Look, I know the Academy Awards are not a public institution, bound by oversight committees, regulatory reforms, and never-ending calls to accountability. But they might as well be.
I haven’t missed an Oscar telecast since I was 10 years old – back when I insisted Spielberg had to “finally win for Schindler’s List, dammit” (so what if I hadn’t seen the film?). Like millions of people, that unreasonable sense of ownership, outrage and interest has never changed.
Nor, I think, would you want it to. That we the people care enough to complain is a testament to your cultural relevance (and, by extension, economic well-being). The Grammy’s only wishpeople were passionate enough to nitpick changes to Album/Record/Song of the Year awards. So please, read on with an open mind. No one is asking you to throw out theMillion Dollar Baby with the bath water, but here’s a few ways you can stay on top:
1. Eliminate Male/Female Actor Distinctions
The idea: This is a biggie, and it would be revolutionary. But it shouldn’t be. Like all affirmative actions, the idea of having male and female actors compete for different awards is rooted in good intentions. It’s also a sign of progress when their time has passed. Yes, women’s roles have historically been paltry compared to their male counterparts. Actually, you can (quite easily) argue that not much has changed – except each year when ten famous actresses and supporting actresses get to pretend like all is well in the world.
The result: A single Best Actor (Male or Female) award would change the conversation about how women are portrayed in films. We could finally compare characters to characters, instead of pretending that acting is like a sport where men have some sort of physiological advantage. To ease the transition, I would earmark three nomination slots for men and three for women – but only have one winner.
Go ahead. Imagine it.
The counter-argument: “Men and women don’t compete for the same roles! It doesn’t make sense!” Really? Tell that to Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer), Angela Bassett (Olympus Has Fallen), Angelina Jolie (Salt), or any number of other actresses who have had to win roles away from men. Moreover, do you think Tom Hanks could have auditioned for Ray, or Jamie Foxx was considered for Forrest Gump? Malarkey! We don’t divide awards by race, and we shouldn’t by sex.
Acting is acting, period.
2. Divide Fictional/Biographical Acting Awards
The idea: Remember back when I said acting is acting, period? Yeah, about that... You Academy voters have an unnatural obsession with rewarding actors who portray real-life people. To wit: 7 of the past 10 male actor winners and 8 of the past 15 female actor winners have played characters based on real people. This year alone, 4 of the 5 Best (Male) Actor nominations are for biographical roles. It’s getting a bit silly.
The result:If nothing else, having separate character categories would keep the acting races more interesting. But it would also draw more attention to the craft of communicating human emotion rather than mimicking mannerisms. Of course that’s reductionist and not always the case. There’s a lot to be said for evoking the spirit of a real noteworthy individual – even ones who aren’t well-known to the public (like Ron Woodroof from Dallas Buyers Club). But it should be a separate category. For your sake, if not ours. Bonus: it would also fill the two empty categories (main and supporting) you’ll have when you eliminate the male/female acting distinction.
The counter-argument: “Just because a character is based on a real-life person doesn’t change the actor’s craft. And where do you draw the line with ancient historical figures?” Great question! As you know, it’s one that the Writer’s branch of the Academy has been dealing with forever. And that’s your answer: if writing has to be divided into “original” and “adapted” screenplays for having even a whiff of source material origins, then the same staunch logic should apply to actors.
3. Create an Award for Best Stunts
The idea: Big budget, tent-pole films are the only thing holding Hollywood studios together. Scale of spectacle is often what justifies the theatrical experience, so it’s high time that one of the last unheralded departments of the industry – the one that often shines in these types of films – finally gets their turn in the spotlight. They’re literally putting their lives on the line to provide people a fleeting moment of entertainment. I think they’ve earned it.
The result: Everyone has, at one point, complained about digital effects “looking fake”, which too often diminishes the emotional stakes on screen. However, people can’t get enough of the thrilling skyscraper sequences from movies like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, or the gritty realism of fight scenes in movies like The Raid 2. Great stunts are still being performed, but they’re too often eclipsed by a digital revolution that takes away as much credit as it absorbs blame.
The counter-argument: “There’s not enough industry support for a Best Stunts category. It was voted down just back in 2011.” Like outlier sports that have to earn their way into the Olympics, it’s normal for old establishments to resist change. Heck, it wasn’t until 1981 that you guys even had an award for Best Make-Up. But it’s not too late to right an old wrong – and, at the same time, get people more excited about the art of filmmaking. That’s the point of this whole thing, isn’t it?
4. Turn the Best Foreign Language Film Category into a World Cup-style tournament
The idea: This category should be a major prize, and not a clandestine sideshow. Currently, each country (via a closed committee) submits one film for consideration. Then, all the submissions (around 80) are cut down to a shortlist of nine, before five nominees are selected. That secondary step of selecting nominees from a shortlist was recently revamped, but only at a procedural level.
But there’s a way to get people around the world much more involved, right from the start: borrow the format of the World Cup.
The result: Dividing countries into pools who compete against one-another to advance to the next round would not only bring awareness to a greater number of films, but get the public watching more foreign content. The pools would be statistically weighted (based on previous award wins and whatever else), but a film would need to pass three or four rounds before being a nominee. The decision would still rest in the hands of the Academy, but the public could be along for the ride, and hopefully have access to screenings as the process happens, just like a sporting event.
The counter-argument: “No way, it will only draw attention to an already contentious process – not to mention the difficulty of arranging distribution rights for all the films around the world”. Oh, stop it with your facts and reality. Think big: a public tournament format of narrowing down the films would go a long way for gaining exposure and interest in this award, and all the associated films (not just the winner). Sure it’s more work, but also more reward.
5. Remodel Academy Membership
The idea: People have complained about your “steak eater” membership for years, and this year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign drew enormous attention to the lack of diversity in your ranks. So how do you address this issue, without advocating tokenism or lowering the bar to membership? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you might have to take a page from the Canadian Senate, or UN Security Council: setting term limits on appointed members and/or rotating voting powers.
The result: It takes many people the better part of their career to be invited into the Academy, so it’s hard to begrudge its older skewing demographics. Yet begrudge we do, and this membership remodelling won’t just transform your statistics, but get you in touch with a younger audience (ie. increase TV ratings). Rather than the current opt-out policy, capping term limits and/or rotating voting years would ensure a diversity of worthy voices get a chance. Moreover, you could have an established number of permanent members in each branch (like the Security Council), but by allocating a fixed number of permanent spots, you could avoid the full-on death watch for new spots to open up in the current membership-for-life model.
The counter-argument: “People work hard to join the Academy – it’s unfair to take that away.” The new focus should aim to recruit the best members in the industry, not just lifetime achievers or friends of insiders. Fixed terms would mean people have to stay working hard to keep membership, and as a result, have one more motivation to create more great films. Change like this would add legitimacy to the Academy, not take it away. Plus, it’s not like fewer stars would show up to the Oscars – you’ve been to the Golden Globes, right? Only 90 foreign journalists vote for those, and it’s the second biggest award show in town. Your membership credibility isn’t going anywhere.