Awards season is over after the Feb. 22 Academy Awards, also known as The Oscars. The highly coveted golden statue has come under fire recently with controversy surrounding the diversity of the nominees. It seems justified: of the 20 acting nominees, approximately zero were not white. The directing category is not better: all nominees were men and only one was a man-of-color. Of course, initial reactions to these facts can go two ways, one saying, “look at this injustice” and another saying “well maybe these were just the best films and they just happen to be made by white men.” The issue is that both of these reactions are unfair.
Let’s start with how the Academy is chosen. No one applies to the Academy; rather it works as a series of recommendations from current members. On the organization’s website it states, “The Academy’s membership process is by sponsorship, not application. Candidates must be sponsored by two Academy members from the branch to which the candidate seeks admission.” Essentially, this means that those who are in the organization get to choose who joins later. Potentially this explains why the Academy is 94 percent white and 77 percent male with an average age of 62. This is not to say that the Academy members are only choosing people like themselves to join their organization, but rather that the statistics imply that the system is set up to favor certain groups, namely white men. I’m not saying that white men are horrible moviemakers nor am I suggesting that every non-white, non-male moviemaker is worthy of being in the Academy. The issue arises when others members choose who joins the organization. Imagine if you could only get into college if two people from that university recommended you to the committee with no ACT scores or transcripts.
The Academy is not solely old, white guys. In fact, President of the Academy Cheryl Boone Isaacs is a female, woman-of-color. However, of the six other members in her cabinet, only one more is a woman. The academy repeatedly says that it wishes to represent the voices of the American moviegoer, but if that were the case then half of the board would be women and 40 percent would be non-white. The board is comprised of directors, cinematographers, costume and makeup designers, actors, sound designers and producers, all of whom are outstanding in their field. This editorial does not seek to call these people unqualified but rather to ask why there is not more diversity in these qualified individuals.
Further, the way the system works is innately flawed. As an example, in the Academy’s 86-year history of awarding Best Director, only one woman has won: Katheryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker.” The first woman was nominated for the award in 1976 (Lina Wertmüller for “Seven Beauties”), and only four women in total have vied for the award (Wertmüller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola and Bigelow). Bigelow was predicted to be nominated again for 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty”, but was not chosen in the end. Many people referred to this as a snub, but others stated that “Zero Dark Thirty” was too similar to “The Hurt Locker” (both took place in Iraq during the war), and thus Bigelow should not have been nominated. The issue I find with the latter reasoning is that many male directors have made their fame off of movies with similar themes (Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Ingmar Bergman), yet all of these men have been nominated and won more than once. It seems as though the Academy has a check box that it feels elated to mark when it does something forward thinking but then tosses the momentum aside in order to go back to old ways. This is seen further in the recent controversy of the snubs for “Selma,” which some argued was “too similar” to “12 Years a Slave”, and the Academy proved that it would not award two movies about race in a row. Now, some people argued that “Selma” was snubbed because old white guys are racist, which is unfair. What seems fair is that “12 Years a Slave” was more of a critical success than “Selma,” and perhaps that explains why “12 Years” was more of an Oscar darling in comparison. Is it fair that people compare the two films? Absolutely not. You cannot call a film with a mostly African-American cast a similar film, especially if it takes place roughly a hundred years apart in two different parts of the country. That would be like saying a movie about World War II and the Iraq war are too similar to be nominated a year apart. Basically, if a filmmaker can make a movie where a character could be any skin color, they will probably cast a white person because it will be easier to market. Instead, black actors and actresses are relegated to movies that talk about topics about race, i.e slavery and civil rights. If voters want to see black artists doing different things, then they need to ask filmmakers and producers to make movies with non-white people that do not have to do with struggles for equality. Alas, the major issue with “Selma” is that we cannot truly know why the film lost out unless we visit PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) and see the statistics, and even then we could not know the reasoning behind the voter’s ballots.
Voting in the Academy has not changed much in the 86 years of the awards’ history. The same firm, PWC, calculates the votes, the ballots are still mailed to the voters (even though now one can cast their votes online, but most still do paper), and voting ends on Tuesday the week of the show at 5 p.m. What has changed is the game producers play in order to ensure their films success.
You need money to make a film. It is never a small amount, almost always over $1 million and that’s for a low budget film. You have to hire Screen Actors Guild actors and unionized workers, which really adds up money. Production costs increase every year and many films do not make money, especially if they do not go into wide release. Enter the producer and film distribution company. The producer’s job is to sink money into production and then work with the distributor to make sure that the film is successful. With that responsibility comes a lot of power. Producers can make decisions about the direction, release date and anything else they deem vital to the production. Sometimes this causes tension and other times it turns a small film into an awards darling.
Here is where this fits into the Oscars: advertising. The past six winners for best picture spent over $5 million in advertising just for awards show season. “Shakespeare in Love,” which won in 1998, spent over $13 million to beat its competitor “Saving Private Ryan,” which had to increase its campaign budget in response. Essentially, it is possible for a producer to buy his or her movie an Oscar. In 2012, Harvey Weinstein hired one of Barack Obama’s campaign workersto push “Silver Linings Playbook” to Academy voters. Weinstein is notorious for his Oscar campaigns, and it has- no pun intended- paid off with over 300 Academy Award nominations. What is sad about this is the transition of the awards show from a celebration of film into a political campaign. Movie dates are set back or pushed too far up in order to compete, which can cut into a production timetable and corrupt the director or cinematographer’s vision. Money is the only thought, even though it has been proven that Oscar wins do not correlate to box office success. Capitalistic ideology has no place in celebrating film. Furthermore, if awards can be bought then what is that supposed to say about the winners? That they are simply puppets for producers? If they do not play the game, then what is at stake?
Mo’Nique Imes-Jackson, 2010 Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Precious” revealed early Feb. that she was blackballed in Hollywood for refusing to participate in the award show gestures that her producers asked her repeatedly to perform. She said she wanted the academy to “judge the performance, not how many parties [I went] to.” In this instance, the performance spoke for itself and she won. However, for five years she was not offered any significant role in a film. Essentially, not playing the game can mean career death, especially for women and women-of-color. In fact, even playing the game and winning is not great for women.
Winning an Academy Award sounds like it could entail a huge career boost, but the reality is that it tends to only favor male winners. I find it interesting that Sunday winner Patricia Arquette called for wage equality in her speech, especially considering that her win does not mean that she will see that equality herself in the coming year. If a male wins an Oscar, he can expect a $3.5 million raise, whereas female winners on average get a 500,000-dollar raise. Wage inequality happens in Hollywood too. The Sony hacks in Dec. 2014 revealed a huge inequity between male and female costars. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, who worked and were billed the same as male costars Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale on “American Hustle”, were revealed to have been paid 2% less than their costars and director. This may seem like a small difference, but on a multi-million dollar profit it meant that the women were going to make millions less than the men who spent equal amounts of screen time with them.
As mentioned before, there is a huge discrepancy in representation in film. Over 90 percent of the summer releases in 2014 were directed by white men, two by black men, and only one major release was directed by a woman. Women have an especially hard time making it in the film industry as directors, especially as serious directors. In fact a study released in 2011, only 5 percent of the top-grossing 250 films were directed by women; in 2012, it was 9 percent. It is like we are getting worse and worse about letting women take the helm of movie production. Women are making films, good films, but they aren’t going into wide release and distribution because companies find women directors hard to market. Again, I am not saying that men who direct movies are sexist or that the films that they make are any worse or better than female directed films, but it is undeniable that there is sexual and racial bias in the movie making industry, and that bias translates to the Oscars. There have only been 14 acting winners who have been black, and 99 percent of Best Actress winners have been white, with 93 percent for Best Actor.
Basically, the Academy represents a much larger issue within Hollywood as a whole. There is extreme bias in favor of white men, and they dominate the field especially where it matters the most: producing. The Oscars have transformed from a celebration of movie making into a political campaign where the highest bidder takes home the trophy. Of course, there are exceptions where, against the odds, the right person takes home the statue, but it is all too rare. In order to fix the Oscars, we must first fix the industry, but it seems too broken to repair, and perhaps it was never really whole in the beginning.