The Oscars Are In Crisis — We Asked New Academy Members What Changes They Want To See

Photo: Michele K Short/Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock.
Hollywood is at a crossroads. On the one hand, it’s an exciting time for movies. Voices long silenced are finally starting to be heard, giving way to rich and complex storytelling that’s reshaping how we think about the film canon, from big blockbuster moments like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, to indie critical darlings like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart and Jordan Peele’s Get Out. But those vibrant creative changes are happening in tandem with an industry in full-on doomsday crisis: Box office numbers are tanking for nearly every movie without a protagonist in superhero spandex, and large corporation consolidations are threatening to erase midsize films from the media landscape. TL;DR: The future of movies looks like a never-ending stream of big-budget reboots and sequels that no one really wants to see. In other words, something has to change, and fast.
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At the crux of it all stands the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the organisation responsible for voting and choosing who is nominated for (and ultimately wins) an Oscar. Founded in 1927 with just 36 members, the Academy is currently comprised of over 9,000 members across 17 branches of film, a body that, until very recently, was made up of mostly white men. But since 2015, when activist April Reign launched a viral #OscarsSoWhite campaign in response to the overwhelmingly white and male class of nominees, the Academy has made a concerted effort to diversify their ranks, adding large swaths of new, younger members, many of whom are women and people of colour.
In a reflection of the industry it represents, the Academy Awards ceremony has also been in a state of flux in recent years as it struggles to remain relevant. The 2018 Oscars had the lowest TV ratings in the show’s history and last year’s quest to find someone — anyone! — willing to host the broadcast (after a scandal-mired Kevin Hart bowed out) ended fruitlessly, leading to the first hostless Oscars since 1989. This was hot on the heels of a controversial choice by the Academy to introduce a Popular Film category, which many interpreted as a cop-out method to reward so-called niche films that might not be embraced by the wider voting body. After just one month, the decision was walked back. What’s more, despite the lip-service paid to the importance of gender equality in the industry, no women directors were nominated, despite so many outstanding candidates.
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And then there were the awards themselves: Green Book’s win for Best Picture over Black Panther and BlackKklansman, despite an awards campaign fraught with controversy, appeared to prove that more traditional voters still held sway over The Academy, leaving many disappointed. Steven Spielberg’s subsequent (failed) campaign to limit Netflix’s access to nominations, which would potentially curb diversity even further, only added insult to injury.
Ahead of next year’s ceremony, the Academy has announced more changes. The show will take place on February 9, earlier than usual, pushing up the entire awards season run-off, and will be renaming the Best Foreign Language Film category to Best International Feature Film. And on July 1, 842 new members were invited to join from 59 countries, a list that includes the likes of Lady Gaga, Elisabeth Moss, Winston Duke, Kay Cannon, and Laetitia Wright. For the very first time, half of new members are women, and 29% are people of colour, bringing the total numbers up to 32% total female membership (up from 25% in 2015), versus 16% for people of colour (up from 8% in 2015).
Among those selected to join are writer and director Desiree Akhavan (The Miseducation of Cameron Post), writer Tracy Oliver (Girls Trip); cinematographer Autumn Durald (Teen Spirit), and writer and director Nijla Mumin (Jinn). We asked them what changes they hope to see as we enter the 2020 Oscars race, and how to break out of the same, tired Hollywood rut.
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Tracy Oliver, Writers Branch
Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images.
What is the most pressing issue The Academy needs to address in 2019/2020?
“I'd like to see more women in the conversation for the best director category, as well as people of colour. There have been some great options that were overlooked recently, such as Patty Jenkins and Ryan Coogler, who both did an incredible job with Wonder Woman and Black Panther. I know those aren't the type of movies that usually gets director love, but maybe that's part of the problem. Maybe we need to expand the definition of an academy awards film so that we aren't just awarding indie, niche, dramatic fare. Mainstream movies are just as difficult to pull off and I think Jenkins and Coogler are two examples of worthy, deserving directors I hope to see nominated one day.”
What are you most excited about now that you're a member?
“Just having a voice is amazing! Historically, the Academy hasn't felt to me like it represented a diversity of thought in its selections. So, I'm excited to help expand the definition of an awards contender. It was great to see so many new members who, like myself, work in the commercial movie space. I've always felt that movies exploring Black pain rather than Black joy had a WAY better shot of getting nominated. I hope all types can get love, but showing Black love and joy is equally important.”
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Desiree Akhavan, Writers' Branch
Photo: Robin Marchant/Getty Images.
What is the most pressing issue The Academy needs to address in 2019/2020?
“The Academy needs to address their own relevancy. [They need to] and begin championing films that take risks, instead of recycling the same antiquated narratives that are no longer reflective of the world we live in.”
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What are you most excited about now that you're a member?
“I'm crazy excited to bring a whole lot of OUTSIDER REALNESS to the table and change the makeup of that super white, male voting pool!”
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Autumn Durald Arkapaw, Cinematographers' Branch
Photo: David Livingston/Getty Images.
What is the most pressing issue The Academy needs to address in 2019/2020?
“The Academy has always been about elevating the filmmaking profession and recognising the legacy talent within this community, as well as the emerging talent. I think it’s important that the Academy stay true to that - continuing to recognise those that helped pave the way and the technological advancements that help filmmakers push boundaries, while educating and empowering the next generation, which I am proud to be a part of.”
What are you most excited about now that you're a member?
“To be recognised by the Academy as a peer to so many talented filmmakers that I look up to and have inspired me in my career is a great honour. I’m excited to have a seat at the table and to cast my vote, ultimately shaping the history of cinema. It’s important to have a diverse voting body and I’m excited to be one of those members.”
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Nijla Mumin, Short Films & Feature Animations Branch
Photo: Tara Mays/Deadline/Shutterstock.
What is the most pressing issue The Academy needs to address in 2019/2020?
“One of the most pressing issues is diversifying the Academy’s membership so that it reflects the people who watch and support movies. This can’t be accomplished this year alone, but the efforts and outreach to artists and filmmakers of varying backgrounds needs to continue. I think a wider, systemic issue stems from a lack of access and opportunities for women and filmmakers of colour to write and direct films and have them recognised on a larger scale, to be nominated. This usually begins before there’s any mention or thought of Oscar consideration when filmmakers aren’t able to receive funding, studio backing, press, or support for their films, or aren’t able to get them made.”
What are you most excited about now that you're a member?
“I’m excited about supporting and advocating for artists and stories who’ve historically gone unrecognised at the Oscars. The Academy’s recognition of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight marked a seminal moment in cinema, and we should work to lift up films that reflect worlds and people we’ve never seen.”
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