How Semi-Blind Voting Skews Oscar Results

Cinematography master Roger Deakins has been nominated 13 times, but he's never won — Academy ballot procedures go a long way in explaining the oversight.
Illustration by Mark Matcho

The revered cinematographer Roger Deakins has been nominated 13 times for the best cinematography Oscar, but his name has never appeared on an Academy Awards ballot. And that, in turn, partially explains why he has never won an Oscar.

Why has Deakins' name never been on the ballot? How can that be? It all comes down to a quirk of the Oscar voting process. But, to explain, first some history.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was formed 90 years ago as a smokescreen. The idea for an organization that would bring together the greatest artists from across the film industry was proposed by the studio chiefs who ran the business because they thought that making their employees feel valued might help to fend off unionization in Hollywood, something that they knew was rocking other businesses and could considerably complicate their own.

In order to win the buy-in of the various parties who might otherwise have wanted to unionize, the studio chiefs and their public relations advisers painted a picture of an elite organization composed of the most accomplished and respected people from every "branch" of the business — originally, actors, directors, producers, technicians and writers. Each group would elect representatives to serve on committees that would help to resolve any and all business-related questions, concerns and disputes.

Almost as an afterthought, they also suggested that the organization could provide another service that might excite people enough to support it: the annual presentation of "awards of merit" in the form of a gold statuette featuring a knight holding a crusader's sword atop a reel of film with five spokes (signifying those five original branches). Those statuettes would come to be known as Oscars.

But a few years after the Academy was created — after it sanctioned pay cuts for everyone but the studio chiefs during a low-point of the Great Depression — it became abundantly clear that the organization existed primarily to serve and protect the interests of the studio chiefs. That led to mass resignations and the creation of many of the guilds that remain in existence today. The Academy and its Oscars very nearly folded, but they both survived, and grew back to prominence, thanks to an understanding that the organization would henceforth stay out of labor disputes and focus on education, preservation and the Academy Awards.

The most enduring legacy of those early years, which tends to be glossed over in history books, is the division of the Academy's members into branches — today there are not five but 17, which recognize work in areas ranging from costumes to visual effects. As was the case from the beginning — when the Academy sought to flatter its members in order to win their support — each branch chooses the nominees for the category or categories applicable to its members' area of expertise. For example, sound branch members alone pick the nominees for best sound effects and best sound mixing, while the entire membership gets to weigh in on the best picture nominees.

This all makes ample sense to me: The people who know the ins and outs of a certain skill set are best qualified to identify the finest examples of it.

But where things go off the rails is in the second round of voting, after nominees have been determined. At that point, the Academy deems all of its members qualified to help select the winners in all of its categories, which results in laughable scenarios like documentary branch members helping to determine the winner of the best makeup and hairstyling Oscar, and members of the short films and feature animation branch (a rather odd combination to begin with) helping to determine the winner of best film editing.

This system undoubtedly has swung the outcome of many Oscar races from a worthy winner to an unworthy one. What else would one expect when last Oscar season, only 117 of the 6,687 people who were eligible to determine the winner of the best costume design Oscar — just 1.75 percent of the entire organization — were actually costume designers, or 279 of the 6,687 who were eligible to determine the best original score Oscar — just 4.17 percent — were actually composers?

No Academy official has ever been able to provide a convincing argument for why this is the case. That's because there isn't one. In truth, it was a design flaw — one that was less obvious when there were fewer branches — that came to be accepted with the passage of time. Nobody at the Academy wanted to anger members by taking away their right to vote for the winners in a host of categories. What's the upside to revoking something people like, even if it's flawed? Or so the thinking has gone.

The other glaring unfairness of this system is that the final Oscar ballot does not list the names of the actual talent, but rather just the films on which they worked — except when it comes to the four acting categories. The Academy has argued that it wants its members to vote for the work, not for the individuals, but that doesn't give its members a lot of credit and certainly slights the craftsmen whose work is being recognized. Why are the names of directors or screenwriters or production designers any less worthy of mention on a ballot than the names of performers?

This season's crop of contenders offers us three terrific examples of how revered artists and crafts professionals have been slighted by the current semi-blind balloting system.

Let's start with Deakins, whom many regard as the greatest living cinematographer. To reiterate: He's been nominated by his peers for the best cinematography Oscar 13 times, but he's never won.

If cinematographers alone picked the winner of best cinematography, he likely would have two or three Oscars on his mantelpiece by now — probably for 1994's The Shawshank Redemption, 2001's The Man Who Wasn't There and maybe 2012's Skyfall, since all three brought him recognition from the American Society of Cinematographers. And if his name had at least been listed on the ballot, those Academy members outside his branch who are aware of him and his body of work might have seen fit to reward him for one of those standout films.

Alas, Deakins' name has never appeared on an Oscar ballot — and most people who vote for the winners aren't cinematographers, meaning that they don't really know how to evaluate cinematography. Instead, they almost certainly allow their vote in a category they don't fully understand to be affected by coattail tendencies (voting for a best picture nominee straight down the line) and genre bias (a film noir or Bond film is not generally regarded as an Academy type of project, regardless of the work within it).

This season, despite doing some of the best work of his career, Deakins looks likely to go home empty-handed yet again — his cinematographer peers will almost certainly nominate his jaw-droppingly beautiful lensing of Blade Runner 2049, but the winner likely will be a more Academy-friendly film.

The highly respected composer Thomas Newman — the latest in a long line of great Newman family composers — finds himself in the same boat. He has garnered 13 best original score nominations plus one best original song nomination, but he, too, has yet to win. Clearly, his peers have found his work to be exemplary, but he has tended to score — and be nominated for — films that do not garner the sort of reviews (2006's The Good German) or possess the gravitas (2004's A Series of Unfortunate Events) to win over Academy members. The one time he was expected to win — when he was nominated for 1999's American Beauty, the film that wound up winning best picture — he somehow was upset by the multi-language drama The Red Violin. Go figure. This season, Newman could and perhaps should be recognized for his Victoria & Abdul score, but the truth is that even if he is nominated by his peers, he will have a hard time winning, under the current system, against the scores of much higher-profile and better-received films.

But to end on an upbeat note: It appears that at least one long-suffering artist may finally get his turn in the winner's circle at the end of this season. James Ivory, a director who for many years was best known as half of the Merchant-Ivory team, has accumulated three best director nominations over the years — for 1986's A Room With a View, 1992's Howards End and 1993's The Remains of the Day. Ivory's biggest problem was not that his name wasn't on the ballot, but that he always came up against competitors who were steamrolling the competition — Oliver Stone for Platoon, Clint Eastwood for Unforgiven and Steven Spielberg for Schindler's List.

Now, though, at the age of 89, he looks poised to finally win — in the best adapted screenplay category — for his work on Call Me by Your Name, one of the most admired movies of 2017, and that category's clear frontrunner.

Ironically, because of the Academy's bizarre voting rules, many people who vote for it won't even realize until Oscar night who the beneficiary of their vote will be. In my opinion, they should call him by his name!

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ALWAYS A BRIDESMAID

Heading in to the 89th Oscars back in February, sound mixer Kevin O'Connell held the record for most Oscar nominations without a win, having accumulated 21, over a period of 33 years, without winning a statuette. That night, for his work on Hacksaw Ridge, O'Connell's name was finally called. Now, the holder of this undesirable record is, ironically, O'Connell's former mixing partner Greg P. Russell, who is 0-for-16. He actually has received 17 noms, but had one rescinded back in February because of a rules violation. This year, Russell is in contention for his mix of Transformers: The Last Knight.

This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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