Oscar Voter Calls Diversity Efforts "A Momentary Appeasement of the Mob"

John Van Vliet, a member of the Academy's visual effects branch, weighs in on the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and the response to it.
Albert L. Ortega/WireImage/Getty Images

This piece by John Van Vliet, a member of the Academy's visual effects branch who is best known for his work on 'The Empire Strikes Back,' 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' and 'X-Men,' is part of an ongoing series of guest columns by Academy members about the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and the Academy's response to it.

I thought you might find the letter of protest I sent to the board of governors of interest. I'm a semi-retired visual effects supervisor and a longstanding member in the visual effects branch. My participation in voting is something I hold dear and I for one am more than a little outraged at what has happened regarding the implied accusation of racism and the move to disenfranchise the older voters. This new ruling is going to unfairly impact a lot of members who have been left high and dry after a lot of the postproduction side of our industry moved out of the country. Many are struggling to get by, taking teaching positions, working on theme park attractions and television work when they can find it. This "term limit" move was one of the more ill-conceived moves I've ever seen and my letter to the Academy hopefully conveys that level of outrage.

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Dear Academy Governors,

I recently received your letter regarding your efforts to “diversify” our membership and feel a need to respond as I believe you are making some serious errors in judgment. Most notably the decision to remove older members from the voting roster for inactivity within certain time slots. Or as we like to say down in the trenches, haven't had a job in a little while.

My understanding is that the recent public uproar is based on too few, or in the case of this year, no nominations in the acting category for persons of color. Since nominations for acting come from the actors (a separate branch in the Academy), that would suggest that the lack of nominations comes from within that branch. I can only assume that one of two things have happened. The actors branch either felt there were no performances by “diverse people” worthy of their nomination or they are all unabashed racists who only nominate by color. If the latter is the case, that would be pretty bad and would also be a poor reflection on the Academy's selection process for members.

If you seriously do think there is a racial bias issue within the actors branch, then perhaps it would be more appropriate to take that up with the actors instead of the membership in general? Discrimination is of course bad and if there are racist actors behaving badly, they should certainly be taken out to the woodshed and spanked. But if they truly only nominated the best performances in their opinion, then you should stand behind them for their guts to do the right thing in spite of howls from the public. If public approval of membership voting is that important, then perhaps consider opening the voting to the general public, because that's what you are essentially doing anyway. And as far as I know, there never was a quota system to automatically nominate a certain percentage of people based on their ethnicity. Besides, that would be racist.

The Academy also states that it has a “goal to double number of diverse members by 2020”, bringing in new members who are women and of ethnicity. That's great, but historically admittance to the Academy has always been based primarily on merit and the rules have been pretty strict about only recognizing those who practice excellence. Admitting people with a preference for gender or ethnicity also implies the Academy believes they will also be voting with a gender or racial consideration, which is not what we stand for. It is also incredibly disrespectful to those potential new members who believe that Academy membership is still all about merit and accomplishment.

What has a lot of members particularly incensed is the new “lifetime voting rights re-framed” initiative. This will essentially eliminate a considerable amount of older members from the voting roster, which I'm sure is no accident. This initiative implies that the Academy assumes that older members are automatically misogynist racists, and that is a real slap in the face. Besides insulting, there may be legal issues in forcing older members off of the voting roster as it could easily be construed as age discrimination.

By implementing this new time rule, the Academy fails to recognize that the reason many of these older members are no longer working is not one of choice, but because the studios shipped their jobs off to subsidized states and countries. Many survive today by working in television, theme park entertainment and teaching, but the feature film work environment is a mere shadow of its former self and it's not their doing. You are now penalizing them for the business decisions of their employers.

So how does removal of older members from all other branches help you? Outside of a momentary appeasement of the mob, the reality is that it won't do anything positive. It's a public offering of sacrificial bodies, a ritual killing of the members who have the least political pull in the system and therefore are least able to defend themselves and for that, you should be ashamed of yourselves.

These are the people who dedicated their lives to their profession and their art, sacrificing their time and energy to go the extra mile to put their best possible efforts up on the screen. They are the foot soldiers of our business who made excellence their top priority and are the people whose work made it possible for a lot of people to get Oscar nominations and for the winners to take home that statue. The same winners and nominees who are now exempt from the time rule.

And most important: The Academy is forgetting that these "older" members were initially 
inducted into the membership by virtue of their incredible contributions to the arts and sciences of the industry. Up until now, there was no expiration date on recognition of that excellence. So in order to appease critics over issues that most have had nothing to do with, that past excellence is now a revocable honor. That's pathetic and to strip the older members of their voting rights after a lifetime of contribution is an insult to them and everything the Academy stands for.


John Van Vliet