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8 Things You Need to Know About How the Academy Awards Work – It Still Mostly Comes Down to Old, White Men

The Oscar nominations are here again, and for only the second time in nearly two decades all of the acting nominations went to a group of white actors and actresses.  Things hadn’t been this lily white on the acting side since 2011, and then before that in 1998.  It’s maybe more damning that outside of Selma it’s not like there were many of actors of color to even be found in any of the year’s leading awards contenders (Imitation Game, Theory of Everything, Birdman, Grand Budapest Hotel, etc.).  Moreover, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences snubbed Selma director Ava DuVernay, declining to make her the first African-American woman nominated for Best Director.  Twitter is reacting in its typical snarky way, and there are those industry insiders who will argue this is simply an indication that the entire Academy Award voting process is screwed.  It’s also perfectly possible that Oscar voters simply didn’t think that Ava DuVernay, David Oyelowo (who plays Martin Luther King, Jr.), or anyone else from Selma (outside of the guys who got a Best Original Song nomination) put forth one of the five best efforts in their category this year, which is the same conclusion the Academy clearly reached when it completely snubbed Lee Daniels’ The Butler last year (Selma did at least get a Best Picture nomination).  

However, the truth of the matter is that even though the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences is now run by its first ever African-American president the actual people who vote for the Oscars are overwhelmingly old, white males.  Now is a good time to look a little closer at that as well as exactly how the Academy Awards operate:

1. The best way to get into the the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences is to be nominated for an Oscar, but it’s not automatic

Better Luck Next Time, Michelle Williams

As of last year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences had 6,417 members, but the Academy never fully discloses its membership list.  Instead, they reveal their list of new invitees ever year, as here in 2010 or here in 2014.  It’s been assumed that the best way to secure such an invitation is to get nominated for an Oscar thus kicking in an automatic invite and membership for life.  For example, Captain Phillips‘ Barkhad Abdi received an invitation last year even though he’d never been in a film before Captain Phillips.  However, there have been some instances where the Academy decided that an Oscar-nominated actor’s overall body of work did not merit membership, like when it snubbed Michelle Williams even though she’d just been nominated for her performance in Brokeback Mountain (2006).  They apparently could not get past the fact that she’d done all those seasons of Dawson’s Creek, concluding that Williams’ body of work to that point lacked sufficient artist merit. Slap!  On top of that, Williams didn’t even win the Oscar for Brokeback Mountain anyway.  Double slap!  She was eventually invited to join in 2009, after she’d starred in a couple more critically praised indie films.

2. Or you can just randomly receive an invitation because the Academy thinks you’re awesome

Pearl Jam Ten
Eddie Vedder gets to vote for Best Picture

If you look at last year’s list of invitees you’ll see that some of them have never been nominated for an Oscar, like Shawshank Redemption‘s Clancy Brown, or even come remotely close to being nominated, like Chris Rock, Clark Gregg, Rob Riggle, the directing duo Jay and Mark Duplass.  Even Pearl Jam’s lead singer Eddie Vedder was invited last year based on his work writing music for Into the Wild and Eat, Prey, Love. (Sidebar: The guy from Pearl Jam wrote songs for a Julia Roberts movie.  That’s something that happened.  Then again, he also wrote an entire album of ukulele songs.  That also happened.  He’s allowed to experiment, right?)

So, how did those guys all earn invitations?  Well, they may not even really know because beyond being nominated for an Oscar the only way to be invited to join the Academy is if you get two members to pen recommendations, or receive an endorsement from an academy membership committee or the organization’s staff.  That means you don’t even have to seek it out.  The Academy may just invite you because it thinks you’re awesome at what you do.  In years past, the Academy has explained that they extend invitations to those filmmakers deemed to be among the “most exceptionally qualified names” of those who have “achieved distinction in the arts and sciences of motion pictures.”  These invitations extend to every aspect of the film industry, even including studio executives, publicists, casting directors, etc.

3. Or someone died or retired leaving Academy slots open for new members

Try counting how many people are listed in the In Memoriam section of the Oscars ceremony. That used to give you a rough idea of how many new members they’d invite the next year

For a long time, the Academy preferred to keep its membership at around 6,000 members, which is problematic when you consider the fact that people are usually granted life-time membership.  So, when the Academy snubbed Michelle Williams after Brokeback Mountain it might not just have been because they really, really hated Dawson’s Creek, although it’s kind of fun to think so.  It might simply have been because not enough Academy members died (or retired) that year thus limiting the number of slots that were available.  That was from the period when the Academy would only invite about the same number of people as those who had died, retired or resigned.

4. Some Academy members may in fact already be dead without the Academy realizing it

Bootlegging those screeners used to be so much easier before they started adding extensive watermarks

Because the Academy refuses to fully disclose its membership it’s possible that some of its members are actually deceased.  The thinking is family members opt against notifying the Academy of the death so that they can continue receiving free DVD screeners, simply voting on behalf of their dead relative.  In year’s past it was feared that in certain situations the family members actually wanted to keep receiving the screeners to make money off of them via bootlegging (

5. The Academy is still predominately old, white males, but they are at least trying to change that

Tom Sherak
Tom Sherak, former Academy President

In 2012, an extensive, rather damning Los Angeles Times study determined that 94% of Oscar voters were Caucasian, 77% were male, with an overall median age of 62.  Moreover, of the academy’s 43-member board of governors, six were women; public relations executive Cheryl Boone Isaacs was the sole person of color.  This prompted writer-director and long-time Academy governor Phil Alden Robinson to respond, “We absolutely recognize that we need to do a better job.  We start off with one hand tied behind our back.  If the industry as a whole is not doing a great job in opening up its ranks, it’s very hard for us to diversify our membership.”  Academy President Tom Sherak was said to be looking at ways to increase diversity, but the statistics were eye-opening.  Caucasians made up 90% or more of every Academy branch except actors, which was merely 88% white. In fact, both the executive and writers branches were 98% white, and males made up more than 90% of five branches, including cinematography and visual effects.  Only 2% of the entire Academy was African-American, less than that for members of Latino origin.  The LA Times also discovered that only half of the Academy’s actors had appeared on screen in the last years, and hundreds-including a nun, a bookstore owner, a retired Peace Corps recruiter, and a prisoner in Canada who had once owned a cinema distribution company-of the Academy members hadn’t worked in the film industry in decades.

This was worse than anyone had imagined.  LA Times reporter John Horn told NPR, “I think the Academy was really embarrassed by the findings of the demographics. They knew they had a problem; they were aware that the image of the Academy was that it was a bunch of old white men. But when they were confronted with the hard data of how old, how white and how male the Academy was, they really had no place to hide.”

Cheryl Boone Isaacs They’ve been trying to fix all that.  The Academy leadership has changed twice since the publication of the Los Angeles Times study, Hawk Koch succeeding Sherak as President later in 2012 and Cheryl Boone Isaacs replacing Koch in 2013, making her the first African-American to serve as President and just the third woman to do so (the other two were actress Bette Davis and screenwriter Fay Kanin).  Isaacs removed the cap on the number of members, inviting 276 new members in 2013 and 271 in 2014, adding more racial diversity with Chris Rock, Lupita Nyong’o, Barkhad Abdi, Pharrell Williams, and Robert Lopez.  That’s after the Academy invited less than 200 new members in 2012.  Isaacs told the LA Times, “”We are encouraging our members to be our ambassadors, looking for folks of color, gender and international status to become members. This has been an initiative here for a number of years, and some are a little better than others — but we’re committed to diversify.”

That’s why it’s so sad that the overall statistics have barely changed.  Even after adding so many new members over the last 2 years, 93% of current Oscar voters are Caucasian, 76% are male compared to 94% white, 77% male in 2012.  In fact, the median age actually inched up from 62 to 63, according to the LA Times.  This is unlikely to change significantly until more of the old, white Academy members start dying off, with Isaacs telling NPR, “It is still primarily white male, which will make sense for all the years that the Academy has been in existence.  And there is not a cut-off. It’s not like you get to be a certain age and you’re no longer a member. We don’t toss people out.”

6. The only category everyone gets to vote on during the nomination process is Best Picture

This somehow beat Inception and Social Network in 2011

Members from each individual branch of the Academy determine the votes for the nominees within their own category, e.g., actors vote for the actors, writers vote for the writers, directors vote for the directors, etc.  As of 2012, the actors branch was the largest with 1,176 members while the costume designers branch was the smallest with 108 members.  Just a quick little aside, the Golden Globes are determined by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, an odd cabal of nearly 90 writers.  So, the absolute smallest branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences is still bigger than the entire group responsible for the Golden Globes.  However, with the Academy having such imbalanced membership branches the end result is that certain nominations are pretty well devalued.  For example, as of 2012 you only needed 18 votes to be nominated for costume design and 39 for video editing.  Heck, even though all Academy members vote for Best Picture the voting system utilized meant it only took 301 votes for a film to secure a Best Picture nomination.

That’s how the movies are nominated.  That’s not how they determine who actually wins, though.  All active and lifetimes members of the Academy, regardless of branch, get to vote to determine who wins in every category, although if you look at their rules only Documentary, Documentary-short subject, Foreign Language Film, Animated Short Film, and Live Action Short Film specify that everyone voting needs to have first seen every film nominated in the category.

7. Anything released on VOD before playing in theaters is ineligible for Academy Award consideration

The One I LoveVOD is the future of film distribution for independent and fringe cinema, but it comes at one unexpected cost: Any film that plays on TV, PPV/VOD, DVD, or “internet transmission” before its theatrical debut is automatically ineligible for an Academy Award in any category.  For this to really be an issue one would have to assume that critically-adored 2014 VOD releases like Snowpiercer and The One I Love every truly had any kind of shot at even being noticed by the Academy.  That didn’t happen, but in this case it could because both of those films were technically eligible because they played in theaters at least 1 day before hitting VOD.  What if they hadn’t, but suddenly everyone agreed that The One I Love‘s clever screenplay was Oscar-worthy?  Someday further down the road (maybe much further) it’s not hard to imagine such a scenario playing out.

8. Some Academy members don’t even do their own voting, or even watch all of the contending movies

Ernest Borgninte
Ernest Borgnine famously refused to watch Brokeback Mountain even though he was technically obligated to as an active Oscar voter

In 2010, MovieFone talked to an anonymous Academy member who claimed, “I’ve heard that there are some despicable people who don’t do their own voting.  At least half the fun of belonging to the Academy is getting to vote!”  But it has long since been feared that many Academy members just flat out do not watch most of the contending movies, sometimes voting for movies they’ve never actually seen, perhaps simply going off of what they’ve learned through multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns.  That kind of general ignorance can be seen in the 9 “Brutally Honest” Oscar ballots The Hollywood Reporter published (and IndieWire rounded up) in which 9 anonymous voters provided a window into their voting process for last year’s Oscars:

Best Picture

Chiwetel12YearsInterviewidephoto3#4 (Publicist): The truth is I only watched about half of “12 Years a Slave”; I couldn’t take it. It made me sick to my stomach and I just thought, “OK, I know slavery was terrible, and this is an important movie and I get all that,” but I was bored with how long it was taking.

#7 (Executive): Look, I’ve lived long enough to know what it was like for a person to be a black person in America. I mean, it’s not anything that I’m not aware of. 

Best Director

gravity_still_a_l#4 (Publicist): [Steve] McQueen — I don’t know how to say this — he never made me want to vote for him. I thought he came off as pretentious and affected and rude.

#1 (Director): [Alfonso] Cuaron was part of a committee of technicians who made that movie, and I have seen things at the planetarium that were at least as impressive.

Best Supporting Actress

American Hustle#4 (Publicist): I didn’t vote for Jennifer Lawrence, even though I thought she was very entertaining in the movie, because (a) she just won last year, and (b) we can’t give everything to Jennifer Lawrence when she’s 22 years old because Jennifer Lawrence will be institutionalized.

Best Original Screenplay

Blue-Jasmine#1 (Director): I’m going for “American Hustle” because Woody has already been overwhelmingly rewarded. I feel very badly about the absurd bullshit that’s flying Woody’s way, but that can’t intrude one way or the other on voting.

Best Animated Feature

Frozen#1 (Director): I have seen none of them. I have no interest whatsoever. That ended when I was 6. My son dragged me to a few when he was 6; I would seat him and go outside and make phone calls.

Best Documentary

#7 (Executive): My friends tell me “The Square” is one of the best documentaries that they ever saw, but I haven’t had a chance to see it.

BTW, for a rather thorough breakdown of how bizarre Academy rules have largely killed the “Best Song” category check out this AVClub article.

You can view the full list of this year’s Oscar nominees at Vulture.  The actual Awards ceremony will air on February 22nd, hosted by Neil Patrick Harris.


  1. And that’s the problem with the oscar. The only thing I am sligthly interested in is The award for best animated feature, because they have actually quite a good track record there, with only two slips so far.

    1. Agreed, although the big snub this year actually comes in that best animated feature category where everyone thought Lego movie would ultimately win and now it is not even nominated. That caught everyone by surprise.

      1. Well….I am surprised, but as a big animation fan, I am kind of happy about it. While the Lego movie might have deserved the nomination more than the Boxtrolls (which, I guess, got in because they wanted one stop motion feature), I was kind of afraid that the movie would win, and it shouldn’t. I expected it to be nominated because so many people are getting crazy over it, but I never thought it should win in the first place, so I am not too broken up about the boxtroll getting the nomination spot. My guess is that one of the traditional animated features might win, but it’s hard for me to tell which movie will take the prize, because neither Big Hero 6 nor Song of the Sea has been released in my country yet, so I have to go by what I know about those movies.

      2. I liked, not loved Lego Movie. So, like you I am not really all that mad that it did not get nominated. When the Hollywood Reporter asked an anonymous Academy member about it yesterday they were told that a lot of people in the animation branch are older, and are determined to not let the big CGI animation movies take over the category. So, anytime Laika puts out a stop motion animation film it is an automatic nominee, and the same goes for if there is a notable hand drawn foreign film or films. The end result is that every year the nominees serve to remind us that CGI is not the only kind of animated film out there, and every once in a while a stop motion or hand drawn film will even win the award for best animated feature, although that has not happened since Wallace and Gromit in 2005.

      3. You don’t have to be “older” to think that artful animation still beats most of the CGI movies (though Disney does its very best to add some art into it). In any case, I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens this year. My mind tells me that they will most likely go with Studio Ghilbi since this might be their last movie and “Song of the Sea” is barely in the theatres, but my gut tells me that “Song of the Sea” might beat it on the basis of it being the second movie made in this style which was nominated after “Secret of Kells” – which had no chance to win against “Up” (every animated movie which gets a best picture nomination has to win best animated picture), so they might now pick “Song of the Sea” to make up for it.
        But than, none of those are American productions, which might be a factor in the end.

      4. “You don’t have to be “older” to think that artful animation still beats most of the CGI movies”

        Hey, tell that to the anonymous Academy member THR quoted (which, I realize, is obviously impossible to do). I don’t disagree with you.

        As for how the category will play out come Oscar night, my read of the situation is now that The LEGO Movie is out no one knows what he heck is going to happen. How To Train Your Dragon 2 pulled off an upset at the Golden Globes, where LEGO MOVIE actually was nominated. So, therefore maybe it has the momentum going into the Oscars, but there is literally only 1 person who gets to vote for both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. The actual people who do get to vote for Best Animated Feature may have a totally different opinion. The early predictions I’ve seen have this as a two-horse race between Train Your Dragon 2 and Big Hero 6, but that seems to be the knee-jerk reaction of “Well, these are the 2 big movies. As for the rest, people liked but didn’t love Boxtrolls and the prior Laika films – Coraline, ParaNorman – might have even been better and they lost, and we’ve never heard of Song of the Sea and The Tale of Princess Kaguya.” Once more people actually get a chance to see Song of the Sea and The Tale of Princess Kaguya the predictions could change, but to me it seems like a hand-drawn or stop motion film has to really and truly stand out to pull off an upset, the way Spirited Away did, which was a film I remember a LOT of people raving about at the time. I don’t get that same feeling from either Song of the Sea or Princess Kaguya.

      5. Well, there wasn’t much of an opportunity to rave about Song of the Sea, yet. But I agree, the question is if this will be a “public opinion” or a “let’s see which speaks most to us” choice.

  2. You wrote: “Heads needed to roll, and roll they did. Sherak was ousted as president, replaced by Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who was elected as the Academy’s first African American president in August 2013.”

    Your history is completely wrong. Tom Sherak is who began the push for diversity. He wasn’t ousted – he was an extremely popular president, but his 9-years on the Board ended, and he was termed out. He was replaced not by Isaacs, but by Hawk Koch. No heads rolled.

    If you’re going to make assertions, you should at least try to get your facts right.

    1. Well shut my mouth. You are totally right. Thanks for that correction. I tried to be thorough about everything I wrote. Heck, I read the Academy’s freaking rulebook for nominations. But I made an assumption about Sherak when I shouldn’t have. I will update the article now.

  3. I think the biggest problem with the snubbing of Selma in other categories is in Direction noms the whole category is one giant white guy sausage fest and Oyelowo gave a performance that was lauded by pretty much everyone who gave Selma a positive review and still we got yet another category that was melanin deficient.

    1. It seems like every other year there’s some random white guy who gets a Best Director nomination, and afterward everyone asks whether or not the work that guy did was really all that exceptional. This year that honor belongs to The Imitation Game’s Morten Tyldum. That’s the guy a lot of people are looking at and asking, “Why him, and not Ava DuVernay?” Then again, he was nominated by the Directors Guild of America for their own awards show, and DuVernay was not, and we know that only fellow directors get to vote on the Best Director nominations for the Oscars. So, the same basic people snubbed DuVernay at both the Oscars and the Directors Guild of America suggesting that they may not really admire the work she did on Selma. However, it’s really hard to have that discussion without invoking race. Is there a fair, legitimate argument to made that her work on Selma was good but not Awards-good, or is it simply a byproduct of the fact that the people who vote for these kinds of things are overwhelmingly old white guys who have historically prevented women or people of color from helming prestige films? I am inclined to believe the latter, but in all fairness to someone who was nominated, like Tyldum, I haven’t actually seen The Imitation Game yet. Still, it does seem like this year’s Oscars have already been tainted as being somehow illegitimate and an indication of the lack of diversity among the voting members of the Academy.

  4. Although it can be considered racist, I really can’t blame the Academy this time although I love doing that. All the nominees were deserving of that nomination. Even if Steve Carell wasn’t nominated, I would rather want to squeeze in Jake G in that list. Although we could have made space by not nominating Streep again again again again again……………….

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