The Academy Awards are broken—here are some ways to fix them
The nominees for the 92nd Academy Awards were recently announced in the lead-up to the ceremony, which will take place Feb. 9. The nominees are, for the most part, very easily predictable to anyone who is familiar with the kind of films that tend to win Oscars or other similar awards. That isn’t in itself a bad thing, but it does raise the question of how relevant the Oscars really are, and if they really live up to their supposed purpose of granting the “highest honors in filmmaking” to the “best films of 2019.”
In recent years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been under its fair share of criticism for its notably conservative and traditional values. Indeed, the Academy does seem much more inclined to nominate and award reassuring, easily accessible films and blockbusters than they are to consider better, but less successful films.
Of course, as with all aspects of art, the quality of any film is subjective. But the choices made by the Academy, which is comprised of around 6,000 industry professionals, invite the questioning of their practices.
The criteria for a film to be considered by the Academy is extremely limiting. For starters, a film has to play for at least one week in a theater in Los Angeles County, and its theatrical release has to be the first time that it’s shown. It can’t be shown on television, released to DVD or Blu-ray or streamed before that.
Nominees like “Marriage Story” or “The Irishman” would have instantly been disqualified if they hadn’t been shown in theaters before being made available to stream on Netflix.
This might not sound like a major obstacle at first, but that’s mostly only true for American films with a wide release. Having a decent budget and big names attached doesn’t hurt a film’s chances either. Any independent or foreign film that can’t secure a release in one area of one country is instantly not considered, regardless of how good the reviews are.
This is just one of several of the Academy’s rules for eligibility, but it’s the most easily-understood example of how limiting the criteria is for one of the most prestigious awards a film can receive.
Even getting past the extensive list of rules, the Academy is known for usually nominating specific types of films. On this year’s list, only two of the nine Best Picture nominees, “Little Women” and “Parasite,” are not predominantly made by and starring white men, who have been the center of the majority of films that the Academy tends to nominate and award. This is a circumstance that has been the case due to both the criteria for Academy consideration and because the Academy’s board is comprised of, in large majority, white men—a point that is often made into memes with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
“Little Women”, while receiving nominations for Best Picture, Best Lead Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Costume Design, did not receive any nominations for Best Director or Best Cinematography despite being an incredibly strong film in those categories. An article by Vulture explained how these rare films being nominated cause them to be, possibly unfairly, depended on to please all their demographics.
“I will say that Greta Gerwig and the film are put in the impossible position of having to represent all things to all women when she became the ‘presumptive representation of all-female directors,’” Angelica Jade Bastien said. “No film can shoulder such a burden.”
Defenders of the Academy—those who are perfectly content with the nominations—will claim that it’s simply a meritocracy—that the nominations truly represent the best films of each year with no barriers.
However, the numerous barriers, biased board and skewed representation severely limit which films are considered for one of the most widely recognized honors a film can receive. However, unintentionally, this influences how the film-going public decides what they want to watch and how they interpret what they watch.
Until the Academy gets some new blood into their board, stops immediately disqualifying films and more frequently overcomes the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, their choices will never fulfill their ostensible purpose.