Oscars' Diversity Dilemma: A Mathematical Solution to Parity in Voting

Illustration By Jake Giddens

Los Angeles Film School instructor Brian McLaughlin has a quick fix to mitigate the old white guy factor.

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

How to address the Academy's diversity issue? First, what not to do: Don't diminish the meaning and integrity of the Academy by changing the admission standards. Like military special operations now being open to women, only by upholding the qualification standards do you maintain the value of the organization. And, just as 1st Lt. Kristen Griest and Capt. Shaye Haver earned Army Ranger tabs, so Will Smith, Idris Elba and Michael B. Jordan will, in all probability, eventually win Oscars — just not this year.

So what to do? I would like to propose a mathematical solution, since I teach statistics at L.A. Film School. There is a simple change that could be made so that Oscar voting would be weighted to correlate to the demographics of the moviegoing public.

Each year, the Motion Picture Association of America publishes the Theatrical Market Statistics report. In it, they slice and dice domestic and international movie attendance in every way imaginable. Using that report as a baseline, each voter's ballot could be assigned an appropriate weight so that the total weighted votes would mirror the gender and racial breakdown of the domestic film audience.

Let's use women to illustrate the process. The Academy is about one-quarter female, while moviegoers in 2014 were about half female. For simplicity, I'll say the total number of Academy members is 6,000. By weighting women's votes so that each one has a weight three times that of each man's vote, total male votes would have a weight of 4,500 (6,000 x 3/4) and so would total female votes (1,500 x 3). Male and female perspectives would be roughly balanced.

The same could be done with ethnicity, although the math in this example isn't as simple. Minorities represent about 37 percent of moviegoers but only 7 percent of the Academy. So ballots of minority voters would need to be weighted about 7.8 times more heavily than those of white voters. Total white votes would have a weight of 5,580 (6,000 x 93 percent), and total minority votes would have a weight of 3,277 (6,000 x 7 percent x 7.8). Add the two together (5,580 + 3,277 = 8,857), and the weighted minority vote at the Academy becomes 37 percent, reflecting that of the audience. This would be a multiplicative process, so votes by women of color would carry even more weight, 23.4 times those of white men.

The process also could apply to age, again with the goal of keeping the Oscars relevant with respect to the moviegoing public. For this factor, voters under age 50, for example, would have 18.4 times as much weight as those over 50. But I'll set that aside for future consideration. And as the membership evolves to more closely reflect the audience, the weighting is designed to progressively disappear. 

The outcome of this proposed system would be balloting that matches the makeup of the moviegoing public and that would accomplish two goals — bring fairness with respect to diversity to the Oscar nominations while also making the Academy Awards more relevant for the viewers.

I know that the basis for democracy is one man, one vote, but just as congressional districts have been gerrymandered, weighted balloting is a form of Hollywood redistricting.

Math is our friend — and our way out of this mess.

Brian McLaughlin, a producer and actor, is an instructor at Los Angeles Film School.

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