On May 16, 1929, 270 people sat in attendance at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel as awards for movies were dealt out during a brisk 15-minute ceremony, to little fanfare. The event quietly wrapped up following the final presentation of a small golden statuette for outstanding picture. And with that, the first annual Academy Awards came to a close.
This year marks the 92nd Academy Award ceremony. Over the years, the ceremony, as well as the organization behind it, has become the subject of intense public scrutiny. It’s been called insular and elitist, often excluding women and people of color from its nominations. A critical investigation of the Academy’s motives and voting process reveals how the Oscars are fundamentally flawed and illuminates the disconnect between Hollywood and the general public. Who and what the Academy celebrates is not always a matter of artistry, but rather a consequence of the Academy’s own agenda.
The voting system employed by the Academy is not a directly democratic process. First, the almost-7,000 industry members who comprise the Academy are divided by profession. Writers, for example, are responsible for deciding their ideal choices for the best screenplay categories. Nominations are open to all members in the case of best picture.
This system has its benefits; it ensures that selections among each category are made by a well-informed voter base. Those with little or no direct professional experience in a particular field are dissuaded from promoting entries that comparatively don’t quite make the cut. However, a huge number of well-made films are produced each year, and there is no practical way to ensure that each member of the Academy will be able to watch all of the potential nominees. Personal bias represents another complication as a result of dividing the constituency among specialized groups within an already restricted pool of Hollywood contributors. This reinforces the insular nature of the nomination process.
Winners for all categories but best picture are determined by a plurality “winner-takes-all” method. The decision for best picture is made based on a preferential voting system, meaning voters rank their preferences for best picture rather than simply voting for one film. This means that the best picture winner has the broadest support, which unfortunately often results in popular films rather than edgier, risk-taking films winning the award.
In addition to its fundamentally flawed voting processes, the fact that the Academy is a distinct institution with its own interests and agenda also colors its decision-making. Its objective remains to maximize viewership, ratings and revenue toward the industry. This promotes nominations that are not solely based on artistic merit, but rather what will advance those objectives. For example, ratings for the awards have been historically higher when box-office hits receive many nominations. Nearly 20 million more viewers tuned into the 70th Academy Awards — in which the blockbuster “Titanic” was up for nomination — than the 78th Awards, where indie-hit “Crash” was selected for best picture.
The defining characteristic of the voting system behind the Academy Awards is the complete absence of the perspectives of general audiences, which means the Academy’s verdicts represent their singular, elitist perspective. From start to finish, the entire process is decided among members of the Academy alone. In this sense, the Academy Awards represent the direct voice of Hollywood. Thus, the Academy may be out of sync with the views of the broader public when it comes to what sort of films they choose to award.
Based on its structure and size, the Oscars may be mired in a debate it simply can’t win. Art is inherently subjective, and there will always be detractors in an argument over what makes a particular film, or an aspect of its creation, “the best.” The voting system is designed to narrow down the most popular choices from thousands of votes, but from there it’s anyone’s game. What the Academy says is the best shouldn’t be looked to as a definitive verdict.
Despite its flaws, the Oscars still serve an important function. In the wake of each ceremony, a conversation arises whereby the social values and perceptions of Hollywood, as expressed through its film preferences, are compared to those of the general public. The results create the basis for a discussion that highlights aspects of the industry that require greater attention or improvement. Failure, after all, is the best way to learn. Our continued attention to and protest of the Oscars as unfair to certain groups is important.
Ultimately the credibility of the Academy Awards is undermined by the limitations of its voting process. Still, if for nothing else, the event is otherwise perfectly designed for a fun drinking game — take a shot every time a celebrity forces an awkward political joke. All the better to dull the pain when your favorite artist or film of the year is overlooked yet again.
Tucker Oberting is a junior in the College. The Reel Deal appears in print and online every other Friday.