Way back in the days when the Oscars mattered less, when a clubby group of insiders gathered annually at such venues as the Cocoanut Grove and the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to present each other with their treasured trophies, the grandees of the motion picture business realized they had a problem.
There was a gap between quality and reward, between a film or performance’s artistic merits and the prizes it received. Clearly there was a connection between the chums who did the giving, and the chums who did the receiving.
Where there was smoke, there was fire, and in 1934 the seven-year-old Academy moved to douse the flames, hiring Price Waterhouse (as it was then known) to tabulate the results.
Since then, nobody has questioned the authenticity of the process; nor did anyone do so at the first Academy Awards where the accountants did their job, in 1935, when It Happened One Night was named best picture, with its stars, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, winning the two sole acting awards.
Eight decades have passed since then, and during that time the whole world has changed. We’ve gone through a world war, a civil rights battle, a media upheaval and a computer revolution. And yet, throughout, the Oscars and their selection process have barely changed.
True, each year there are tweaks to the system, subtle calibrations to allow more gas per mile, rather than replace the combustion engine. The Academy understandably has been cautious about reinventing the machine or abandoning a tradition that lends its such gravitas. But this year’s Oscar fiasco throws this to the winds: A system that places its nuclear button under the fingers of two flawed and fallible accountants alone is too perilous to continue.
It’s time for radical change.
I don’t mean the Academy should necessarily throw PwC overboard (though the captain who crashed this ship, Brian Cullinan, ought to have had the decency to resign); I mean the Academy should reconsider its entire approach to the awards, along with much of its secretive way of doing business.
Let’s be clear about one thing: The Oscars are not handed out by a small coterie of pals who meet in private to discuss contenders’ strengths and weaknesses; they’re determined by a vast group — and one that’s getting vaster by the year — of 7,000 men and women divided by oceans and mountains, by geographical as well as cultural difference. They’re linked by little more than their cinematic achievements. They encompass representatives not only of the American film industry but of industries around the world, whose decisions impact not merely individual careers but even relations between nation states.
In the age of the internet, a win for Iran’s Asghar Farhadi (whose The Salesman was named best foreign-language film) —and even more importantly, his decision not to attend the awards because of Trump’s travel ban — has political as well as artistic ramifications. And yet the Academy and its leadership seem oblivious to this brave new world, to the giant implications of an Oscar victory, to the need for the utmost clarity and transparency in choosing whose victory that is, given its potential effect.
The Academy’s members are not part of a private club; they’re part of a global electorate, their elections scrutinized on an international stage. And because of that, those elections should be ruled by the principles we apply to all such plebiscites.
Free and fair elections should adhere to the following core values: (1) Voting should be open and transparent; (2) The voting system should be clear and simple enough for everyone to understand; and (3) Each vote should have the same weight as any other.
Right now, none of these principles apply.
More than any nonprofit organization comparable in size and prestige, the Academy keeps its decision-making to itself. Its governors are tight-lipped, its executives notoriously loath to debate their decisions in the open. Much of what goes on within the organization remains hidden even from the bulk of its members. How, for instance, do its elected president (Cheryl Boone Isaacs) and its appointed CEO (Dawn Hudson) divide up their tasks? How often and effectively do they communicate? How did they reach their path to broadening the membership (following the #Oscarssowhite debacle)? What’s at the core of their new diversity program? These questions remain unanswered, and are unanswerable by most members.
The Academy rarely, if ever, opens its discussions to large groups, let alone the press. As a result, it has frequently been caught flat-footed, not least with the furor that followed its plans to phase out older members who had not been active for years, a response to the desire for diversity that led to allegations of ageism as well as racism.
In an attempt to let in fresh air, then-president Hawk Koch held an open membership meeting in May 2013; it was a mixed success, partly because it felt more orchestrated than spontaneous, but the idea was right. Since then, there’s been nothing of the kind.
Only by creating real openness will the Academy regain credibility and redeem its gold-plated image, tarnished by this year’s Oscars.
Above all, that includes being open about the Oscar votes. The time of secrecy should be at an end. Just as in any other election, the voting tallies must be revealed. Let us know who got what, even if it causes consternation among the runners-up.
That alone will eliminate doubts and speculation, hints of unfairness and incompetence. Above all, it will show audiences worldwide that the Academy is an exemplar of democratic openness — something that can hardly be said right now.
2. The voting system
One reason advanced for retaining PwC following the La La Land/Moonlight debacle was that PwC could understand Oscar’s complex voting methodology, when others might not.
If so, that goes counter to the most basic tenets of democracy, which depend on clarity and on their voters’ understanding. Without this, one can only wonder when hanging chads and their like will pervade the Oscars and cloud subsequent races, just as they did the Bush/Gore election.
No election methodology is entirely fair; it’s not for nothing that Winston Churchill called democracy the worst form of government, except for all the others. But the current, preferential-voting system muddies the results — and the results become even more confusing given that different rules cover one category and another, and the nomination process versus who actually wins.
Not too long ago, the Academy favored a basic, first-past-the-post approach — the same used to elect U.S. senators and congressmen: whoever gets the most votes wins. Now ballots are counted and redistributed; low-vote contenders are eliminated and their votes transferred, and then transferred again and again. It’s a system rife with confusion, and made worse by being handled in secret; it runs the risk of rewarding not so much the best film as the least bad.
The Academy should consider a return to the simpler method, where whoever gets the most votes wins. Then make the precise vote tally available for public consumption.
3. Each vote should have the same weight
Not all Oscar votes are created equal. Case in point: the foreign-language category. I’ve applauded the results of recent changes, which have eliminated the stodgy winners of years past. But in all fairness, the new process is about as undemocratic as it can get, vesting extraordinary power in the hands of a 30-strong foreign-language committee that can effectively determine the nominees. Other categories (short films, etc.) are equally undemocratic.
This is where things get tricky. The current system might be undemocratic, but it’s produced good results, and I’d be reluctant for the Academy to throw out a process which merits some praise. Still, it’s inherently unfair, and that’s inherently wrong.
This, more than any category, needs simplifying and clarifying. If the Golden Globes can figure out how to have just as many contenders and still come up with a worthy winner, the Oscars can, too, without this rigamarole and confusion and over-concentration of power.
It’s time for the Academy to shine the light on these problems, before others do so in its place. A dubious, hidden and arcane system is ripe for hacking; and what that hack reveals may hurt the Academy far more than anything it chooses to reveal on its own.