The Oscars is a beloved annual event which allows us to witness the final decisions of a shadowy cabal of Hollywood insiders known as "the Academy." They announce to the public which films are best, and which actors and actresses get the honor of annoying everyone with their gassy acceptance speeches. But what actually goes into choosing who deserves the honor? Is it the sage and infallible divination of omniscient movie wizards? Or is it decided by blindfolding Jimmy Kimmel, spinning him around, and seeing which envelope he pukes on? The truth is a bit more subtle, so we talked to a verified Academy member to see how this exclusive electorate operates.
We Don't Watch Everything, And That Determines What Wins
Jane Anonymous has been a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for more than a decade. She takes the work of picking Hollywood's yearly bests as seriously as you'd hope: "The way I vote is that I'll watch every movie, and then I look at the ballot. Sometimes I'll watch them again. For acting, I'm going to pay attention to how deep they are in the role. If I forget I'm watching an actor or actress, it's a good sign I'll vote for them."
Jane is one of only 6,687 people who vote on the Oscars. The Academy has the kind of voter participation rate Diddy would literally kill for -- over 90 percent of them vote each year. But that doesn't mean everyone who votes has seen all the movies they're voting on. Jane insists, "Even if we saw it in theaters, we'll see it again. You have to remember the voters are actors, actresses, directors, and all types of crew. They love films. The Academy represents their industry, and they're going to pick who is best."
But members of the Academy are also garden-variety human beings, like all of us. They watch (or don't watch) movies based on what looks interesting and feels relevant to them. This poll from 2015 reveals that there were no Best Picture nominees that had actually been seen by every voter.
You'll notice that Birdman, the winner that year, is also the movie that the fewest voters failed to watch. Meanwhile, Selma, a movie about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, had by far the highest rate of "didn't see it" of all choices. There's a reason for this, and it's not necessarily blatant racism. Or at least, not the kind of racism you might expect, as Jane observes:
"Several other members I know went through similar things as Michael Keaton's character. A white man down on his luck in films and trying to get back and prove he can do better? That covers many members. Then there's Selma. It's a good movie too, but some may not have voted for it because they couldn't relate with some of it."
Academy members, like everyone else, prefer to watch the movies that seem to "speak" to them. In 2012, the Academy was 94 percent white, 2 percent black, 77 percent male and had an average age of 63. Today, thanks to lots of very vocal complaints, people of color are now around 10 percent of the Academy voters, and 25 percent are female. But that still makes white dudes by far the majority of the Academy. And that's why movies about the struggles of white dudes in the entertainment industry will continue doing better in the Oscars than, say, movies about the Civil Rights movement or movies about Charlize Theron stub-punching Tom Hardy.
This brings us to another point ...
The Academy Awards Don't Mean The Same Thing To Every Voter
Hey, quick question: What are the criteria for determining which animated film of the year was "best"? Should you vote on the overall quality of the film? Or just the quality of the animation? Or how ambitious and difficult the animation was to pull off? Nobody knows! Animation is one of the award categories voters consistently have no fucking idea how to handle. Here's Jane's tactic:
"For best animated film, I'm going to pick the movie I enjoyed with my grandchildren the most. A few years ago, there was a good Japanese movie that took place around WWII that I was going to vote for (this movie), but my grandkids loved Frozen so much that I voted for that instead."
How do you say "Let it go" in Japanese?
We're not attacking Jane here; Frozen's a fine movie. But the fact that she sees animation as inherently for children has a significant impact on how she votes and thus on who wins. Voting in the Academy Awards isn't like serving on a jury. The name of the award may be specific, but everybody votes based on their own personal criteria. That's actually less a problem for big tentpole awards like Best Actor or Best Picture than it is for technical awards. Certain aspects of filmmaking are just much harder to judge, as production sound mixer Christian Dolan, who is not a member of the Academy, explained:
"Imagine a cooking award. If something is well-cooked but poorly seasoned, is the dish still good? The grill cook gets an award, but the sous chef who finishes doesn't?" Because of that, the "showiest" sound mixes typically get the award -- war films and anything sci-fi, for example. Even though, as Dolan points out, "actually getting good dialog on location is one of the hardest challenges."
"It wasn't always like that," he adds. "All The President's Men won for Best Sound. It's a movie about typing and phone calls."
Jane's personal experience voting for the Oscars seemed to back this up: "I met a friend who is also an Oscar voter out in the Valley for lunch last year before the Oscars, and we discussed how we voted. We were discussing Sound Mixing or Sound Editing." And because she didn't know anything more about the technical realities of sound mixing than you or I, "She voted for which movie she liked the most. Her vote wasn't on the category it was under. It was her favorite movie, and her reasoning was 'It was a good movie, and it had to have helped it.'"
The Academy Awards are presented as sort of each year's final word on the quality of that crop of films. But the reality is that it's a giant popularity contest, and the voters can't agree on what "popular" even means. Here's Jane: "When I get the ballot, I'll vote for some categories that could be considered unorthodox. For Best Costume Design, I'll watch every movie and I'll look for what I think took the most effort and what I think I would most likely want to wear. I voted on a movie before because I loved the shoes an actress was wearing and how well it matched her dress."
The Academy Awards Mean Something Different To Industry People
Hey, did you guys catch last year's Plumbing & Fire Industry awards? Also, did you know that the plumbing and fire protection industries have merged their awards show, for some reason?
Of course not. You probably don't keep track of the American Cleaning Institute's yearly awards either, nor do you stay up to date on the Oscar equivalent for car dealers:
You could tell us this picture was for the Best Coke Dealer award and it would look just as plausible.
Every industry you can think of has at least one awards show dedicated to honoring the achievements in that field. The only reason the Academy Awards are any different is that Hollywood has billions of dollars and everyone watches movies. But that doesn't change the fact that the Oscars are still just an industry awards show. Treating them like an objective sign of a film's quality, or the quality of a specific actor's performance, doesn't make any sense, because that's not how the voters think about their choices. Here's Jane:
"On my first Oscar ballot, I was down to two nominees. The first person I had worked with for years and did excellent work, and the second person I worked with a few times, but did equally well. I respected both and I couldn't decide between two people I respected, so I didn't vote in that category. The first person won that night, and that night at an Oscar party (not Vanity Fair), she asked if I voted for her, and I told her that little story. She hugged me and said it was alright."
Remember all that talk about how Leonardo DiCaprio was "due" for an Oscar, and that's why he won for The Revenant? That is very much how a lot of Academy voters think. It's the same reason Return Of The King won Best Picture. Viewers and critics didn't think it was the "best" of the series ...
... but Peter Jackson's professional peers felt he was "owed" a win after his cumulative achievements for the trilogy. Remember, Academy members aren't generally voting for strangers. Most of them probably know at least one of the people they're voting for in any given year. "I knew a hairstylist from a few films I worked on, and she was nominated for an Oscar a few years ago. I saw all three films in the category. The movie she worked on was not received well, and critics had torn it apart. But I still voted for her because I knew the kind of work she did, and I knew how hard she had to have worked on it."
And everything we've talked about so far plays into the fact that ...
Diversity Is An Uphill Battle
Remember how we pointed out that the Academy is 90 percent white and 75 percent male? That ain't changing anytime soon, even though the Academy is making a concerted effort to add more nonwhite, non-male voices to the voting pool. This is because "You're a voter for life, and you can't kick anyone out. Those white voters have [given] their entire lives to the industry and contributed so much." And that's a fair point -- kicking a bunch of people out of the Academy doesn't seem like a good solution. Jane insisted that "it's important to diversify, but this is the fastest it can happen."
But it turns out this is actually changing. The Academy is currently seeking to double its representation of minority voters, in part by kicking out voters who go ten years without contributing to a film. A lot of voters are leery at this, and Jane can see their point: "I know at least two members who were upset at that. Both had been heavily involved with films for years, and their names are in the credits of films that are iconic. If you know what the National Film Registry is, some of their films are on there ... They felt it was their privilege to vote because of how much they had done." She sees why they're angry, but also recognizes why their exclusion from the Academy might be a good thing: "I know both were the type of voter who wouldn't see all the films either, so I'm conflicted. I've worked with both of them, but they always liked certain films over others."
That new rule might be part of why this year's Oscars are some of the most diverse nominations in living memory. But it probably has more to do with the fact that, for the last two years, the Academy Awards have been relentlessly slammed with articles like this:
The Los Angeles
"I guarantee it's in response to those accusations," said Jane. She also noted that "I'd like to see an even split of men and women, along with a half-white and half-minority makeup." That's a noble goal, but probably one that'll take as long to achieve as, say, Shia LeBeouf's Lifetime Achievement Award.
"It's going to take time to come close to that, but I think we can."
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