The Oscars Are a Lot More Political Than You Think

Many have said that politics is show business for ugly people, and in a sense, the converse is true. Show business is politics for attractive people. On Oscar night, this is evident in spades if one is willing to look for proof. Some complain that the whole thing is political, and by that, they mean that who wins the award for Best Whatever is not necessarily the “best,” but rather the most connected. This is true. It is true of every election. Tell me what my electorate looks like, and I can pretty well tell you who has a shot at winning and who can stay home to watch TV that Sunday night.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a membership requirement that most of us will never meet. The Academy’s own website explains:

“To qualify for membership, you must be a film artist or craftsperson working in one or more of the art form’s key creative areas. And your work must represent an unusually high level of quality and distinction. If you are a writer, producer, or director, you should have at least two screen credits on films that reflect the Academy’s highest standards. If you are an actor, you should have performed scripted roles in at least three such films. Some branches (including Art Directors, Executives, Public Relations, Visual Effects and others) also expect new members to have worked in their fields for a certain number of years. Of course, your contributions to the motion picture industry might fall outside the 16 branch areas. If so, you may be considered to join as a Member-At-Large or as an Associate Member. As either one, you will enjoy many of the privileges of membership.”

Of course, this makes perfect sense in some ways. The opinion of people in the business is an informed opinion and therefore more valid than that of the average person in the street. On the other hand, to achieve this standing, you need to put some time in. That means the average Academy voter isn’t going to be very young.

And indeed, that is what the Los Angeles Times found in 2012 (and things haven’t changed radically in 24 months). The median age of the Academy members was 62 then. That means half are younger than that and half are older. In addition, those younger than 50 made up just 14% of members two years ago.

The reason is simple — once you’re in, you’re an Academy member for life. The LA Times found that about half the actors in the Academy had appeared on screen in the two years previous to the study — meaning half didn’t.

So here’s the first thing to note about Oscar voting: AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) members are the same age group. Now, 50 is the new 30 and all that crap — still, films that target people whose kids are grown and gone are in the Oscar sweet spot. Those that try to reach millennials will have a tougher time.

Next, it’s a boys’ club — two years ago, 77% of the members were men. Sexism in the workplace was worse 30 years ago, but you’ve got Academy members who learned their business behavior 40 years ago. That’s why most mature actresses are either not working or named Meryl Streep. Face it, men and women have different interests in films due to cultural roles. When 77% of the vote is male, “women’s films” will have trouble getting voter traction.

Further, the Academy is white, 94% white. Once again, I don’t accuse the Academy of racism or sexism. I’m pointing out that to qualify as a member, you have to do things that only white males were able to do when I was a kid. That said, a film with special appeal to black, Latino or Asian audiences may be overlooked simply because the Academy may not see the appeal.

There is one last factor, and that is that the Academy is a business club. Members have had some commercial success, even the hair and makeup people. They’ve been able to earn a living doing their thing — risk taking and artsy failures are not what most of them are about. They want to be taken seriously as artists (and a great many are), but box office receipts in their minds do count as one measure of artistic success. A film seen by a lot of people must have touched a lot of people in some way, or so they believe.

From this profile of the Oscar electorate, we can determine a few things about who and what has a shot at winning. Start with the obvious: stuff 62-year-old white men like is in the “sweet spot” for Oscar nominations and awards. Sandra Bullock makes them feel warm and fuzzy, and Spike Lee makes them feel uncomfortable. Guess who is more likely to get nominated for a prize? They prefer films about midlife crises to those about teenage angst (John Hughes films in the 1980s got nothing, but if you were around then, you can quote from them). That doesn’t mean Sandra’s a lock for anything or that Spike may as well go to a Knicks game on Sunday, nor does it mean that a good film about kids can’t win. I’m just laying out the odds here.

What does this tell us about electoral politics in general? Find out who the voters are and you can pretty much tell how an election will go. This is why the Republican Party is trying so hard to make voting difficult. Their supporters have the time and money to get whatever ID is needed and stand in line if need be for a while, while those who tend Democratic do not. If the electorate can be skewed to the GOP’s preferred demographic, the Republican candidates and conservative referenda will tend to win.

There’s yet another level to this, however. Look at the numerous administrative districts across the country: school boards, water districts, bridge and tunnel authorities. The way the issues that they deal with are largely handled is decided by the boundaries of the district they cover. Leave that poor, dark-skinned neighborhood out, and you get a different outcome than if those citizens are included.

This doesn’t mean that I am going to win any Oscar-predicting contest — the truth is I am pretty bad at it. What it does mean is that the Oscars are as political as anything else where there is voting, and once you know who the electors are, you can anticipate how the nominations will look with some degree of confidence.

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