The South Korean film Parasite will go down in Oscar history for several reasons. It’s the first film from South Korea to win an Oscar, and the first non-English language film to win Best Picture. Parasite director Bong Joon-ho even commented that he was encouraged by the fact that the Foreign Language film category has been changed to be called the International Feature Film award.
Many think of the Academy as a mysterious group likened to a Cinematic Illuminati.
While this and other recent changes point to a positive direction for the future of the award, it still has room for improvement. I’m not talking about the awards ceremony itself; I am indifferent to whether or not there is a host, and the technical aspects of the awards ceremony itself are usually run fairly well. What I am referring to is how the nominations and awards are determined. In some ways, the Oscars are broken, and here’s how we fix them.
Add a Stunt Category
Stunt men and women have been campaigning for years for the Academy to add a category for their dangerous line of work. When Brad Pitt won his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, he even mentioned this need. I dare say he’s been glad to have stuntmen to perform alongside in the many years of action movie work that he has done.
I’m not sure why the Academy seems to avoid adding this as a category. Also, it’s unclear if the new award would go to the person who performed the stunt (or stunts) best, or if it would go to the stunt/fight coordinator who oversaw the feats of courage. Regardless, this is a category (or potential group of categories) which should no longer be overlooked.
Invite More Members
Many think of the Academy as a mysterious group liked to a Cinematic Illuminati, but it’s actually not too difficult for a film professional to get into the Academy. I personally know to two members of the Academy — normal people, not celebrities, who work in the industry. The Academy is not some type of elusive organisation only accepts those people it deigns to invite. Tim Gray at Variety points out that the Academy is taking steps to add more members. A lesser-known fact is that those nominated automatically become elligible for membership, too. These are all great!
However, if the Academy would begin inviting more people, I believe this would alleviate the diversity issue currently challenging the Oscars. To avoid in #OscarsSoWhite problem, I propose that the Academy should develop an initiative to specifically seek out new but talented members of the filmmaking community, especially at the independent level (who still fit the appropriate criteria). They need look no further than alums of the Sundance Institute, Film Independent, and other like-minded organisations.
By specifically seeking out new based on the merits of their work, the Academy can shore up its weak links. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences could continue to grow and become more diverse as younger members are added.
Marketing for the Academy Awards, known as “For your Consideration” campaigns, are notoriously opulent.
Enable Critics to Suggest Nominees
The largest issue that many people seem to have with the way the Oscars are winners are determined is the voting process. Much like recent complaints about the United States’ Presidential electoral college system, the Oscars voting and nomination system has often been described as overly complex (more about the math involved below). I would not be surprised if there were many voting members of the Academy who also do not understand the process, or at least do not fully comprehend how their votes are ranked and categorised. I still don’t — but that ain’t saying much.
In order to make sure that films that may have a lower budget but still be of high-quality are eligible to be nominated, I suggest that critics (or even audience members) are able to suggest nominations in certain categories. Whether the nominations are accepted is of course still up to the Academy’s voting membership, which is divided into specific branches based on areas of expertise.
The Oscars are broken, and here’s how we fix them.
While this might sound like cheap crowdsourcing to determine who wins the Oscars and thus perpetuates the popularity contest motif, I recommend this change because most of the voting members of the Academy are still working in the industry themselves and therefore unable to see every film that is eligible and worthy of an award. Gray even admits this is a reason for all of the Oscar marketing (which we’ll get to, don’t worry):
The studio wants to make sure voters have seen their film. Though critics see dozens of films every month, AMPAS voters are often working at their jobs and have families, so they don’t have time to see every new movie. A campaign is a way of drawing attention to a film.
If this is done in an objective way (tricky when dealing with art, I’ll grant), the film’s scores (akin to Rotten Tomatoes or metacritic) could be a seamless way for members to explore all options when considering their nominations. By having some critics and audience members alike be able to suggest films — especially the lesser-known ones — for awards it could help alleviate the promotional bias which is inherent in films that are backed by major studios versus independent films which are not.
Digitize the Voting Process — Completely
Another area which could use improvement ostensibly is the digital nomination and voting process. While this is done already in a predominately online manner (with a few members still voting by paper) I suggest that there’s probably a more efficient way in which to tabulate the various nominations and awards.
“The most personal is the most creative.” Bong Joon-ho, citing Martin Scorsese
I work at a tech company by day, so perhaps this is my own bias as a UX (user experience) Strategist coming through. By improving the user experience of any given digital product, the outcome of that product usually improves as well. I don’t know how the system operates currently, but if the Academy and PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) firm were to hire a digital consultancy to interview the voters, conduct user testing, create a journey map, and re-design the software, the Academy voting process could be streamlined for all parties involved.
Screeners with No Perks
Just like with the above recommendation, this is also an improvement on the current process. Many films are viewed by Academy members with online screeners, although some still rely on physical copies. This is a problem since marketing for the Academy Awards, known as “For your Consideration” campaigns, are notoriously opulent. Adam Conover explains this is succinctly in his video on why money — rather than talent — typically wins Oscars:
Studios sometimes outspend the budgets of their films for the awards they seek. Gifts are often given and parties are thrown to sway the vote of Academy members. In light of this, physical screeners should be delivered without special consideration or personal perks for the voters. As evidence by Variety, marketing for the Oscars themselves can’t be outlawed; however, giving personal perks in order to entice votes should not be allowed.
Enforce Viewing for Voting
Just as there’s little time to view every film under the sun, once the films have been nominated, they all need to be viewed prior to ballots being submitted. Writing for entertainment.ie, Brian Lloyd calls them on the carpet:
Currently, there is no actual way of determining whether or not voters have actually seen the movies they’ve voted on.
To combat this, I suggest some sort of viewing enforcement be enacted so that an Academy member cannot cast her vote until she’s proven that she’s seen all the films that’ve been nominated in her area of expertise — and, of course, for Best Picture. This could be a small quiz or some type of cookie inside the digital screener to ensure the member has viewed the film in its entirety.
I’m sure there are other ways to solve this, but the goal is to give each film a level playing field to prevent certain pieces being overlook simply because that film didn’t get viewed.
I won’t pretend to understand the complex calculations which make up the nomination process for the Academy Awards. In all of my research, I found conflicting reports on how films are nominated and how PwC determines who becomes an official nominee. There’s some funky math and a “magic number” involved:
The counting starts based on a voter’s first choice selection until someone reaches the magic number. Say Adam Driver reaches the magic number first for his performance in Marriage Story: the ballots that named him as a first choice are then all set aside, and there are now four spots left for the Best Actor category.
The actor with the fewest first-place votes is automatically knocked out, and those ballots are redistributed based on the voters’ second place choices (though the actors still in the running retain their calculated votes from the first round). The counting continues, and actors or different categories rack up redistributed votes until all five spots are filled.
Uh, what? This is ostensibly done for a logical reason, but since it’s been over a decade since my Statistics class in undergrad, I’ll avoid casting judgement on the preferential voting system the Academy uses. If you’re skilled with statistics and understand why they use this system, explain it to us in the comments below!
It’s clear that the Oscars have been improving steadily in the last decade. Parasite’s sweeping wins this weekend at the 92nd Academy Awards proves that. As a filmmaker, I was inspired by the moment Bong Joon-ho quotes this fellow Directing nominee Martin Scorsese who was influential in his filmmaking journey as saying, “The most personal is the most creative.” Like Ramona Grigg, I still love watching the awards show every year for unforgettable moments such as this.
Still, if the Academy could implement some of the changes in its system, it mean that the award could be seen as less arbitrary and more objective. This means that the many skeptics who consider the Academy Awards to be a popularity contest for marketing dollars could be swayed to view the Oscars or something more meritorious than it already is. Any way that we can fix the Oscars and make the awards more meaningful is a step in the right direction.