THIS YEAR, it was going to be different, we just knew it. There was no going back to last year’s incredible whiteness of Oscar.
The industry was facing too much flak, getting too much heat after the Sony hacking scandal moved the rock of studio business as usual to reveal the deeply ingrained racist, sexist, biased attitudes scurrying to stay hidden from the light of day. Something had to give.
But no. Despite hugely popular films starring people of color, and critically acclaimed performances at that, the 6,261 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences again retreated to the safe harbor of breathtakingly monochromatic demographics, and the attitudes arising from those demographics, in their nomination choices for the 2016 Oscars.
Thanks to changes made Jan. 21 and announced the following morning, though, that safe harbor may not be so safe anymore. Read the text below:
◊ ◊ ◊
“The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” said Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs. “These new measures regarding governance and voting will have an immediate impact and begin the process of significantly changing our membership composition.”
Beginning later this year, each new member’s voting status will last 10 years, and will be renewed if that new member has been active in motion pictures during that decade. In addition, members will receive lifetime voting rights after three ten-year terms; or if they have won or been nominated for an Academy Award. We will apply these same standards retroactively to current members. In other words, if a current member has not been active in the last 10 years they can still qualify by meeting the other criteria. Those who do not qualify for active status will be moved to emeritus status. Emeritus members do not pay dues but enjoy all the privileges of membership, except voting. This will not affect voting for this year’s Oscars.
At the same time, the Academy will supplement the traditional process in which current members sponsor new members by launching an ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity.
In order to immediately increase diversity on the Board of Governors, the Academy will establish three new governor seats that will be nominated by the President for three-year terms and confirmed by the Board.
The Academy will also take immediate action to increase diversity by adding new members who are not Governors to its executive and board committees where key decisions about membership and governance are made. …
◊ ◊ ◊
HOLLYWOOD KNOWS the sequel, of course, and the #OscarsSoWhite backlash from 2015 has returned, with a vengeance. This year’s tweets are no less angry than last year’s, and they’re maybe angrier, considering the 2016 drought wasn’t really expected at all. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network isn’t looking the other way. TheWrap reported on Jan. 21 that its Los Angeles chapter proposes a national boycott of the telecast.
“The lack of African Americans and women excluded from the major categories of Oscar nominees is appalling,” the chapter’s political director, Najee Ali said in a statement on Thursday. “Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the African-American president of the academy, is nothing but a pawn, and the black face of Hollywood’s system and culture that is racist, sexist and lacks true diversity.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Make no mistake, the Oscars telecast this year will be worth watching. Last year’s program, with host Neil Patrick Harris, only garnered 36.6 million people, Oscars’ lowest viewership since 2009 (Harris’ tighty-whiteys notwithstanding).
You’d best believe that Chris Rock, as reliably incendiary as Harris is generally palatable, will be turning up this year’s show, bringing major heat on precisely the lack of diversity in Hollywood that makes his being the host this year so important.
Rock’s almost certain to draw a bigger audience, too, and that’s exactly the problem. The higher numbers of viewers are likely to be a direct result of Chris Rock hosting the show — and saying what we know Chris Rock will say about the show. The suits and showrunners will be happy about the viewer totals being higher this year than last. But let’s face it, when people are tuning into a show to watch a major comedian do a beatdown of the same show you’re watching ... that’s not a good sign.
◊ ◊ ◊
LOOK AT the demographic statistics for what you might call the Academy of Motion Picture Old Farts and Seances:
In an exhaustive 2012 study, the Los Angeles Times determined there were 5,765 voting members, 94 percent of them white and 77 percent male.
Only 2 percent at that time were black and less than 2 percent were Latino. According to The Times, the Academy had a median age of 62.
In a 2013 study, the paper found the Academy (then 6,028 voting members) was 93 percent white and 76 percent male; the average age crept slightly higher, to 63 years of age.
TIME Labs: The entire history of Oscar’s diversity problem in one chart
In a study of its own, The Economist found there were no actors from ethnic minorities nominated in 1995 and 1997 — or in any year between 1975 and 1980. Ninety-five percent of all nominations went to white actors. And this year, Time magazine reported that “[n]ot since 1979-1980 has the Academy gone two years without nominating a non-white actor in any of the top 4 categories.”
◊ ◊ ◊
But hearing it, you can’t help but think about the pledge made in 1978 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), which called for racial parity in American newsrooms by the year 2000. We all know how that turned out.
If there’s a lesson for the Academy to learn, it’s embodied in an observation made by a journalism educator years ago.
“It is hard for a diverse newsroom to emerge within traditional newsroom culture,” Dr. Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte, a professor of journalism at The University of Texas at Austin, observed in March 2003. Just change the word “newsroom” in the previous quotation to “Academy” or “Hollywood,” and you’re up to speed.
Talk of change is good, welcome and long overdue. Now, if Hollywood Inc. can get its studio heads around transformation — realizing that it’s hard for a diverse Academy/Hollywood to emerge within a hidebound, tradition-obsessed, risk-averse Academy/Hollywood culture — we just might get somewhere.
◊ ◊ ◊
AND AS LONG as we’re talking about change, it’s time to begin the process — and it will be a process — that lets Netflix and other streaming services compete for Oscar nominations on an equal footing with the legacy studios and newer studios, without the underlying assumption that streaming companies are the antichrist. Those companies, and the day-and-date strategies they propose for movie exhibition, are the future that Hollywood/the Academy/studios need to prepare for.
Last year I observed that “It’s sometimes easy to forget that, at the end of the day, despite the customer-facing razzle-dazzle, the Oscars are the movie industry’s celebration of itself. It’s not the raucous quasi-populist bacchanal of the Golden Globes, and it sure as hell ain’t the People’s Choice Awards.
“Since there’s a degree of exclusivity built into its infrastructure and history, we shouldn’t be surprised that the industry insiders populating the Academy voter rolls tend to reward their own.”
But ordinary people don’t have to celebrate the industry’s love feast. The declining viewer numbers for the 2015 Oscars prove that it’s vulnerable where it counts, by the count of eyeballs watching the ceremony.
◊ ◊ ◊
Consider: Jennifer Lawrence — the most powerful woman in Hollywood who doesn’t greenlight a picture (and someone who's fought her own battle for equal treatment by the industry) — is set for the role of Marita Lorenz, the mistress of Fidel Castro, in a film written by Eric Warren Singer (“American Hustle”).
Washington Post: 100 times white actors played roles that weren't created for white actors
Who’ll play Fidel himself? Common sense would suggest Oscar Isaac (“Ex Machina,” “Inside Llewyn Davis”) or Benicio Del Toro (“Sicario,” “Traffic,” “The Usual Suspects”) or Michael Peña or Javier Bardem ... among a multitude of other, worthy Latino actors.
The studio machinery, well lubricated by its own comfortable history, may well think otherwise. No doubt the word (and the script) will go out to Brad Pitt or Jude Law, Jeremy Renner or Tom Hardy, Christian Bale or Leonardo DiCaprio. But casting a real live Latino male in that role? Wellll ... they’ll have to get back to you on that.
◊ ◊ ◊
THAT may be too cynical by half, but maybe not. Resistance is the sworn enemy of progress. The way things have always been is the greatest adversary of the way things could be.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs is doing her very best to provoke change from the inside, and it’s a good sign that, since at least some of the 6,261 members of the Academy have expressed displeasure with the proposed changes, maybe something real will happen this time. Maybe that Sisyphus stone will move. A little.
But for now, and until further notice, if you want a real picture of Americans’ resistance to change, you don’t have to just look at the people in the boardrooms of the major corporations, or the leaders of state and city law enforcement agencies, or even the more ideologically inflexible members of Congress.
The behavioral identity of the Academy of Motion Picture Old Farts and Seances reveals as much about this country's reluctance to change today as any other institution around.
Image credits: Oscar statuettes: Via The Wrap / © 2016 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. and Academy A logo: © 2016 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. ASNE logo: © 2016 American Society of News Editors. Lawrence: Via TIME.com.