How the "New Academy" Is Changing the Oscar Race

Old vs New Voters The Fight Over Oscar - Illustration By Jacob Myrick - H 2018
Illustration By Jacob Myrick

Amid a historical makeover of Hollywood's most emblematic institution, its 2,000 new, younger, more diverse members will challenge the veterans — who once chose 'Ordinary People' rather than 'Raging Bull' — and that could result in a different kind of best picture winner from now on.

As awards campaigners begin to look past Phase One (everything leading to the Oscar nominations on Jan. 22) and conjure their strategies for Phase Two (the run-up to the Feb. 24 event), one unanswered question hovers in the back of their minds: Who are the actual voters?

On the surface, it's obvious: There are now 7,902 voting members of the Academy (2,046 more than just three years ago) divided into 17 discrete branches, with 519 directors, 552 producers, etc. But as any strategist knows, that doesn't come close to answering crucial questions about age, demographics and, above all, personal tastes.

In 2012 the Los Angeles Times published a study confirming insiders' beliefs that Hollywood's most prestigious institution was a monolith — a predominantly male, overwhelmingly white, majority-elderly association whose membership had barely changed, demographically speaking, since the Academy's creation in 1927.

According to that study, Oscar voters were 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male. African-Americans made up only 3 percent of the total, Latinos and Asians even less. This wasn't just a group of people bringing in others who resembled themselves; it was a band of brothers (and some sisters) whose demographics hadn't seriously budged since the days when Louis B. Mayer and his pals huddled together to form the Academy as a way of boosting their own movies.

At the beginning, of course, members toed the party line and supported their employers' pictures; after the collapse of the studio system, they were free to vote however they chose but still opted largely for mainstream releases from the majors. It wasn't until the late 1990s that things began to shift with the arrival of Harvey Weinstein, the disappearance of adult-oriented studio releases and the triumph of high-end specialty films.

Now another change is upon us, and it's not about the films but the people who will be voting.

In the three years since then-Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson made a concerted effort to open the doors to more women, foreign filmmakers and people of color — a rapid-fire response to the #OscarsSoWhite movement — a whole new voting body has emerged. People of color now constitute more than 1,200 of the total voters. Along with more women and far younger members, these more globally minded arrivistes haven't just joined the fringes of the establishment; they're changing it altogether. They may not be at the center of the organization, but they're a powerful-enough wing that they cannot be ignored.

There are now effectively two different Academies voting for the Oscars.

The Old Academy is studio- and Hollywood-centric; it's predominantly male and white and middle-aged or older. The New Academy is indie- and internationally oriented; it's made up of just as many women as men, with a healthy portion of non-Caucasians.

The Old Academy sees movies as a business, not just an art form. The New Academy resents any hint that money should get in the way of art.

The Old Academy thinks you don't "read" a movie, you watch it. The New Academy thinks the best films often have subtitles.

The Old Academy favors dramas with strong storylines and empathetic characters. The New Academy favors art house releases steeped in mood and atmosphere.

The Old Academy supported such solid dramas as Ordinary People and Crash and favored Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction. The New Academy can't get over the fact that those contenders beat Raging Bull and Brokeback Mountain and thinks Pulp Fiction was the best film of the 1990s.

The Old Academy loathes Netflix for disrupting the traditional exhibition business and blurring the lines between TV/streaming and theatrical releases. The New Academy couldn't care less, as long as someone's financing decent films.

What remains to be seen is which of these two Academies is now dominant.

Nowhere was the difference between the two more evident than on the Dolby Theatre stage in 2017, when insiders were stunned to see Moonlight triumph over La La Land after that best picture envelope fiasco got sorted out. Both films were made by young, cutting-edge directors, but one hearkened back to the golden age of the Hollywood musical while the other had more in common with the tone poems of Wong Kar-wai.

This year, the contrast between alternative styles of moviemaking is more visible than ever. On one side are terrifically made major studio dramas such as A Star Is Born, Green Book and Black Panther. On the other side are artier, specialty contenders such as Roma, If Beale Street Could Talk and The Favourite.

But the difference between the Old and New Academy is even starker than in 2017, with a host of new members having signed up in the past two years alone.

The Academy Awards won't just reveal which movie proves victorious but also which of the two Academies now reigns supreme. And the answer won't simply determine this year's Oscar winner; it also will reveal what kind of film is going to win best picture for many years to come.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.