Perhaps I’m naïve, but responses to the Oscars, both nominees and winners, never cease to surprise me. Never mind within hours, within one hour of the nominees for the 87th Annual Academy Awards announcement (bit of a mouthful), the Internet was awash with ridicule, condemnation and insistence that the Academy had got it wrong yet again. Why do non-Academy members find it so hard to accept that the position of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is different but possibly just as valid to their own position? Why will we not accept that this is a bunch of films that AMPAS choose to honour, and that the Academy is allowed a different position to our own? Come the end of the year, many film fans post lists of their top films of the year, and these lists vary widely. We can disagree, but we do so respectfully, whether it is on online or in person. The level of vitriol and contempt directed against AMPAS every year seems excessive, dubious and downright arrogant. A Bunch of Dry Old Men? I am also irritated by the way the uninformed describe the award givers, referring to AMPAS as if it were a secret cabal or committee whose members meet, look over the films their friends made, puff their cigars and sip their whiskey, before voting for the films that made the most money. The Academy has over 5000 voting members, divided into 15 branches relating to the Academy’s various categories (acting, directing, cinematography, etc.). Each member of a particular branch picks nominees in their category from the films eligible for consideration, which can be any theatrical release that plays for seven days in Los Angeles between 1st January and 31st December of the previous year. Voting decisions can therefore be made individually and not necessarily because of others’ influence. This is not to say that personal and financial relationships do not influence decisions, or that no decisions are made by voters going “Eeny-meeny-miny-mo” on the list of candidates, but let’s have some perspective on the sheer size of the institution involved. To be fair, this institution is far from diverse. According to a report published in the Los Angeles Times, over 90% of the voting members of AMPAS are Caucasian, over 70% are male, and at least 50% are over the age of 60. Furthermore, over 30% of voting members are former nominees and winners. The stereotype of the Academy voter being an old white man does therefore have some validity. Nonetheless, while this demonstrates that women and people of colour are severely under-presented in the Academy, it does not mean that anyone else necessarily knows what these old white men enjoy, respect and reward. We can speculate about their preferences and whether they will be more swayed by a gold watch from Rolex or Chopard, but we do not ultimately know. Furthermore, what makes your opinion or mine more valid than theirs? Granted, the opinions of this largely homogenous institution do lead to a great deal of Hollywood hoopla and one of the grandest shows of the entertainment calendar. The fact that these are the film industry’s awards and that the manner of their presentation is so ostentatious can appear crass and excessive. If that is your reaction, that the actual institution of the Oscar ceremony is offensive, why take any interest in the awards at all? And if you do take an interest, consider this: if the resources were suddenly made available for the [insert your name here] Film Awards, would you not make a big fuss about it as well? And if you were suddenly appointed the arbiter of cinematic quality, able to dole out awards to the film artists that you deemed worthy, would you be so different from AMPAS? What performances, scripts, special effects, cinematography, editing, sound mixing, sound editing, costume design, production design, hair and make-up, directors and, oh yes, films overall, would I vote for to win? But then again, what do we know about cinematography, sound mixing, sound editing, costume design, production design, etc? Are the people who actually work in these areas not somewhat qualified at deciding on high quality work? Of course, strong reactions tend to relate to particular categories, mainly Best Picture. This leads me to what I would like to see: a reasoned response to Oscar nominations that respectfully disagrees and does not declare that a few thousand total strangers are idiots. I may not agree that the films nominated each year are the finest examples of cinematic art that the previous twelve months have produced, but that does not mean my opinion is more valid than anyone else. Were I a member of AMPAS, and nothing I voted for was nominated simply due to number of votes, it would make my opinion a minority. The demographics may be narrow, but it is a democratic process rather than the dictatorship that negative responses infer: “the Academy members are wrong and I, the arbiter of all that is quality, am right”. It sounds different that way, doesn’t it?
My question, therefore, is why is the opinion of anyone who derides the Oscar nomination decisions more valid than those of the combined beliefs of the members of AMPAS? Who is really qualified to give awards for filmmaking? Perhaps the people that spend the most time actually watching and assessing films, i.e. critics. Critics are among the first to give awards, presented before the Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Oscars take place. Indeed, the films honoured by the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle and other such organisations often go on to receive awards from the industry as well, which suggests that the Academy voters may take some guidance from the critics. Of course, if you don’t value reviews either, then you’re still going to be annoyed, perhaps by the type of films that are honoured. I will return to this in my next post.