10:23am PT by Scott Feinberg
Why the Academy's Demographic Breakdown May Hurt 'The Help' (Analysis)
In terms of the best picture Oscar race, the mid-August release The Help has a lot going for it:
- Prestige it is an adaptation of a best-selling book that many people count among their all-time favorites.
- Gravitas It's a social-conscience movie of the sort that the Academy has always embraced -- one that tackles a difficult subject and promotes a progressive viewpoint.
- Critical Acclaim It has a very respectable 75% favorability rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
- Commercial Success It has taken in more money at the box-office than any best picture Oscar winner in eight years and all but eight ever.
- Personnel Its large ensemble cast is composed of popular and respected actors who have collectively worked with virtually everyone in the business (and friends often vote for friends).
- High-Profile Supporters Its vocal fan-base includes Oprah Winfrey, whose endorsement may be more valuable than anyone else's in the world.
But it also has one big problem. Odd as it may sound: women.
Yes, the demographic that is most responsible for turning Kathryn Stockett's novel and Tate Taylor's adaptation of it into cultural phenomena is also the same demographic that could be most responsible for keeping it from winning the best picture Oscar.
Why? Because the Academy, which is overwhelmingly male (the ratio may be as high as two-to-one, according to awards strategists to whom I reached out for insight), may nominate movies that primarily revolve around and/or appeal to females, but it almost never awards them its top prize.
There have been a few sporadic exceptions to this rule -- The Broadway Melody (1929), Mrs. Miniver (1942), All About Eve (1950), Gigi (1958), The Sound of Music (1965), Terms of Endearment (1983), Shakespeare in Love (1998), and Chicago (2002).
But the vast majority of the time, movies about and/or targeted at women can't overcome the Academy's skewed demographic breakdown. Norma Rae (1979), Working Girl (1988), Thelma and Louise (1991), The Piano (1993), Sense and Sensibility (1995), Erin Brokovich (2000), Moulin Rouge! (2001), The Queen (2006), Juno (2007), The Kids Are All Right (2010), and many others were nominated, but were ultimately just "too soft" for most men in the Academy, to use the words of a female awards strategist.
The same obstacles facing The Help may impact the prospects of several other 2011 awards contenders that "skew female," as well, such as Midnight in Paris, The Iron Lady, Young Adult, and, arguably, The Tree of Life.
The only way to reverse this trend will be to better even out of the demographics of the Academy. The awards strategists with whom I spoke believe that females are represented in numbers equal to or greater than males in several Academy branches -- art direction, makeup artists and hairstylists, and possibly public relations and even acting (in part because women tend to live longer than men). But, for now at least, most branches -- like the overall membership -- still skew heavily male.