Let’s talk about the nomination process. How does an Oscar nominee become a nominee?
The early stages of an Oscar campaign start with special screenings for Academy members. Studios ply the voters with food and drink, then provide Q & A sessions with the picture’s director or an actor in an effort to create the aura of an Oscar-worthy performance.
For most Academy members, the single biggest perk of Academy membership is the DVD screeners. Each voting member receives upwards of 90 to 100 DVDs, including the motion pictures in contention and those that have actors, directors, etc. being pushed for nomination.
Then they vote.
Every member is entitled to vote to nominate the best picture but they can only vote to nominate within their branch. For example, only directors can nominate other directors for Best Director. Only actors can nominate other actors for Best Actor.
Now you know. The Academy didn’t create the “White Oscar” controversy, the actors did. According to a 2012 Los Angeles Times analysis, 88 percent of the actors in the Academy are white. These white actors are responsible for the 20 white acting nominees.
Why didn’t they nominate actors of color to win an Academy award? I don’t believe the actors overtly are racist but for an actor to say that demographics don’t play a role in their voting is to ignore reality. They live in a bubble.
Did I mention that the median age of Academy members is 62?
What do you do if you are an organization of old white people but you don’t want to be perceived as a group of old white people? You hold an emergency meeting of your governing board, then announce your intention to double the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020. It intends to accomplish this by stripping away the voting rights of older members who have not been active in the entertainment industry for the last ten years. It also promised to add new members from diverse backgrounds.
The Academy is 2 percent black and less than 2 percent Hispanic. Doubling those numbers would bring it up to a whopping 8 percent. By contrast, African Americans are 13 percent of the population in the United States and Hispanics make up 17 percent. That’s a public relations nightmare.
The response? Mixed.
Some of the older members felt that the rule changes robbed them of their legacy, substituting a perceived racial bias with an actual age prejudice.
Other actors bristled at the suggestion that the Oscars need affirmative action.
“The backlash is understandable, given the current state of the culture, but completely wrongheaded. Nothing should be done, or even can be done. Any ‘affirmative action’ will taint the future winners who may happen to be nonwhite,” said actor Darrell Larson.
For all the handwringing about the demographics of the Academy, I believe one simple change would have more of an impact than those announced by the governing board. Academy members should be required to certify under penalty of perjury that they have seen all of the pictures under consideration before they cast their vote. The Academy’s dirty little secret is that it does not require a member to actually see a single movie before voting. If they don’t see the performance being considered then that member’s vote isn’t an honest assessment of a performance - its simply favoritism.
Until there are real changes, the Oscar will continue to go to … the white actor.
This post originally appeared on abovethelaw.com.
Jon Pfeiffer is an experienced entertainment and copyright trial attorney practicing in Santa Monica. Jon is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California where he teaches Media Law. COM 570 covers First Amendment issues as well as copyright, defamation and privacy.