ways it seems to me the media is blowing this all out of proportion. The Academy has awarded Oscars and nominations to many actors of color in the past, but the breathless coverage makes it seem like none of it ever happened. As Will Smith pointed out in his GMA interview this morning, he was Oscar-nominated twice and both times lost to other black actors. It just seems now, for this moment, things may be headed again in the wrong direction, just as they seem to be in the country at large.
As I have written many times, Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson have already made an unprecedented and significant effort to diversify the mostly white, mostly male membership by urging, and getting, the various branches to open their gates to minorities — far more than in the past. In fact, when I spoke to Boone Isaacs after that announcement in June, she was clearly thrilled at the progress. And it should be noted they have had success in bringing in filmmakers and actors with diverse backgrounds who never had a chance to join this very exclusive club before.
But with those 322 new members invited last June, the desired effect on the actual Oscar nominees has yet to take hold, as witnessed by the clear disappointment Boone Isaacs shared with me shortly after she announced this year’s nominations. “We need to speed it up,” she said at the time, and repeated that in a statement released earlier this week.
So, to avoid spiraling the Academy further into crisis mode, here’s — from my POV — what they should, could and shouldn’t do at that meeting.
SHOULD DO: As I floated on Monday, an immediate return to a hard list of 10 Best Picture nominees that first began in 2009. It lasted just two years before an effort to appease loud voices opposing that move led to an amendment calling instead for a rolling number of five to 10 nominees. In the five years since that change went into place, we have had three years with nine nominees and the past two with eight. The PGA, which is the one group with a similar preferential balloting process as the Academy, is a good barometer of the success of a firm 10 — particularly this year when they nominated Straight Outta Compton and the Academy didn’t. It is highly likely that movie would have made Oscar’s list if two other films became eligible. Of course, the risk is always expanding the list and still ignoring films with diverse storylines, creating even more controversy than the Academy bargained for.
Furthermore, the voting methodology should be tweaked to allow members to really have 10 choices instead of the five they are allowed now. One producer told me this week he was upset he could only vote for five movies. He wanted to see Compton acknowledged, so he put it in fifth place even though in reality it probably was a little lower than that for him. He feels a number of fellow Academy members might have listed it had they had the opportunity to put in 10 choices.
COULD DO: Since the spotlight for two years running seems squarely on the Actors Branch (by far the largest, and with the most minority members) and an all-white lineup of 20 nominees, why not put in place a system where more nominations, if warranted, are possible in the acting categories? This would truly be one of those dramatic moves to which Boone Isaacs was referring. I even advocated this a couple of years ago when competition for Best Actor was so intense and overcrowded (as it seems to be every year) and proposed employing a system of being able to nominate anywhere from five to 10 thesps in each of the four categories. If the quality is there, why not?
The answer from critics of the idea may lie in the fact that this has no precedent in the Academy annals. A firm number of five acting nominees has been the rule since 1936. In the handful of contests before that, the number was usually three, but somewhat complicated by write-in votes which were finally banned in 1935. If the Academy really wanted to get dramatic for this year, they could bring back write-in votes for the final balloting. That’s right. Do it now. In addition to adding suspense and publicity with an extra unknown factor, it could allow those who feel Will Smith or Idris Elba or even Straight Outta Compton were robbed to feel they have an opportunity to have their voices heard. This will never happen, but it’s fun to speculate, right?
SHOULDN’T DO: Panic.
SHOULD DO: Keep up the diversity efforts, but drop the once-a-year policy for new members. Invite them on a monthly basis instead of every June. Free up the individual branches to go their own way; don’t put limits on them. The Television Academy, which has come up with lots of diverse Emmy winners in recent years, has nearly 20,000 members now. Why does the Motion Picture Academy have to be such a closed shop?
COULD DO: Go back to then-President Gregory Peck’s effort in the early 1970s when attempts were made to let only those active in the industry vote and move those who were inactive for many years into associate status. This is something the Writers Guild regularly does: If you aren’t an active WGA writer for at least four years, you are moved into a non-voting membership status. The Television Academy implemented this idea two years ago by putting stringent requirements on those who could serve as a Governor, — you had to show your credits or be declared ineligible to serve in that capacity. That might be something the Motion Picture Academy should also require, and it could possibly even help to make their BOG a little more diverse in the process. It has been true for some time that Boone Isaacs is the only person of color on that board.
SHOULDN’T DO: What I just suggested they could do. You don’t want to trade one crisis for another, and it could get ugly. Also, it likely wouldn’t really help in the ultimate goal of diversifying the Academy membership. For instance, one of the newest voting members of the Actors Branch is Sonny Skyhawk, a Native American (and activist in the industry on their behalf) who certainly is a beneficiary of the major move towards diversity. But according to IMDb, he has had only one minor film role in 15 years, and not much before that. If they started to purge the rolls based on actual film credits he would probably be out, and that’s not the idea.
SHOULD DO: Keep up the public diversity efforts. As I said last week, the day I joined the Academy’s first-ever “Careers In Film Summit” in the fall was inspiring. This was an all-day event at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre designed to let mostly minority students from local schools in on the secrets of how to make it in the industry. As I sat on my panel and looked out at that packed crowd of eager faces, and talked to them from the stage and one on one, I realized this is the kind of thing the Academy should be doing, and thankfully is doing. I would expand on it. And I would encourage all those big important names that populate the Academy membership to start looking at ways to bring more diversity into the actual films they greenlight. If these kids don’t have a chance, you are never going to get those special movies the Academy could nominate.
This could be a pivotal moment Academy, and even a welcome one, if more good comes out of it. Do the right thing.