Call For Comments: Why do we fill out Oscar ballots?

Dune, West Side Story, The Power of the Dog, and Belfast are all nominees for the 2022 Academy Award for Best Picture

From Monica: The 2022 Oscars are upcoming on March 27th, so we’re doing a good old-fashioned predictions episode. But as I sat down to fill out my ballot, I also found myself in the middle of a good old-fashioned debate: do you play to win, or do you play favorites? 

I stuck with the films I personally considered worthy of awards, or at least worthy of podcast discussion, primarily because I was concerned that if I didn’t talk about them, no one else would. My ballot is the winners of my heart, rather than the things I suspect the Academy liked. Which leads me to want to dive deeper into why this might be the case, because I doubt I’m in the minority. Most of our ideas about what a “good” movie is aren’t the movies that actually win. Last year I was unreasonably annoyed that Nomadland took home more accolades than Minari, both films by Asian directors that chose to address themes of home, family, and “The American Dream.” And maybe we agree to disagree on that one, but we can all stand united on “Who the fuck gave the Best Picture award to Green Book?!” in a year where the other choices included Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit?

Winners are determined by majority vote. So while we know that we disagree with “the majority of the Academy,” its probably helpful to spell out just who is “the majority of the Academy.” The Oscars are the official awards ceremony of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Academy membership is made up of film professionals in almost every department— writing, acting, editing, costume design [you get the picture]— and then primarily members vote on their own category; cinematographers for cinematographers, production designers for production designers, etc etc, though some categories like Best Picture are open to multiple groups or all members. The Academy decides its membership based on the sponsorship of current members who nominate new members, not application. So you can see how things could remain “an old boys club” pretty easily. A 2012 Los Angeles Times study found that Oscar voters are nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male, with Blacks and Latinos comprising about 2% each, leading to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. In 2020 the Academy announced that they had doubled the number of female members from 1,446 to 3,179 and tripled their members of color from 554 to 1,787. It’s something, but it’s still just a drop in the bucket. 

Technically the rules of eligibility for a film are pretty open. It’s things like: there has to have been a Los Angeles theatrical release; there has to have been a marketing campaign; there has to have been a copy of the film provided to the Academy. And that sounds like it could be a lot of movies. Basically any movie, really. And yet, and yet. The films nominated are usually released by major studios, by directors you’ve heard of before, starring actors you had taped up in your bedroom at one time. Why? 

Usually the best way to research which film is most likely to win is by looking at other awards results. Namely, that each of the aforementioned film departments also have their own separate professional guilds, which hold their own awards. For example: 

  • SAG= Screen Actors Guild
  • PGA= Producers Guild of America
  • CDG= Costume Designer’s Guild

Membership to these is determined by a combination of formal eligibility requirements (something like having 3 films with widespread distribution), an application and an essay, sponsorship by current members, and a joiners fee. I’ve been in the business since 2015 and I am Costume Designer’s Guild eligible, meaning that I fulfill the formal requirements to apply for membership, but have chosen to submit an application for membership at this time. One because I do not want to have a long term career in the film industry, but primarily because while the joiners fees in each guild vary drastically, my potential CDG one happens to cost the equivalent of the Kelly Blue Book purchase price of my used electric car. I can’t afford that! So there’s just as significant barriers to access to the professional organizations as there are to the Academy. However, through my academic publications on costume design and my work with the FIDM Museum Art of Costume Design exhibitions, I still spend a fair amount of time working with members of the CDG. And I notice that the same names seem to reappear in each department every year. Colleen Atwood has twelve nominations for Best Costume Design. Roger Deakins has fifteen nominations for best Cinematography.  

Summer of Soul

Where I sit on the periphery of observation, my husband is a member of the PGA, eligible to vote in these awards. Every awards season we receive dozens of DVDs in the mail, free access codes for Netflix and Amazon Prime, invitations to see films screened at fancy houses in the Hollywood hills, catered drive in movies, private screenings at theaters owned by the director’s guild featuring live Q&A’s with the director and special performances by actors. Just a question: how much do you think it costs to put one of these special PGA screenings on? To send a DVD to every member of the guild? So that when it comes time for voting, we’re voting for the things that someone courted us to vote for with bacon wrapped scallops, or movies we popped in at home with our bag of Trader Joe’s kettle corn when we were too lazy or too cheap to drive to the theater and pay $18 for a ticket and $12 for parking, because this is LA after all. And that’s just for the types of movies that play at the AMCs across the country. The independent art house theater we like is in Santa Monica, and we’re not sitting for an hour one way in six lanes of traffic to be able to see something different or foreign.       

tick, tick…BOOM!

We’re all playing around with rigged ballots, stemming from rigged distribution systems, pretending that an Oscar Award designates whatever “true cinema” means. It’s not even about the box office for the general population, or the Rotten Tomatoes score, but rather about a separate industry-only marketing campaign aimed only at impressing the voting population, which is comprised of still majority white men over 50. So yes, this week we are playing an antiquated game, and we recognize its legacy of marginalization. 

But all the same, I LOVE movies. I grew up spending my afternoons in a pawn shop, coming home with as many $0.25 DVDs I could carry, and going to the theater every weekend. My college job was an art house movie theater. I spend Christmas and my birthday every year at the cinema. I’m a Cultural Studies academic. I love McLuhan. For as long as I can remember, I knew the perceived gravitas of an Oscar, and I attempted to watch every nominee every year. This is my March Madness. But just the same, I know that the teams in the Final Four are usually private schools or large public institutions who can afford to massively overfund their athletic departments and recruitment efforts.  

All of this sounds a little bitter, which isn’t at all how I mean it. It’s just that maybe we should fill out our ballots NOT according to what the Academy might pick. We probably should choose to add on movies that aren’t even nominated. Stunts don’t even get an Oscar category, but we’re gonna give them one. The Oscars are supposed to be about celebrating the joy of movies and the power of storytelling, so our episode is going to do a little more of that.  

CODA

1 Comment and 6 Webmentions for “Call For Comments: Why do we fill out Oscar ballots?”

  1. I was way ahead of you on this one Monica. I remember enjoying the Oscars when I was a kid, but I quickly realized the Oscars are for old people. I’m more into music than movies. I used to love watching the Grammys, but I lost the warm fuzzy feelings the Grammy’s once gave me when I realized the RIAA & I do not see eye to eye. Those shows are just propaganda machines.

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