AWARDS

Editorial: Discussing Oscar Voter Demographics, Diversity, and More

by
February 21, 2012

Oscars / Ballot

When The King's Speech won Best Picture over The Social Network at last year's Academy Awards, it confirmed something I had suspected for a long time: my personal views on most films do not align with those who cast votes for the Oscars. Over the past year, The Los Angeles Times did some digging and recently published an investigative report uncovering many of the identities of Oscar voters, and the results are staggeringly one-sided: of the 5,765 voting members, 94% are white, 77% are male, 2% are black, and less than 2% are Latino. Just below we can take a look at what those numbers actually mean. Keep reading!

Looking at statistics like that, it's easy to instinctively jump to cries of racism and picketing. But the LA Times interviewed many Academy members, and their testimonies are pretty revealing. Denzel Washington, who won Best Actor for his performance in 2001's Training Day, thinks the Academy's ranks should better represent the demographics of the entire country. Washington says:

"If the country is 12% black, make the academy 12% black. If the nation is 15% Hispanic, make the academy 15% Hispanic. Why not?"

But Frank Pierson, who won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay with Dog Day Afternoon and serves on the board of governors, thinks the standards should be a bit higher than diversity for the sake of diversity. He comments:

"I don't see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population. That's what the People's Choice Awards are for. We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn't reflect the general population, so be it."

He's got a point. I don't think the percentage of minorities in the United States should have anything to do with the membership of the Academy. That would be like saying, "Because the nation is 15% Hispanic, now the membership of collegiate athletes [or pick another competitive organization and insert them here] has to be exactly 15% Hispanic." (I know this is getting dangerously close to Affirmative Action territory, but stay with me here.) Phil Alden Robinson, another Academy governor, had this to say about the criticism:

"We absolutely recognize that we need to do a better job. [However] we start off with one hand tied behind our back. If the industry as a whole is not doing a great job in opening up its ranks, it's very hard for us to diversify our membership."

I never thought I'd find myself defending the Academy, but I think Robinson touches on a larger issue that we should really be concerned with. The fault shouldn't fall squarely on the Academy for the entire industry's lack of diversity. Yes, as an institution that is supposed to represent the best of the best, they should absolutely be a beacon and set a good example in their practices. But the true burden is on the casting directors, the guilds, the real working class of the entertainment industry - the people who are out there making movies every day - to open their doors to everyone talented enough to make it, regardless of gender or skin color. Without that step, the metaphorical snake will continue to eat its own tail and nothing will ever progress.

Look, I'm not fully supporting the Academy here. Not by a long shot. In the past 83 years, less than 4% of acting awards have been bestowed on African Americans, and Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman who has ever won the Oscar for Best Director. Any organization with that kind of track record is, as they say, doing it wrong. But what's the point of having a "best of the best" if you let everybody in? It's the same mentality as giving every kid a trophy in little league baseball, even if their team lost every game for the entire season. Hard work and excellence should be rewarded, not just participation.

I'm guessing most of The King's Speech victory last year can be attributed to a different set of numbers altogether: Oscar voters have a median age of 62, and people younger than 50 constitute a tiny portion of the voting membership, a shockingly low 14%. In the battle for votes between a film about British royalty and a sleek Shakespearean tech drama, the numbers speak for themselves. But because most of the time you need years of experience in your field to be considered for membership in the Academy, it's not surprising that movies skewing toward an older audience will find favor among the voters.

Academy President Tom Sherak says he wants to diversify the organization, but it's a slow process because they've limited membership growth over the past ten years. Now I'll throw it to you, andopen this up for discussion. What do you think is the best way to diversify the Academy? Do you think it should better reflect the general population? Sound off below!

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  • Johnquintin
    The lack of diversity within the Academy is just a reflection of the underlying issues that linger from our country's past. Even though Obama is president, the US is still ultimately run by the white upper class. When power shifts, it will trickle down to the Academy.
    • John
      I think you have a point.  The studios want a certain product, and they assume that the audience interest is narrow (much like the government assumes they know what's best for the people).  Thus, films starring/directed by minorities don't receive as much financing as they should.
    • http://www.quanahblogs.com/ Quanah
      Yuppers. I feel like this is the beginning of the Republic vs. the Empire. At some point a chosen one is going to bring balance, right? But seriously: how can the Academy be taken seriously with the imbalance of voters diversity? 
  • esophus
    "If the industry as a whole is not doing a great job in opening up its ranks, it's very hard for us to diversify our membership."As a Half African American Half Asian American I couldn't agree with this statement more. I have many friends in L.A. who are of color some of which are stunt people some who are actors, but all of which are struggling for roles that need people of color. This is sickening to think about in 2012. I spoke to a friend of mine, who was a stunt guy in J.J.Abrams Star Trek and is a regular stunt guy on True Blood and he told me without question that at least in Hollywood there is still a color code. I won't say our presence isn't in Hollywood, but our tendency is to go main stream/white, whenever the big bucks start rolling in. So many stars have fallen short of their rolls in the community for reasons I don't know. I for one can't stand Tyler Perry films, but the man is definitely down for his people. That's a hell of a lot more than I can say for a slew of actors and actresses of color. I don't see this ever changing, but I have hope that the attitude shared with most European casting directors starts to meld with ours and we began to drop the bullshit. I look at most of the super hero films as of late and we have no representation. I realize that Marvel really wasn't geared toward the minorities, however we bought the hell out their books. blah blah blah....This is so depressing. Thank you so much for this article and shedding light on a topic I always wondered about. 
  • Spike
    As gruesome as it may sound I think the only way the voting field would be equal is if the older voters kicked the bucket leaving the window for the younger voters to use.
  • Jrev
    I dont think its an issue. It'll take care of itself in the coming years. There's already a ton of reverse discrimination that goes unnoticed in this country. Its out of control.. EVERYTHING has to have diversified nowadays. Im so sick of it. How bout we just let the best people for the job (in every situation) get the job? I dont care what ethnicity they are. If a black person like Steve McQueen (love this guy) directs a movie like "Shame" and it doesnt get nominated (I think it was about 3 times better and more original than "Midnight in Paris"), I dont mind hearing some complaining because I'll complain too.. funny thing is.. no one really complained about that. However, when employers give a job to someone simply because of their ethnicity or they get an award just for their ethnicity, even though there was a white person who was much more qualified.. Its that kinda stuff I cant handle. Why dont we just take out the ethnicity section of every application in this country and let the best man/woman win whatever it may be. Life isnt fair, but if we look back at Booker T. Washington and his ideology, we find that "Character, not circumstances, makes the man." and "Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work."
    • esophus
      I don't think anyone is saying what you are claiming. The Academy b.s. I could care less about, but people of color are grossly misrepresented in Hollywood films. I don't think anyone is saying that hard work should not be recognized, but Hollywood is elitist and nepotism runs rampant, unfortunately it runs rampant for a vast majority of white people and not the other way around and I don't care how many people vote in the Academy...it's all political and those with the money will always have the power.
      • Jrev
        I agree with what you said. Hollywood is very elitist and most of them are white. Im not sure how that can be fixed. One way it could be fixed, is if hollywood movies (not foreign films) with ethnicity in them were better. Miracle at St. Anne and Red Tails are 2 that come to mind that could have been so much better than what they were. But hold on.. Morgan Freeman, Mos Def, Steve McQueen, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, Ken Watanabe, and there's plenty more i cant think of.. but arent all these people part of a large amount of great Hollywood films? or are we talking about the power behind the throne?
        • esophus
          Those actors are powerless. Oscar has been playing catch up for the last twenty years. They have been coming to the slow realization that they have overlooked so many people because of their elitist attitude. Scorsese for example....9 nominations for Hugo, if that's not trying to apologize I don't know what is. Gary Oldman has yet to receive an Oscar, Kate Winslet only just received one two years ago, buts been nominated 6 or 7 times. You get these actors like Halle Barry balling over the crumbs the Academy tossed her. Thats hush money for America kind of like their saying "there...we gave your people one...satisfied?" I hate to get into politics, but thats exactly what will happen to Obama if he's not reelected. It's like white America pointing at minorities and going "We gave  you a chance and you blew it". I don't believe in the Academy and never will the money in Hollywood is as old as the money in Washington and nothing will ever change.
  • Ninamusz
    "What do you think is the best way to diversify the Academy? Do you think it should better reflect the general population?" -Maybe a new category would help? They would never, ever do this, but if there were a simple category like "Best feature film with a budget of 50.000 or less", "Best Newcomer", "Biggest Breakthrough or "Best innovation" it would direct nominations toward younger, more diverse filmmakers; it might open the whole thing up a bit and support fresh careers.  That wouldn't reflect the general population better,  but rather the new moviemaking population: young, motivated, working on a small budget. 
    • http://notjustnewmovies.blogspot.com/ BenPears
      Sounds good to me. If only they'd institute it, hah...
  • Isildur_of_Numenor
    Just because 6 000 people have their own way, that doesn't stop me to enjoy watching movies. Even if they piss me off sometimes... 
  • Drejhead
    It seems only supporters of the Social Network seem to think the Academy was out of touch. It's not the only consensus that holds The King's Speech in higher regard. The IMDb rating of King's Speech is 8.2 compared to Social Network's 8.0. Out of over 150,000 ratings on IMDb, The King's Speech scored higher among those 18-29 than those over 30. Not to say that should held as conclusive evidence, but I hate how people hold this opinion that the only reason it won was because the academy was too old. I'm a 28 year old male and I though Social Network was average compared to King's Speech. I can think of at least 5 movies that beat them both in my opinion. It's my opinion, and the Academy has theirs, but please stop pretending that's the only group that prefers more traditional movies
  • http://twitter.com/TheRealDiddles Andrew DiDonato
    Heh. Did the person who discovered these findings also discover that we need air to breath and that penguins are in Antarctica?
  • John
    I totally disagree with Denzel's theory.  The Academy should not represent the population of the U.S., but instead the population within the filmmaking community. In my view, the real problem is the lack of diversity within the filmmaking community.   How many films can you name from last year that were not directed by a white male? - I can count less than a dozen.  The reason you don't see enough women, blacks or latinos nominated is because there simply aren't that many making films. Fortunately, Demian Bichir is a Best Actor nominee this year; and Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer will probably win for "The Help".  So this proves that the Academy's old, white demographic is willing to vote for minorities - provided they make good films and give good performances.
  • Singular
    This is not just an American issue, this is a global one. The Oscars doesn't just deal with domestic but foreign as well. India a few years back wanted 50% of the Academy membership to be from India to reflect their production in the world. Do we want that to happen? The fact is this is a slippery slope because everyone will want their representation and it will make those who advocate this change look like hypocrites because now they'll want to protect their piece of the pie like "white men" in the Academy do now.   The Academy Awards wants to portray themselves as open to world cinema yet it's very English-speaking centric. Hollywood has successfully created a prejudice against foreign film to which why the vast majority don't do well. Then on the other side of the coin there was that deal with China that Hollywood seems to think they have a right to show their movies in China which basically means they make money without any of the costs. Chinese movies aren't playing in the US but Hollywood thinks they have the right to show and make money there. They created that imbalance. Should the Academy reflect the audience that pays for the ticket around the globe? This issue is in fact on a symptom of a greater issue. This is in fact a reflection of the narrow-mindedness of Hollywood itself. Anybody ever been to San Francisco? Now compare that to how Hollwood portrays San Francisco. It two differents worlds. San Francisco's Asian population is nearly the same as the white population yet when you see a Hollywood depiction of San Francisco, it's all white and maybe the 2nd largest group is African-American when in fact they're the forth largest group. Want to take a look at acting roles? The little secret about Hollywood actors is they want to keep it white too no matter how liberal they portray themselves. Why? Because if Hollywood were open to more ethnic actors, they would take away jobs from white actors. It's just like when TV reality shows rose, actors hated them and were outspoken about it because it took away jobs from them. Can't give a good role to another ethnicity either which is why you don't see it a lot. It use to be that being nominated for an Oscar you were automatically a member of the Academy. They changed that rule in the last several years and we all know why. And now the blame of those complaining. Stop depending on Hollywood. Many complaining don't really care about this issue except they just want to be a part of something seen as something great as the Academy and not because you care about diversity in filmmaking. The fact is if the Academy changes because this issue is being brought up, it will be a token gesture where one group might be satisfied, but everyone else who buys a ticket around the world that makes Hollywood the juggernaut that it is will not. Make your own movies. In this day and age of technology, it's possible. And if they become popular and people start watching it, you can build an empire from there. It might not get the mainstream attention but it's better than nothing. The fact is it's time to call out the Academy for what it is. It's a small little group of Hollywood elitists patting each other on the back for mostly movies the public doesn't watch. The Golden Globes are more obvious that it's a small group of foereigners that just nominate the biggest stars just so they can meet them and not because of filmmaking achievement. The same thing that gives power to a god is the same way to slay it. Worshipping a god is what gives it power. You stop worshipping it, it dies a silent lonely death.
  • happy camper
    Are they trying to say that they want more minorities included so they can in turn be bias and vote for the minority nominee simply because they are a minority? Isn't that the pot calling the kettle black. Simply put most people have no aesthetic eye for what is and isn't good film. While I don't always agree with the winners you think just because you add a more diverse group of people who have less experience in film making your gonna agree with their decisions any more? Stop watching award shows and go make a movie.
  • http://twitter.com/darktaxidermist Davide Coppola
    I think the academy has a right to do whatever they want, just as we have a right to say our opinion and disagree with their predictable awards shows.
  • http://thesolarsentinel.blogspot.com/ Alan Trehern
    Hold up, playas...What are the OSCARS?
  • Boiler Bro Joe
    I don't think it's out of line to want or expect more diversity among the Academy voters.  The argument that it would let "everyone in" and not just the "best of the best" is fundamentally wrong, because it assumes that current the percentage (94%) of the Academy that is white reflects the best of the best.  This is just statistically impossible, unless you truly believe that whites are better at making movies than anyone else.  The "best of the best" almost certainly parallel the actual percentage of minority ethnic groups in this country, because race has no bearing on movie-making ability.  The only somewhat decent argument you can make is that, because of discrimination, a disproportionate number of whites are going to and excelling in film school.  However, A) this may not even be correct, although I don't have any stats in front of me and B) it assumes that film schools produce better filmmaker's which they often do not. Yes, the diversity of the Academy and the diversity of the film industry are one in the same.  But I don't buy the Academy's  argument that "they need to change first".  The Academy has the means to diversify their voters and are not beholden to warped capitalist interests.  Someone has to be the "bigger man" so to speak, and the Academy can change first.  Non-white voters will look at the films from a different perspective and, yes, they will likely vote for more minority produced films - not out of some racial nationalism, but because they can understand and appreciate the quality better than 65 year old white men.  Then, when more compelling and diverse films start WINNING, more black and Asian filmmakers will be seen as bankable by the industry. And I do absolutely support affirmative action in the rest of our economy, when all other variables are the same.  A colleague of mine argued that giving NYC government contracts to a female business owner (who is just as qualified as a male business owner up for the same contract) just because she is a woman throws men under the bus.  A second colleague, also a man, pointed out that men have been throwing women under the bus for the last hundred years.  I think the same applies here.

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