Improving Academy membership could make movies more diverse

Diversifying Academy voting body could expand definition of an award-worthy movie

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Matt Damon, one of five white Best Actor nominees for 2016

In the weeks after the announcement of Oscar nominees, the main story hasn’t been about the nominees themselves, but rather about the snubbed. #OscarsSoWhite dominates the conversation once again, after some controversy last year, but this time the hashtag’s strength matches outrage with deep sadness and fatigue.

The question of diversity in the movie industry is especially topical, and articles about the barriers faced by artists and executives who aren’t white men dominate the awards press. But the reality is that bigger issues exist beyond the red carpet.

While the Academy’s recent steps to broaden and diversify its voting rolls have quelled boycott momentum, diversity questions are likely to continue arising. This doesn’t mean the Academy can’t use its status to influence progress where it matters most. The recent moves could actually help advance diversity in the movie industry, by expanding the traditionally narrow notion of what qualifies as a prestige movie.

Despite the focus on the Academy’s role in failing to produce a diverse slate of nominees for the past two years, the problem lies in the lack of diversity in produced movies. There simply aren’t very many quality roles for non-white actors in big movies, and there aren’t enough movies created by non-white artists to begin with.

Recognizing the lack of options, it shouldn’t be too surprising that there has been a historical lack of non-white nominees in major award races. A similar rationale applies to the lack of female directing nominees — to date there has only been one female winner for Best Director, and a handful of nominees.

Movies this year showed that diversity can be a selling point for major franchises (see “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Creed”). Likewise, the diversity of the “Golden Age of Television” confirms its strong commercial bet.

However, hesitation to finance movies not led by white males remains prevalent. The issues need to be handled, and the Academy has a role to play as the top of the industry.

The Academy has come under fire for the lack of diversity in its voting membership. While the organization doesn’t release its own demographics, its 6,000+ members are believed to be 93 percent white and 76 percent male, with a median voter age of 63. Oscar hopefuls must make their case for the gold to this body — it is very likely that many Oscar-contending films are made with this demographic in mind.

While it would be wrong to state all these voters have unvaried tastes (who does?), the homogeneity of voters could skew the set of considered movies in one direction. In combination with the fact that many voters don’t see everything that comes out, many voters stick to movies they think will directly appeal to them. As a result, it is not hard to imagine movies telling distinctly non-white or female stories will fall through the cracks.

Expanding and diversifying the voter base should expand this taste range among voters, as well as make the median voter less homogenous with the voter pool as a whole. The ideal result would not only be getting more movies considered, but also introducing a wider variety of movies aimed at the Academy. While there would likely be a sizable overlap in taste between newer and older members, there is little doubt the range of consideration would be larger for the better.

The concept of a “prestige movie” can be expanded to include more genres and stories. This expansion would not dilute the quality of nominees, since each year there are numerous achievements in excellence that get ignored because they don’t fit the typical Oscar mold. The idea of what is best can be recalibrated to reflect the wealth of stories that exist in a given year.

If the slate of movies isn’t diverse to begin with, why does this matter beyond giving a wider variety of artists a voice at the table of picking the best of their peers? The reason is that a more diverse slate of nominees could easily help create a more diverse slate of movies that get Oscar consideration.

Studios will have to adapt their Oscar slates to the revised voting body, and movies that would have likely been ignored in previous years are more likely to be considered and to find success.

And that success isn’t confined to the red carpet and the Dolby Theatre.

The Oscars don’t just serve as an important recognition of quality from artistic peers — they also provide an invaluable marketing tool to give notice to smaller movies that may struggle to find an audience in an era of frontloaded blockbusters, which require massive and integrated marketing campaigns.

It is worth asking if movies like “Spotlight” or “The Big Short” would be performing as well as they have at the box office without awards buzz. Without the “Leo wins an Oscar” narrative around “The Revenant,” would this seemingly uncommercial movie have made over $140 million at the domestic box office as of press time?

Some prestige movies do fine without immediate Oscar buzz — Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” was finished with its box office run by the time it received its Best Picture nomination — and many nominated movies are created and released outside of Oscar season. Those films’ campaigns only come once the movie is a success (see “Boyhood” and “Mad Max: Fury Road”).

These cases don’t change the fact that most movies that seek Oscar attention are intentionally released at the end of the year so they may catch the wave. Nominees also get a noticeable box office bump.

Ultimately, a more diverse voting body would lead to a wider definition of prestige, which means more diverse stories would get Oscar attention. If these movies could get Oscar attention, they should reap the commercial benefits of it.

Hopefully the recognition and resulting success would lead to less hesitation to greenlight or finance movies telling more diverse stories. If something’s a hit, it’s a hit. While there may be a first-mover question of how any of this gets done, independently financed films such as the recent Sundance winner “The Birth of a Nation” provide positive influence by getting this change started.

Another benefit of more diverse recognition is the elevation of role models among the nominees. In an industry where women and non-white artists feel excluded, continuously seeking out diverse nominees can be a powerful example in setting people’s dreams higher.

This isn’t to say that the Academy’s recent changes will solve everything.

For one, it is worth questioning the effectiveness of doubling the number of non-white and female voters in a body that is so demographically skewed. Secondly, any change will take time.

Even after introducing diversity initiatives after last year’s controversies, the lack of non-white acting nominees this year was (sadly) not much of a surprise. It’s also worth noting that the two years of all-white acting nominees came right after “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” competed for Best Picture.

Clearly, one movie can’t make the difference on its own.

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