Digital Polyphony

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Sensibilities and Voters

Posted on March 28, 2012 at 1:50 AM

Academy Voters and the Presumption of "Objectivity"

In this recent article, written and published just before the last Academy Awards, a big revelation was made. Well, it wasn't really a revelation as much as it was a confirmation of what was already assumed about the voting pool for the Oscars. It's primarily white, male and very, very old. One could come to that conclusion simply by looking at what is nominated and what wins, but to actually have it confirmed, on paper and in numbers, really comes to show just how out-of-touch the Oscars seem to be.

Let's start with the big item here. The median age of an Academy Award voter is 62.

62. Think about that for a moment. The median. That means there are just as many voters above that age as below and that's a hell of disparity. The middle of the pack age of Oscar voters is around the age most people start thinking about retirement and could qualify for social security. 

Can we honestly say that the voters that determine the "best" and "greatest" elements of cinema are actually in touch with cinema itself? Do they look beyond their own sensibilities to try and give an objective look? The answer to that is "no." One look at past winners, controversies and nominations are proof of that. My point is this: if the pool of people determining what we, as a consensus of non-voters, should view as the "best" and "great" film of all time are skewed, then why should we even bother paying attention to them? Or, at least, put them on some higher-level? It's like the Teen Choice Awards only in reverse - and nobody takes those things seriously.

A good portion of Oscar voters are actually older than the Oscars themselves.

Now you might be thinking: "Hey, you pretentious asshole, I've read your blog and stuff. Don't you think in the 'more experience = more knowledgeable?' wheelhouse?" Yes, I do. But age has nothing to do with it. One's experience might make them more knowledgeable, but it doesn't mean they're more qualified. I've met plenty of incredibly smart 30 year olds and a lot of dumb 50+ year olds in this field. Experience might earn respect, but it doesn't mean an experienced person has suddenly come to understand or grasp the idea of critiquing or understanding what it is they're voting for - especially when what they're voting for is something most are aware of to begin with no matter how knowledgeable they are. In today's society of film fans, where the internet gives so many a voice and publications a new outlet, the idea of there being people "more qualified" has diminished greatly.

Not only that, many of those Academy voters aren't "qualified" to begin with. At least, not in the sense of us putting them on a pedestal which we inexplicably do for some reason. Many, as the study shows, aren't Oscar winners or nominees at all. They're just voters given a ballot. They've simply been working for a long, long time and eventually became members.

Many of these voters were young. Once. Long ago. Some apparently back when they were making silent films even. They got their jobs, worked their asses off and have laid claim to those jobs ever since. An editor in the 70s is probably still editing today, making it difficult for younger people to get that position and, eventually, get into the Academy to start lowering that median age so it's not so noticeably in compliance with AARP guidelines. It's not that everyone is old, though, it's that everyone is old and probably still working making it nearly impossible to acquire "fresh blood" at all. New voters would not only lower the age and give new, fresh perspectives when it comes to voting (seeing as how the system isn't that great to begin with) but would, more importantly, diversify it. More female voters, more minority voters and, simply, more younger voters. Nobody is taking votes away, but more voters that are reflective of the national consensus and the filmmaking industry itself is a must for something as large and vast as the Academy of Motion Pictures. At least our "hollier than thou" view of it.

The King's Speech is a great film, I have no problem with it winning Beset Picture, but did it win because it is great or because it is geared more towards the sensibilities of its voters than an Inception or Social Network. Over time, will it even matter that it won when so many film critics, fans and groups are discussing it and all the other films without having to put some sense of hierarchy on it and label something "the best?"


Within that article, I found it incredibly arrogant of Frank Pierson to say "We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn't reflect the general population, so be it." Here's someone that isn't quite seeing the point. It's not a race thing or even a qualifying thing. Those things are two separate elements I could complain about in a an entire separate blog. It's a generational thing. Experience isn't as important as awareness when it comes to this. These voters are experienced, but are they "in touch" with what is relevant? Mr. Peirson, your organization may not reflect the general population, but the films you're voting for often do.

Let me put it this way: Imagine an elderly couple going to rent a movie. Of course I'm stuck in the 90s so let me rephrase it: an elderly couple gets Netflix from their grandchild, free for a month, and are looking at movies to rent under "new releases." What do you think they'll go for? A movie about this new "facebook" thing or a movie about the King George VI learning to rally his country during World War II? Expand that thinking further to Academy voters, and those sensibilities still apply. In the end, the voting is still a subjective equation and is going to be reflective of their sensibilities.

Plus, the system is broken beyond the not-easy-to-get-into club and completely screwed up demographics. It's broken in how the machine works as well. Here's some insight: organizations such as the PGA, SAG and the AMPAS put on free screenings for members of their guilds of potential Oscar nominees. They send out flyers and emails to make sure members are aware and there are plenty of opportunities either here in Los Angeles or New York to go out and see them in a theater. On top of this, those organizations also send out screeners to their members for free. Some members get two or three of the same movie because none of those organizations know who is sending what. They all just send out the same things as they work with studios and distributors of movies to get those eyeballs watching their films while reading the backs of DVDs or ads in Variety on who they should be considering and for what.

This is also just marketing and brand saturation to get votes, which paid off this very last year when Merryl Streep won thanks to a heavy push by the Weinsteins, but I'll leave the "marketing for awards" argument for another time.

No matter how much the ad might want Oscar voters to do something, and perhaps no matter how right it might seem, they probably won't. Some of the best films the past ten years have been animated, but they don't have a chance.

The problem is that not everything is clear, to get into as screening can be cumbersome because you have to call and go through automated systems plus find the right times. Not all members keep their addresses up to date so their screeners don't always arrive on time, or arrive sporadically if at all. The only thing they can do is be "aware" of what is good, and then keep an eye out for what they should take the time to go out and see. What are their friends talking about? Why are there so many ads and DVDs for this one movie, but not for this other? Did they get their DVDs? Did they get their screening information? Are they aware? Or do they not care and will only go out to see the movies that would reflect what they like...then maybe, maybe, go and see those other ones.

Nobody bothers to follow up and check on this. They shovel it out there and hope some things connect, and the things that are going to connect first are going to be the things that are in line with the voting pool's own sensibilities. This isn't just Oscar voting, it goes for any of the awards which is why you see different movies nominated and win at all the functions and awards shows. They're all getting the same screeners and screening information, but dependent on who's actually voting, their own sensibilities, is what determines who actually wins. There's nothing objective in this process and the presumption that Oscar voters are better than most is as naive as thinking the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has credibility left.

I remember getting into a slight Facebook spat with another film fan. It was slight in the sense that I wasn't as passionate about my "rightness" as he was. He argued that, back at the 78th Academy Awards, the fact that Brokeback Mountain didn't win was a huge upset. Crash winning was literally stealing the Oscar because Brokeback Mountain was the favorite going in. My argument was that Brokeback Mountain wasn't the favorite for two reasons: Crash was still winning its share of awards heading into it and that the Academy is far less of a progressive voting pool than most such as the BAFTAs or the Producer's Guild which will give kudos to smaller films, films dealing with issues and applaud ambition. The Academy doesn't really care about that stuff because the people voting don't' care - it's why they "played it safe" in most of their Best Picture winners. The things that are progressive and about our society doesn't always resonate with them if it's something they're unfamiliar with.

Then again, I'm not as passionate about what wins and what doesn't. Winning an award doesn't make something better than something else, it's just a statue. If I were to list all the great films that never won anything, I'd be here all day.

Case in point: Anything Hitchcock has ever done. Except Rebecca, which he directed but didn't produce so didn't get an Oscar anyway.

I'm not here to determine what should win shouldn't win, only to point out that, perhaps, we need to stop looking at the Oscars as the end-all-be-all of quality determination. I feel, at this point, giving out awards is pretty superficial. There's so many movies, so many things on the internet and in magazines or papers that talk about movies, that looking to just one as the "definite" choice is really inconsequential in the long run. The Oscars, as this study and survey of their voting pool as shown, is every bit as skewed, flawed and subjective as an AFI list, Empire Magazine's survey or a film critic's Top Ten. I think the film community, at this stage, is far too vast and communicative to put one higher than the other. It's more a grouping, or a consensus, of various styles and views across the board, not one defining voice that probably doesn't quite get half the films that are nominated, much less have seen most of them at all.

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