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Oscar voters need to take responsibility

The academy has no one else to blame for all-white nominees

January 27, 2016 2:00AM ET

Once again, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has let America down. The Oscars are meant to represent the highest honor in filmmaking, and yet — with the exception of last year’s best director Alejandro González Iñárritu — the nominees in the major categories are uniformly white. The ballot has engendered boycott threats, boosted last year’s hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, and unloaded a truckload of industry excuses. But unless only white people made great movies last year, the academy is failing to live up to its mandate and recognize excellence.

Some commentators have stuck to a variant of the first idea: that Hollywood doesn’t make enough serious movies by and about nonwhite people. “There were an incredible number of films in 2015 that were primarily about white people. Talk to the studios about changing that, not the academy,” actress and academy member Penelope Ann Miller told The Hollywood Reporter. “There’s only so much we can do.” This argument has the virtue of being based on an undeniable fact: The voters are drawing from a rigged deck. The movies with nonwhite stars that were supposed to compete this year (“Concussion,” “Straight Outta Compton”) simply didn’t make it that far in the process, and the larger lack of diversity means there isn’t a glut of potential nominees to take their place. The Oscars, the argument goes, are the symptom, not the cause.

But that’s not exactly true. Kevin Hart is the most bankable comedy star working. There’s a market for Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Vin Diesel as action stars. And Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson can draw the crowds doing both these things. Sure, a handful of male nonwhite genre stars don’t redeem the industry, but they show there is a demand and an audience for them out there. The Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice awardees are considerably more diverse than the Oscars — Smith holds the career record with 10 — in no small part because the kids recognize action stars in their own category.

Perhaps we should think of the Oscars less as an award ceremony and more as a market for movies, complete with its own subgenre designation: Oscar bait. Last year, UCLA sociologists Gabriel Rossman and Oliver Schilke published a paper in The American Sociological Review that tried to quantify the Oscar-seeking market by looking at the way filmmakers from 1985 to 2009 incorporated the themes, genres, staff and other qualities of recent winners. They found that the market functions like a Tullock lottery — a kind of auction in which winning and losing bidders both pay at the end. According to their model, the studios are playing the optimal strategy: Films bait the Oscar voters; the ones that win nominations make money; the ones that don’t lose money; taken together, movies in this subgenre are as successful as movies outside it. The studios crowd one another for nominations until the expected rate of return on Spielberg’s latest matches a dumb comedy or an action flick.

If you were to pick 20 Americans at random to fill four acting categories, the odds of all of them being white are very small.

The implications of these results are more dramatic and germane than they sound. “The possibility of getting prize nominations drives the existence of products with high prize appeal that might otherwise be economically unsustainable to produce,” the authors write, “As such, in the counterfactual without the prize, fewer products with high prize appeal might exist.” In a Tullock lottery, it sometimes makes sense to play even though you won’t necessarily win; the Oscars thus create a market for films that’s big enough to elicit the production of winners (nominees) and losers (“Black Mass”).

In this way, the Academy Awards don’t just recognize movies; they generate them.

And there’s a domino effect. Filmmakers respond to the qualities the academy voters find prize-worthy quickly, echoing themes and plot keywords within years. The financial strategy that makes Oscar bait (on average) as bankable as movies that aren’t so boring works only if the academy is likely to feel baited. As the authors conclude, “pursuing legitimacy can involve considerable risk for economic actors when symbolic capital is mediated through judgment devices.”

There are ways to mitigate that risk — making a movie about World War II, releasing it through a studio’s independent label, getting David O. Russell to direct, releasing it in December or declining to cast black people in speaking roles. Hollywood is a numbers game, and the studios are playing to win.

Here are some numbers: Demographers put America’s non-Hispanic white population at a little over 60 percent of the total. If you were to pick 20 Americans at random to fill four acting categories, the odds of all of them being white are very small, about 9 in 100,000. To do it twice in a row, as the academy has managed, would take about 100 million years. The Oscar nominees are astronomically white, and the UCLA model suggests studios are looking to those slates for guidance. The academy is getting what it’s asking for, and dragging the rest of us down with them.

But there’s a silver lining to Rossman and Schilke’s research: If the academy is creating its own category of films and studios are responsive to its preferences, then it has a significant ability to shape a range of movies every year. It’s a responsibility it has been careless with, but if it’s serious about wanting more diverse films, it is in a unique position to get the ball rolling. No one has suggested quotas, that I’ve seen, but if the academy can’t find actors and actresses of color to nominate, then the economic modeling says studios aren’t going to go first. Oscar voters have no one to hide behind.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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