Oscars: Three Questions Raised by Academy's New Invitation List

THR's awards columnist asks if the organization can still claim to be film-centric, why all Oscar winners aren't invited and how the explosion in the size of the membership will impact Oscar campaigning.
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From left: Yeardley Smith, Kobe Bryant, Alison Brie, Bryan Fogel

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the names on Monday of 928 individuals who have been invited to join its ranks this year. The list includes many eminently worthy individuals, such as actors Miles Teller and Lea Seydoux, directors Luca Guadagnino and Bela Tarr, writers Arnaud Desplechin and Jonathan Nolan, producers Lisa Bruce and Charles Gillibert, documentarians Simon Kilmurry and TJ Martin, executives Lisa Nishimura and Tessa Ross, casting director Sheila Jaffe and PR specialists Nicolette Aizenberg and Michael Kupferberg, to cite but a few examples. But it also raises a few concerns.

1. Is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences still an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?

The Academy invited a larger class than ever before because it is racing to meet diversity goals that its leaders set in 2016, in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of that year and the year before: namely, doubling the organization's number of female and diverse members by the year 2020. And the demographics of the Academy are indeed changing — its overall percentage of female members has grown from 25 percent four years ago to 31 percent this year, and its overall percentage of non-white members has grown from 8 percent four years ago to 16 percent this year. (That latter stat fulfills their 2020 goal two years early.)

But there are downsides to trying to propel demographic change in the industry by making changes at the Academy as opposed to studios, agencies and other gatekeepers who are actually in a position to give people the opportunity to demonstrate the excellence that the Academy seeks to recognize in its membership and with its awards. In other words, it's trying to have the tail wag the dog.

In order to meet its diversity goals, the Academy — and, in particular, its largest division, the actors branch — is increasingly inviting people to become members who are tremendously talented, but whose talents have primarily manifested themselves in other media. The Academy was created to celebrate the arts and sciences of motion pictures, meaning films, not TV, theater or stand-up comedy. If the Academy no longer feels that should be the case, then it should publicly state it. But, at the moment, it is pretending that it is consistent with the branch requirements stated in its bylaws to invite, for example, from the world of...

  • TV — Yeardley Smith and Julie Kavner (who voice characters on The Simpsons, as do Harry Shearer and Hank Azaria, who were also invited, but who has more extensive film credits), Emilia Clarke and Lena Headey (Game of Thrones), Christine Baranski (The Good Wife and The Good Fight), Andre Braugher (Homicide and Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Alison Brie (Mad Men and GLOW), Jaime Camil and Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin), Anna Chlumsky (Veep), Randall Park (Fresh Off the Boat), Wendell Pierce (The Wire and Suits), Jean Smart (Designing Women and Frasier) and Amber Tamblyn (Joan of Arcadia)
  • Theater — Audra McDonald (who has won more Tony Awards than any other performer in history) and Tammy Blanchard (a two-time Tony nominee who I also loved years ago on Guiding Light)
  • Stand-up comedy — Hannibal Buress (best known for taking down Bill Cosby, who himself was another questionable member of the Academy until his expulsion in May), Dave Chappelle, George Lopez, Sarah Silverman and Damon Wayans

It is true these folks have made films, too, and been very good in some — Silverman, for instance, in 2015's I Smile Back. But it is simply disingenuous to argue that their body of film work merits an invite to join this particular organization. (And yes, I know that other people with questionable qualifications slipped through the cracks in the past — a commonly cited example is Fraser Heston, Charlton's son — but why would anyone want to perpetuate that sort of thing?)

I would also argue that it's highly questionable for people with zero real film credits to be invited to join any branch of the Academy other than members-at-large, but that happened this year in several branches — the documentary branch, for instance, invited African Film Festival, Inc. chief Mahen Bonetti, Film Quarterly editor B. Ruby Rich and film festival curator turned Ford Foundation grant maker Chi-hui Yang, all distinguished individuals, but in no sense filmmakers.

2. If you're good enough to win an Oscar, why aren't you good enough to join the Academy?

I do believe that there is one circumstance under which someone who has not amassed a large body of standout work should still be invited to join the Academy, and that is if that person has made a contribution to a film that was deemed excellent enough to merit an Oscar.

The winner of every Oscar category is determined by a poll of the entire Academy, so an Oscar win is a pretty ringing endorsement from the whole organization. And even if a person has never made a film before the one for which he or she was awarded an Oscar, that seal of approval should be enough to attract an invitation to join the club, especially in a year in which 928 other people are being invited. (Prior to the 2020 push, the Academy invited about 100-plus new members in any given year —  specifically, the number was 105 a decade ago.)

I believe that it was highly inappropriate, in the wake of Spotlight's best picture win three years ago, that the Academy's producers branch invited only one of that film's three Oscar-winning producers who were not already members, Michael Sugar, to join its ranks. (Producer Steve Golin was invited in 1994.) It took until Monday for another, Nicole Rocklin, to receive her invitation. And producer Blye Faust still has not received an invitation. Meanwhile, many people associated with films that were far less seen and celebrated have been invited.

Further to that point, I think that the Academy erred badly this year in not inviting as new members five of its 2018 winners: best documentary feature winner Bryan Fogel (Icarus), an extremely impressive first-time documentary filmmaker; best makeup and hairstyling winner Lucy Sibbick (Darkest Hour), who helped to turn Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill, and who worked on several other high-profile features before that; best production design winner Jeffrey A. Melvin (The Shape of Water), a veteran Canadian set decorator whose prior credits include 2014's Pompeii and 2015's Crimson Peak; best documentary short winner Frank Stiefel (Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405), who made several other respected documentaries before this one; and best animated short winner Kobe Bryant (Dear Basketball) — the short films and feature animation branch recommended that he be invited to join their ranks, but others in the Academy reportedly had reservations because he had never previously worked in film.

The Academy's leadership either stands behind the judgment of its members and the importance of its Oscar or it does not; if it does, then folks like those mentioned above should be invited to join the organization at the first opportunity after they receive their statuettes, not made to stand on the sidelines when, because of a lack of uniformity in requirements between the branches, others, such as first-time feature writers Emily V. Gordon and Virgil Williams, who were both nominated in 2018, are invited. I'm not throwing shade at Gordon or Williams — just at the logic, or lack thereof, of inviting rookie nominees but not rookie winners. The bottom line: It seems not unreasonable to ask the branches to better align their basic requirements.

3. Is Oscar campaigning about to go crazy?

Assuming that everyone who was invited to join the Academy this year accepts that invitation (the vast majority usually do), the number of eligible voters this season will increase by 918 to 8,176. (Of the 928 invitees, 10 were invited to join the associates branch and so are ineligible to vote.) That will be the highest number of Oscar voters since the period spanning 1938 to 1945, when certain classes of members of outside guilds, including the now-defunct Screen Extras Guild, were granted full voting privileges, bringing the size of the voting rolls to approximately 12,000.

In some ways, it is great to have a larger Academy. For instance, an organization that started out as an exclusive L.A.-area club, and only fairly recently grew to have a substantial presence in New York, is now truly an international organization (if everyone invited to join this year accepts, then Academy members will be based in 71 different countries, THR has learned) — something that is only appropriate considering that great cinema now comes out of almost every corner of the world.

But a byproduct of having not only so many members, but also so many members spread all over the globe, is that the Oscars-industrial complex — the massive business of campaigning for Academy Awards that has built up over the decades, with its L.A. and New York lunches and dinners and post-screening Q&As — is no longer going to be as effective as it long has been. It's not going to go away, though; campaigners are simply going to have to adapt to the new reality of the game.

Perhaps anticipating challenges presented by the expansion of the Academy, the organization — like the 23,000-member TV Academy — recently decided to step in and serve as a middle-man between campaigners and members. Any outreach to members, whether hard-copy or digital, must now go through the Academy itself. This service comes with a handling fee, of course, but also guarantees that any outreach will actually reach every member who has provided the organization with an address, something that the member lists that campaigners cobbled together in the past could not guarantee.

What else is likely to change as a result of the recent explosion in the size of the Academy?

I think there will be a big push for the Academy to create a secure way of providing members with digital-only screeners (a pilot program is already in place), since the cost of manufacturing and mailing hard-copy screeners for this many voters, dispersed this much, is quickly becoming prohibitive for many distributors. (For this reason, among many others, there's also never been a better time to be Netflix, which already pipes its content directly into the homes of people in every country in the world, save for China, North Korea, Syria and Russia-controlled Crimea.)

I also think that spending on advertisements and billboards will increase in international publications and locations, respectively, as campaigners try to reach far-flung voters. But, even more so, I think the push by campaigners to procure "earned media" — that is, media exposure that costs nothing but time — will be markedly greater. Being able to land a story or a video or a podcast with a high-profile media outlet's website is going to become more important than ever for campaigners who need to somehow convince international members to check out a film and consider voting for it.

In other words, Oscar campaigning is not going to go away — it's just, by necessity, going to have to change.