Oscars: How the Globalization of the Academy Shakes Up the Race

THR's awards columnist looks at the one aspect of the Academy's inclusion efforts that has been most overlooked, but seems likely to have the biggest impact on the pursuit of Oscars.
By Kristian Dowling/Getty Images.

The membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has undergone a massive sea change over the past 13 months. The organization, in June 2016, invited a then-record 683 people to join its ranks, and in June of this year invited a new-record 774. Assuming the vast majority of invitees accepted or will accept this high honor (the only requirement is paying annual dues of $350), then roughly one-fifth of the entire membership — 1,457 of 7,650, or 19 percent — will have joined within that brief time span.

Much of the discussion about the Academy's new members has centered on their gender, race and age, not least because the organization's current leadership has chosen to publicly emphasize its efforts to change those demographics. But the biggest game changer represented by the new members, it seems to me, may be just how many of them are based abroad. Last year, hundreds of people from no fewer than 59 countries received invites; this year, a comparable number from almost as many countries, 57, were tapped.

This represents a giant departure for the Academy, which, for most of its 90-year history, was almost entirely composed of people based in and around Los Angeles who regarded those based outside of town with suspicion and fear — so much so that, as I've written before, its first presentation of a best picture Oscar to a film made outside of America, to Hamlet in 1949, almost brought about the end of the Oscars. Over the years since then, foreign-made — if not foreign-language — films have won Oscars with increasing frequency. But it was only over the last few years that the Academy began to welcome foreign filmmakers into its fold.

The surge of members based abroad — even more so than the surge of members who are women and/or people of color — may soon begin impacting the sorts of films and individuals that the Academy recognizes with Oscars. It stands to reason that people who did not grow up on American cinema or, in many cases, English-language cinema, are going to have different cinematic sensibilities than members who did. (Heck, for all we know, this may already have manifested itself in Moonlight's best picture win in February, which was not anticipated by any of the pre-Oscar awards that historically have offered reliable hints about what will prevail at the Oscars, including those of the Los Angeles-based guilds, save for the Writers Guild of America.)

The increased internationalization of the Academy also is going to present some major challenges for distributors and the strategists they employ to orchestrate Oscar campaigns. Creating prints or DCPs with subtitles in just one language requires considerable time and money; now there are members who speak dozens of languages. And if that hurdle is overcome, the next one will be how to actually screen a film for them. The Academy hosts screenings for members in L.A., New York, San Francisco and London, but distributors are on their own if they want to screen their films for members based elsewhere, and it's doubtful that many, if any, will be able or willing to pay for screenings — which cost thousands of dollars — in dozens of countries, some of which are home to only a few members.

An alternative, of course, is instead sending these members screeners, but screeners, as well as other mailings, present their own problems. The Academy does not provide distributors with mailing lists, so distributors instead have their mailings handled, for a sizable fee, by services that do their best to cobble together current and complete mailing lists — which will be harder than ever this year, since so many people based in far-flung places have joined the rolls. It also must be noted that sending materials abroad, as opposed to domestically, is significantly more expensive (advantaging operations with deep pockets) and time-consuming (which could prove problematic because screeners often can only be manufactured and mailed just days before voting deadlines).

One beneficiary, though, could be Netflix. After providing its awards hopefuls with one-week Oscar-qualifying runs, it then can immediately make them available for streaming on its service, which now reaches 190 countries — basically all of them except China, North Korea and Syria, plus Ukraine's Russian-occupied Crimea peninsula. Competing streaming service Amazon won't have the same advantage, unless it changes its policy, since it currently gives its films full theatrical runs before moving them online. (This past season, for example, Manchester by the Sea didn't hit Amazon Prime until May, more than two months after the Oscars.)

None of this is to judge whether it was a good or bad decision for the Academy to increase the number of its members based abroad, but rather to note that the organization's decision to do so unquestionably has changed the game of pursuing Oscars — and could increasingly change the results, as well.