Hooray For Hollywood! New Red Carpets and Old White People

Todd Harrington, Contributing Writer

The SWAT snipers are climbing down from the Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum roof, traffic is resuming its normal sluggish flow at Hollywood and Highland (the 25-foot anti-blast wall now deconstructed) and soft sobbing and the repeated mantra of "It was an honor to be nominated" is wafting gently down from the hills above Sunset Boulevard.

It's springtime in Hollywood and all is right with the world.

Please forgive me if I seem a little giddy today. See, today is my FAVORITE day of the movie-making year and it isn't because we "finally" know who won the Oscar for this or that -- it's because "award" season is finally over (at least until the shot-across-the-bow of Cannes in May, but let me enjoy the moment).

It's not that I'm troubled by the "horse race" element, that the awards turn a selection of artistic triumphs into a grotesque marketing frenzy. That part, I like.

It's more that, growing up in an Irish-Catholic house in a deeply-puritan Yankee town, the notion of self-congratulatory awards is something that I'm genetically inclined to break out in hives over. If I ever won an Oscar (or, more likely, a Razzie), I can hear my mother now -- "You woke up this morning, too. Want an award for THAT?"

So while my friends, peers and colleagues were either at the Awards or at viewing parties last night, I was in bed watching a double feature of Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia and Mario Bava's Baron Blood (note: for as great as Ennio Morricone is, I think I actually like Stelvio Cipriani better -- just sayin').

All of this may explain that while my mailbox had queries wanting to know if I would explain just who, exactly, the Academy is and how, exactly, they select the nominees, all I could think was: who the f*ck cares?

Well, YOU guys do (apparently). So here goes:

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is made up of old, white people.

No, I'm not being facetious.

According to a landmark "investigative" piece in 2012 by John Horn, Nicole Sperling and Doug Smith of The Los Angeles Times, 94% of AMPAS membership is Caucasian with a median age of 62. Less than 15% of membership is below the age of 50 and those numbers were not helped by the honorary induction of Angela Lansbury last night.

But at least the gender-split reflects societal norm--

Wait, it's what? 77/23 male-to-female?

Never mind...

Allow me to channel my inner-Claude Raines and say that I am "Shocked, shocked!" to find that a private organization dedicated to promoting a homogeneous industry known for homogeneous product is, itself, grotesquely homogeneous. I'm reminded of the time my father-in-law (who lives in the deep South) brought me to his Country Club. "I don't know that we have any Catholics," he told me, "but we did admit a Jewish one just two years ago!" 

This was in 2008. I didn't ask about members-of-color.

At least the age-thing can be (somewhat) explained away by the methodology of membership and not any noxious form of Hollywood's notorious anti-youth bias: in addition to gaining membership from an Award nomination, potential members can apply (with the support of two current members in the appropriate branch -- director, actor, PR, "at large") or they can be invited by the Membership Committee.

Given that each branch holds its own counsel as to who it moves on to the greater Membership Committee for approval, potential members in each category must combat the inherent selection biases native to their particular branch. The cinematographers branch, for instance, was over 90% male at the time of the Los Angeles Times' story.

(Also, I'm not saying that the sound branch is racist, but I am confused why Resul Pookutty had to be "invited" to join the Academy even AFTER he won an Oscar with Ian Tapp and Richard Pryke for Slumdog Millionaire. Are some Oscars greater than others? Any insight would be welcomed, inter-webs...)

Based on the "quality credits" criterion to those non-automatic invitees (nicely subjective to help keep the riff-raff at bay), most of those sponsored or invited will trend towards the post-40 range of age, a natural function of time needed to -- presumably -- hone one's craft to an Academy-worthy standard.

When you realize that over 60% of the Academy falls into this category of never having won or even been nominated, the up-leaning age skew becomes clearer; and once you grasp the age make-up numbers, some of the nominations and winners become easier to understand. 

"Sure, Pulp Fiction was probably the best film of 1995 (if not the nineties), but that Forest Gump character was just so LIKEABLE..."

As for how the nominees are chosen, it's seems like a pretty straight-forward branch-nomination system EXCEPT for "Best Picture" which ends up being run like a union-rep election in a Southeast Asian sweatshop with "surplus" votes and the like.

(A number of people have done a MUUUUUCH better job laying out the exact methodology over the last few years than I could hope to, so if your interest runs deeper than what my summation above could provide, here's a good one.)

Yet, even with all its (very obvious) imperfections, the Academy -- to me, anyway -- seems to get more right each year than not. While people who care about these things may have a favorite film that doesn't win what they feel it should have, the nominees are almost always suffering more from exclusion than inclusion.

The films and people nominated really are (mostly) at the top of their craft, especially for that year, regardless of their gender and ethnic background. 

The winners seem to deserve it and the losers, well... 

Anyone still incredulous about True Grit being shut out? 

No? 

Sorry, then, American Hustle.

The larger issue that seems to be constantly returned to is that the Academy neither reflects the make up of American society nor selects nominees that do. 

Should it? 

That question got some play in the same Times story and it seems the Academy membership is all over the place on that, running the gamut in the article from Frank Pierson's "leave us alone" to Denzel Washington's apparent call for a 1:1 reflection of America's ethnographic make up.

(Alexander Payne lamented: "Is most of commercial narrative filmmaking the product of mostly white men? Sadly, the answer is yes." I applaud his brave decision since then to stop making his own films and... Wait. What? Never mind...)

If I have a problem with the whole mishegas, it's none of the above.

Yes, I think Hollywood is too homogeneous, but so is tech, so is finance, so is everything. 

We have very, very deep challenges in the United States with regards to opportunity and inclusion and, unfortunately, the Academy membership does seem to reflect those. These societal challenges don't go away even if the Academy were magically transformed into Denzel's 1:1 model tomorrow.

No, my problem is that -- for all the money spent on pushing these movies for their awards -- the return-on-investment rarely seems worth it. 

While most of the Best Picture winners have been released in the fourth-quarter of their nominated years (the campaign for their awards becoming a defacto marketing blitz), the box office boost seen after a win has been historically limited when compared to the film's total performance and, recently, has been on a bit of a downtrend.

And what of the "honor to be nominated" crowd? 

In the end -- much like in Highlander -- there can be only one (Best Picture winner), and the others fade out of exhibition and into the never-to-be-thought-of-again digital-rental wastelands of Netflix and iTunes (looking at you, Philomena).

The only guaranteed financial winners are the Academy (which does put its money to some good uses with programs such as artistic outreach/mentoring to underrepresented communities and film preservation), the network broadcasting the Oscars, and the individual winners when it comes time for them to sign their next deal.

(Memo to the "other guys" in 30 Seconds To Mars: bust out those side-projects, boys, you're not touring again any time soon.)

So, for now, congratulations to the winners and their fellow nominees -- it really IS an honor to be nominated for an Academy Award even if it doesn't wholly feel that way for 80% of you come Monday morning. Most of us will never know the honor of belonging to the AMPAS for any reason.

That said, I am white and getting older every day, so don't count me out yet...


Hooray For Hollywood! is a column on the business practices, philosophies, and mechanics of the Hollywood studio system, written by an industry professional with first-hand experience.

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