Essays · Movies

Rethinking The Oscars Voting Process

The outrage surrounding the Academy’s consistently poor decision-making isn’t for nothing. The whole voting process is fueled by thoughtlessness.
Oscars Voting
By  · Published on February 22nd, 2019

Consider the process. According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, “Most categories are nominated by the members of the corresponding branch — actors nominate actors, film editors nominate film editors, etc. However, certain categories such as Foreign Language Film and Animated Feature Film have special voting rules. All voting members are eligible to select the Best Picture nominees.” Okay, that makes sense. Actors should nominate actors. Directors should nominate directors. Best Picture is understandably broad. So far, so good.

Once nominations are final, “all Oscar categories are on the ballot for voting members.” Hm, alright. I’m not sure why we’d extend the vote for makeup and hair to sound technicians, or visual effects to costume designers, but I suppose voters know how culturally significant the Oscars are. I trust they’ll take their voting role seriously and do a little research to make an educated decision grounded in merited conviction. They are all industry folks, after all. But, how many of them are there?

According to a comment from an AMPAS spokesperson given to Deadline in October 2018, “With the addition of the [900] new members this year, the voting members would be 8,176.” That’s slightly unsettling. How does the Academy hold more than 8,000 people accountable for holistic voting practices? And anyway, what are these people like? I suppose they’re all different, but I have less confidence in that large of a group making educated decisions than I did when I was imagining the voting company totaling less than a 10th of that size. What if we had a glimpse into their rationale? That might make me feel a little better.

In an A.V. Club piece leading up to the 2015 Oscars, Caroline Siede collected a handful of baffling quotes from The Hollywood Reporter’s anonymous Oscar voter interview series. The following are actual words spoken by actual Oscar voters. One voter said they were going to vote for Michael Keaton as Best Actor for his role in Birdman because “he seems like a completely sane person who lives in the middle of the country and… I’ve loved every interview that he’s done.” Another voting member admits they will only watch the two (out of five) Best Picture nominees that interest them and choose between those. But they won’t vote for Best Song because Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney are better musicians than all the nominees. Sound logic!

Another member blatantly states that they can only allow themselves to vote for Felicity Jones’s The Theory of Everything performance for Best Actress because they “can’t separate a performance from the film it’s in,” and they thought Two Days, One Night, Still Alice, Wild, and Gone Girl were just “fine.” The same person complains that Whiplash shouldn’t have been nominated, because it’s “offensive. My kid would have told me if he had an abusive teacher. I would have sat in on the class, talked to other kids in the class and then said, ‘This asshole has to go.’” You know, because who doesn’t call their mom to come sit in on their college class when they’re having second thoughts about their widely praised professor. This voter either somehow missed that this film took place in college, or, more likely, didn’t ever watch it in the first place. Their knowledge of the film is reflective of a brief Wikipedia scan.

These interviews are quite baffling and well worth a read for anyone curious about the thought process of random Oscar voters. But more importantly, they are glaring evidence of the Oscar voting process’s biggest flaws: accountability and qualitative deliberation. Yes, the Oscars are diversifying race and gender of their voting pool, but race and gender aside, who the hell are these people? They clearly don’t give two shits about the legitimacy of the voting process. Some can’t even manage to watch all of the Best Picture nominees. That’s absurd. My mom works 65 hours a week, only casually enjoys moviegoing, and doesn’t struggle to fit in all the Best Picture nominees. And she has to go out of her way to a movie theatre. Voters have these films on screeners that are literally delivered to their door. That’s just irresponsible.

If the Academy isn’t going to instigate some sort of accountability system in which voters can only fill out a certain category if they’ve seen the films, or at least more than 40% of them, then we have a problem with the legitimacy of this whole process. And if the Academy isn’t holding anyone accountable, we can be sure they aren’t concerned with the thoughtfulness, or lack thereof, of their voting members. It’s no wonder the Academy keeps making such god-awful decisions. They are virtually detached from the rest of the Oscar-thinking world, along with their voting pool. They’re insulated in their industry confinement, unaware and unconcerned with the thoughtful conversations and critiques surrounding each film. And don’t even get me started on the politics of the process.

Even if the majority of voters were holistic in their approach, the process is too political to feel at all fair. There are a myriad of different parties represented among Oscar voters and they all have their own agendas because they’re attached to some production company or actor or director or screenwriter or global corporation that owns half of everything. It’s a classic rich get richer situation that is occasionally upended by a Moonlight victory only to double down on the political repulsion with nominations like Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book, or the glorified cameo role Sam Rockwell plays as a lightly fun George W. Bush in Vice. Did the Academy just forget there were other supporting actor performances? No. Vice just has deep pockets.

But what good is my critique without a solution? Don’t worry, I’m equipped. Without going into extravagant detail, I propose we model the Oscar voting process after the voting processes of all the jury-grounded film festivals throughout the year, like Cannes or Sundance, to name the most popular. Awards are and always will be arbitrary to a certain extent. No matter how they are decided on, they will always be a product of group subjectivity. But wouldn’t we feel a little better about that group subjectivity if it was intentionally deliberated among a non-anonymous pool of industry professionals who seriously considered all nominees?

Take the Sundance US and World Dramatic Competition juries from this year. If we combined them, we would have a group made up of Tessa Thompson, Phyllis Nagy, Jane Campion, Damien Chazelle, Dennis Lim, Desiree Akhavan, Charles Gillibert, and Ciro Guerra. With that massive pivot in the process alone, we would eradicate all legitimate complaints of race, gender, and sexuality diversity. We’ve introduced transparency by naming names of artistically trustworthy and well-respected industry professionals. The Academy could outlaw the grossly unbalanced campaigning process that makes the Oscars so political because while you can’t hold 8,200 people accountable to ethical decision-making, you can certainly hold 8, or more realistically 50, or 100 if we want to diversify and broaden the jury even more.

It’s imperative that at least two people within each genre of category (acting, directing, sound, makeup, etc) be represented that way we could rest assured that the jury would be engaging in thoughtful deliberation led by those who know what they’re talking about. Moreover, equal representation achieved through a transparent process would allow for that deliberation to be rich and diverse in thought. What more can we reasonably ask for when it comes to handing out arbitrary awards?

As far as nominations go, I’m open to suggestions. We would need a new way of pulling out a worthwhile group of nominees from a large group of people. I don’t know who that group is, or how they would be compiled, but just imagine a Best Picture pool made up of Annihilation, First Reformed, Support the Girls, The Death of Stalin, Wildlife, You Were Never Really Here, Burning, If Beale Street Could Talk, Eighth Grade, and Madeline’s Madeline, for example. Those particular choices are not the center of my point. There are hundreds if not thousands of variations of 10 Best Picture nominees I could get behind. The point is that artless cash grabs like Bohemian Rhapsody aren’t in the mix and your average pandering socio-cultural bore like Green Book doesn’t litter the awards show that supposedly represents the best of the year.

At the end of the day, I don’t really care how it happens. I just want the Oscars to actually make a serious attempt at recognizing the best of the year, divorced from convoluted Hollywood politics, money games, studio manipulation, and a voting community that half-asses their way through the entire process. That’s not to say that none of the nominations this year are deserved. Plenty of them are and plenty of them aren’t. And it doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch to ask that the former outweigh the latter. We live in a world brimming with incredible filmmakers and films, and every year the Oscars fails to recognize that, they become a little less relevant. Something has to change. Let’s start with the process.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.