5 Things the Film Academy Should Do at Its May 4 Meeting (Opinion)

Seth MacFarlane Oscars Host - H 2013
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Seth MacFarlane Oscars Host - H 2013

This story first appeared in the May 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

(1) Amend the voting rules
Just because something has been done for years doesn’t necessarily mean it's right or wise. The way in which Oscar winners are determined makes no sense. All members get to vote for all categories (save for best foreign language film, for which you need to swear that you’ve seen all five nominees), even if they have no more qualifications for doing so than the Average Joe. Why should a film editor get to vote for best makeup and hairstyling? Why should a costume designer get to vote for best adapted screenplay? Why should an actor get to vote for best original score? What would obviously produce more just results—as opposed to transparent coat-tailing (i.e. no best picture nominee has ever lost to a non-best picture nominee in the best visual effects category)—would be to revise the rules so that winners are chosen by the same people who choose the nominees. In other words, members would get to vote for the winner of only the category or categories that correspond with the branch to which they belong, plus the three more general categories, best picture, best documentary feature and best foreign language feature. And unfairly overlooked craftsmen like cinematographer Roger Deakins (10 noms), composer Thomas Newman (11 noms) and sound mixer Greg P. Russell (16 noms) might finally win an Oscar.

(2) “Relocate” several categories
Every year people gripe that the Oscars telecast runs too long. The Academy could redress this by removing from the telecast and honoring in a separate but special way several categories that mean nothing to the vast majority of the TV audience, just as the Grammys do. This would aggrieve members of the branches that correspond to the categories that would be impacted, but it would not be unprecedented (over the years several categories have been eliminated), and it might actually result in more meaningful recognition of their nominees and winners. I’d start with the three categories recognizing short films, the nominees for which are always terrific but seen by only a minute percentage of the public. The Academy already hosts a wonderful, well-attended Oscar Shorts Nite at its headquarters each year, during which the nominated films are screened and the nominated filmmakers converse about them with a high-profile branch member who serves as moderator. Why not present the corresponding Oscars at the end of those nights, as well, and then show highlights during the Oscars telecast? People protested when the Academy removed the presentation of special Oscars from the telecast four years ago, but the resulting separate evening, the Governors Awards, has turned out to be one of the most magnificent evenings of each awards season since.

(3) Address the demographics of the membership
The Academy should address widespread and not unmerited concern about the diversity of its membership, or lack thereof: a recent LA Times study revealed it is 94% white, 77% male and 86% over the age of 50). This has a lot to do with why more conservative films triumph over more daring films (Crash d. Brokeback Mountain, The King's Speech d. The Social Network, etc.), some films of questionable merit get nominated at all (schmaltz like The Blind Side and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), and some eminently worthy films do not (The Dark Knight, Blue Valentine, etc.). There are only two realistic ways for the Academy to fix this anytime soon. It could purge from its rolls members who have long been inactive or retired, the strategy employed by former Academy president Gregory Peck in the 1960s. Or, to avoid hurting those members’ feelings but still dilute their influence, while also endearing itself to younger and active people in the industry, the Academy could markedly expand its membership, which now numbers around 6,000. This would not be unprecedented. Membership swelled to around 12,000 from 1938 to 1945 when the members of the Screen Extras Guild were invited to join and had full voting privileges.

(4) Select a host for multiple years
Stop all this host drama! For an organization that is so obsessed with developing and protecting its brand, to the extent that it has sued a single mother for operating a blog with the word “Oscar” in its title, it’s surprising that the Academy has not sought to exact a multi-year commitment from potential hosts of the Oscars telecast. Sure, it would be a somewhat risky proposition for a hosting candidate, who might not want to tie himself or herself down for more than one go-around, and for the Academy, particularly if the person bombs in the first go-around or commits a Brett Ratner-esque blunder at some point during the agreement. But there might also be rewards for both parties: the host wouldn’t have to cram in the short time between his or her selection and the ceremony, and the Academy might once again become synonymous with a host who engenders loyal viewing, just like Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal. As I've recently indicated, I think Seth MacFarlane deserves a return invitation. But, if the Academy opts to look elsewhere, it could do a lot worse than Jerry Seinfeld, who, after a few years of relative stagnation, might be receptive to a high-profile standup opportunity.

(5) Give presidents an extension
The Academy rarely implements bold changes because its president never has much time to rally support for them. Academy presidents are elected to one-year terms and can serve as many as four, unless such a term will bring their total time of service on the Board of Governors to more than nine years. Incumbent Hawk Koch served eight years on the Board before becoming president, leaving him with only one year to develop his ideas. Why not amend the rules so people can serve on the Board for a maximum of six years, except if they are elected to an officer position, each of which would come with a three-year term that would not count toward the six years? This would allow people to develop an understanding of the Academy through service on the Board while still giving them time to develop ideas if they become officers.