3 Things That Would Shake Up the Predictable, Broken Oscars

By  · Published on February 23rd, 2015

Art by Alexander Huls

Two things happened last night at the Oscars which seem contradictory.

First, the establishment named a challenging, risky, often experimental film as the best of the year. Second, I went 21 for 24 in predicting the winners. It wasn’t difficult. The Oscars are nothing if not predictable, but that’s only one problem facing the geriatric behemoth that has a clear mission statement (to celebrate quality filmmaking) that’s also impossible to carry out in its current state.

The other – larger – problems are diversity (eesh) and a general disconnection from the cultural conversation. With all these in mind, I’d like to offer three changes to the way AMPAS does business that it can ignore completely because none of these solutions will ensure more viewers or ad revenue.

#1. Have 20 Best Picture Nominees and 10 Acting Nominees

After you stop laughing, consider that the Oscars featured 10 Best Picture nominees for a huge chunk of its early life as an award, dropped down to 5 (arbitrarily, as all things are), and recently shifted back to 10 before amending it to “up to 10.” That’s why we ended up with 8 BP nominees this year. No Nightcrawler. No Foxcatcher.

This isn’t solely about “snubs” for movies with titles that could double as spy operation code names. It’s also not about handing out some sort of participation ribbon. It would absurd to think so considering the numbers involved.

Now that we’re seeing between 500 and 700 movies a year apply for MPAA ratings, having 8 BP nominees represents the top 1% of movies released in theaters. Boosting the number of Best Picture nominees to a mandatory 20 would be celebrating the top 3% instead. Not exactly earth-shattering.

Yet it would bring recognition to a larger pool of excellent work. There are already far too many movies released in a calendar year for the Oscars (“Here’s 8 we liked!”) to have any real meaning, and creating more slots would give the voters and nominators freedom to cheer for strong filmmaking that typically wouldn’t be within a country mile of the Oscars stage. Or more documentaries. More animated features. More foreign films.

In fact, they could double all of the categories in size. James Rocchi makes this suggestion after speaking with Drafthouse Films CEO Tim League – if your awards are about recognizing quality filmmaking, why not recognize it?

What’s even better is that the Academy rules already ensure that nominees are considered for AMPAS membership, so increasing the amount of nominees could push beyond the “whitest in decades” issue and slowly build a more diverse roster of voters. Here’s Rocchi’s brain whirring into action on it:

In a hypothetical case, let’s look at the Best Supporting Actor race this year. Right now, your nominees are Robert Duvall, for The Judge, Ethan Hawke for Boyhood, Edward Norton for Birdman, Mark Ruffalo for Foxcatcher, and J. K. Simmons for Whiplash. Add five more slots and you could include nominees like Riz Ahmed for Nightcrawler, Tyler Perry for Gone Girl, Alfred Molina for Love Is Strange, Miyavi for Unbroken, and Tony Revolori of The Grand Budapest Hotel – all of whom are deserving of consideration, and all of whom could potentially win. And the broader 10-nominee field couldn’t help but turn the race into an actual race.

If you think it would somehow water down the awards, feel free to read the roughly ten billion Top 10 and Top 20 and Top 100 lists put out by every movie publication every year. Is it really that difficult to imagine putting together a respectable list of 20 great movies every year? And if the awards are indexed by year, can’t we allow for some years to be better or worse than others?

Of course, this suggestion is also meant to work in tandem with the following two.

#2. Kick Out Voters More Regularly

Disney/Pixar

The greatest joy of Oscar season is watching how openly, blissfully honest some of the Oscar voters are about being 1) incompetent and 2) not liking many movies all that much.

Scott Feinberg’s series of Brutally Honest Oscar Ballots prove anonymity is a rope to hang yourself with. There are a few inspiring entries, but most are horrifying. You start to admire voters who didn’t see any movies and abstained simply because of voters who didn’t see any movies but still voted. That’s a problem. There are also voters who don’t know how to vote.

Obviously this is a touchy subject with a bruised ego at its heart, but the number of legacy voters needs to be thinned. The fact that the average Oscar voter was born the same year The Greatest Show on Earth won best picture is a disheartening one. Again, 63 is the average age. It’s a large part of the reason that ossification and conservatism set in. Creating a system where memberships last for 10 years and need to be renewed can help churn the waters a bit.

Or, keeping legacy members while aggressively expanding the roster can achieve something similar.

After all, it’s difficult to say how long an AMPAS member should stay on the roster without actively making movies, but it’s those kinds of difficult distinctions that can change the game.

(It’s also still my sincere hope that the Brutal Oscar voters are outliers.)

#3. Create Greater Access

In a way, AMPAS is the least well-equipped group of people to celebrate quality filmmaking. They are (mostly) working filmmakers who aren’t watching 2–3 releases a week. Some of their members can’t even be bothered to see the short list of movies that get nominated. Their job is making movies, not watching them, so they rely greatly on other gatekeepers to thin the herd – to make a short list before the short list.

This can be understandably frustrating for producers struggling to get some recognition from the Academy. It’s why Team Selma had their feet held to the fire (lukewarm as it is) of the Oscar expert press for not getting their film into the hands of voters soon enough. Academy members get special screenings, For Your Consideration discs sent to their houses, and yet, for whatever reason, some of them still won’t watch the movies.

If it’s a matter of time, there’s no helping that, although those voters should seriously consider not voting at all. If you’ve signed up to do something, you make time to do it.

If it’s a matter of getting access to the movies, the Academy should push harder for streaming services that work better. Festivals use digital screening rooms already, and there are several that critics use for reviews (although most are glitchy).

What I’m envisioning is a streaming library option for Academy members to be populated by filmmakers themselves. It can even be done by category the same way FYC campaigns are done. When their movie is made eligible for Oscar consideration based on release, a filmmaker would have the opportunity to submit a digital file to a screening library to which only AMPAS members (or members of specific branches, even) would have access.

It wouldn’t destroy the massive need for campaigning, but it could dilute it at least a bit. Democratize at least a bit.

Besides, the main goal would be to give Oscar voters even more opportunities, spread out throughout the year, to see the movies they’ll be choosing from. It would also give them greater power to shape the conversation instead of having it shaped for them by festival panels and critics circles.

In Conclusion

Three three suggestions – taken separately or collectively – could change the kinds of movies we see celebrated on Oscar night. We might even see some movies that have nothing to do with movie-making or how great actors are. If you can imagine.

But, as I said at the top, AMPAS has zero external incentives to make changes that don’t bring more eyes to their ceremony. Because of that, they will most likely continue to be as predictable and homogeneous as they are today.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.