We are currently in the midst of one of the year’s most exciting times: awards season. The Golden Globes and Oscars are all within roughly a month, with numerous guild awards in between. And for the most part, these award shows are great. They’re a way of recognizing some of the best work in the music, TV and film industries. The Oscars, in particular, do a great job of recognizing visual effects, production staff, sound mixing and many more important pieces of filmmaking that often go unnoticed. They’re also just a great way of getting famous people in one room to give speeches and have cameras somewhat uncomfortably trained on their faces. Even making predictions for winners can be a really fun activity for some people.
That being said, these shows have raised more than a little bit of controversy in recent years. Conversations about race and gender based discrimination have rightfully risen to the top of our social consciousness. But even outside of that, the Academy has consistently had issues recognizing movies outside of the traditional dramatic fall releases. Unfortunately, progress is slow, and the same problems have arisen this year. And as someone who is very upset with some of this year’s picks, I thought it would be worth spending my column exploring the roots of these issues.
First and foremost is the issue of underrepresentation in nominations. From the vapid racial politics of Best Picture winner “Green Book” to 2016’s #OscarSoWhite campaign, it’s no secret that the Academy has an issue with diversity. In 2015 and 2016, zero of the 20 available nominations for acting went to a black actor. This year, just one of the 20 spots went to a person of color (Cynthia Erivo for “Harriet”). And it wasn’t for lack of options: Eddie Murphy, Lupita Nyong’o, Awkwafina and Jennifer Lopez all gave great performances in great films. Awkwafina even won a Golden Globe for “The Farewell.” Unfortunately, issues with gender also exist. In the entire history of the Academy Awards, only five women have ever been nominated for directors. This issue is particularly alarming in this year’s set of nominations. Personally, I cannot believe that Todd Phillips was nominated for his work on “Joker.” Even outside of any gender disparity issues, that movie was held up by everything other than its direction. The fact that he was nominated over female filmmakers like Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”) and Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”) is genuinely unbelievable.
There is an explanation for this phenomenon, even if it isn’t a comforting one: the Academy is not a very diverse group of people. In 2016, the voting members of the Academy were 91 percent white and 76 percent male. Once you absorb those numbers, the nominations start to make more sense. And because voters have lifetime terms, it’s hard to quickly shift those demographics. To their credit, the Academy has made a strong effort to increase diversity, but it isn’t easy. The voting body is made up of industry professionals in a variety of areas: acting, directing, producing, marketing and many more. To get an invitation, someone must be sponsored by two members or be nominated for an Academy Award. The Academy has used the invitation process to push for diversity, reaching a record 50 percent female invitees and 32 percent people of color in 2019. Since 2016, these efforts have increased minority representation from 9 to 16 percent and female representation from 16 to 30 percent, which is very admirable, but it will be a long time until the voting membership is representative of actual population demographics.
The second major issue with representation isn’t about demographics at all; it’s about resources. Oscar winning movies often fall into a very specific category: independent dramas that release between September and December, often backed by large studios. The release date in particular is a weirdly important factor. Movies that are intent on garnering award recognition almost always release in the fall. As a result, movies that release earlier in the year are often overlooked. Examples this year include “Booksmart” in March, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” in June and “Midsommar” and “The Farewell” in July. Those four movies, all of which were very received, received zero nominations combined. Interestingly, all of these were released by A24, one of the smaller studios in Hollywood. This leads to the next important factor: resources. Studios like Netflix and Universal often spend upwards of $20 million on everything short of bribery to gain the favor of Academy voters. Studios like A24 just don’t have cash to spend on gifts, parties, cards and other things that have become standard in the world of the Oscars. “The Farewell,” a victim of both misfortunes, is one of my top three movies of the year, and it’s disappointing to see it lose out on the highest level of awards.
The Oscars are a flawed system. Unfortunately, it hasn’t affected their status as the most prestigious awards in the film industry, and it likely never will. The only thing I can say is that we should try not to put too much stake in the opinions of a group that is far from representative of any population. At the end of the day, the Academy Awards will never affect the quality of a movie, so we should watch them for what they are: entertainment.