Oscar Voter: Academy Diversity Efforts Are Laudable But Could Go Further (Guest Column)

Rod Lurie Headshot - P 2013

Rod Lurie Headshot - P 2013

This piece by Rod Lurie, a member of the Academy's directors branch who is best known for The Contender, is part of an ongoing series of guest columns by Academy members about the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and the Academy's response to it.

What the Academy is doing, in aiming to double the number of minorities and women in its membership by 2020, is righteous and proper. We simply have to get the organization not to reflect what Hollywood is, but what it should be: a place for minorities to thrive in non-niche roles; to write and direct and photograph in far greater numbers; and to get into positions to greenlight movies. So, bravo.

But — but — what do we do during the next four years?  What do we do until Hollywood gets its act together?

The other day I ran into several of my fellow Academy members at Art's Deli. All men, all 70 or older, all white. Each but one said they didn't even bother watching F. Gary Gray’s terrific Straight Outta Compton.  The one who had seen it dismissed it with a wave of the hand. "Too loud for me," he said in full-on Larry David mode. “I didn’t make it all the way through.”

I believe the kinds of movies that get Academy support are directly connected to the fact that the organization is dominated by one generational demographic. I am not sure what exactly the statistic is, but I imagine that the average age of an Academy member must be well over 60. That means that while the Academy might support historically-minded or socially-liberal films about the black experience — films like the great 12 Years a Slave and Precious and Ray — you can forget them getting behind a film about modern black culture like Compton

In order to immediately deal with this situation, I'd like to offer up a radical solution: Nominations should no longer be determined by the entire membership. Instead, every branch of the Academy should appoint a blue ribbon committee to select its nominees. The Academy president would appoint a "foreman" for each of the committees. (Note: I volunteer!) Each committee would consist of an equal distribution of members who have been in AMPAS for up to 10 years, up to 20 years, up to 30 years and then over that. All committee members would commit to seeing most of the eligible films every year. (It's impossible for anyone to see all of them.) The blue ribbon committee members would have a voting day in which they would debate, cajole and argue the cases for various films. Then they would vote to determine the five nominees. And then all Academy members would choose a winner from among the nominees, just as they do now.

What would we achieve here? Well, by definition, the committees would be more diverse — in terms of race, gender and age — than the overall Academy. That’s crucial, really the most important thing. If we had taken this approach this year, it seems to me that Creed's Maryse Alberti would have been the first female DP ever nominated. (Really guys, how amazing was the conceit and execution of the “oner" that made up the middle fight sequence?!) It is also likely that the Japanese-American Cary Fukunaga could have gotten in as the writer or director or cinematographer of the brutal Netflix (and thus little seen) film Beasts of No Nation, and it's almost certain that its supporting actor Idris Elba would have made the cut, as well.

As for the best picture category? Its nominees would also be chosen by a committee, but it would be a committee made up of 20 producers, 20 directors, 20 writers, 20 actors and 20 members from across the other branches. Again, healthy debate would result in nods for movies that otherwise may not have been part of  “the discussion.” I have no doubt that we’d see documentaries nominated — how cool would it have been if The Thin Blue Line or Hoop Dreams had gotten in? Animated movies, too — I'll bet you that Charlie Kaufman's gorgeous Anomalisa would have had a shot. And I'll tell you this for sure: Straight Outta Compton would be up for best picture right now.

An added byproduct of the aforementioned changes: they would significantly mute studio campaigning. The greatest threat to the integrity of the nominating process is that the wealthiest studios can far, far outspend smaller films struggling to get attention. I can't begin to count how many events and meet-and-greets there were for Leonardo DiCaprio and The Revenant (which got 12 admittedly well-deserved nominations), but I can tell you there were maybe two or three events for the wonderful Love & Mercy (which wound up with zero). It's simply not fair.  Yes, some small indies get in, but they are few and far between. Right now the Oscar race is too much like a political contest, and that's wrong. This is art, not Iowa.

Under this nominating system, every film and person would get their day in court. This is how it was done when I was a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (and, I assume, still is). It’s a cool and exhilarating way to deliberate. Almost nobody I knew back then ended up voting fully the way they had intended when they walked in at the start of the day.

In fact, while I'm thinking about it, blue ribbon committee members would have to vow to forego studio-sponsored events — parties, dinners, luncheons. Of course, they could go to screenings and get screeners. But anything that would interfere with an objective look at the art of the movie would be strictly forbidden.

Who would hate this plan? Well, everyone who no longer gets to nominate, for starters. (I get it — but this issue is too important within the context of our community.) And, perhaps most of all, those who currently benefit from studio campaigning, especially the trades, which count on "For Your Consideration" ads to stay up and running. So, given that, thanks to The Hollywood Reporter for running this. You guys are mensches.