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Explained: How the Oscar Awards are going to be different once again, and why

The Academy is aiming to develop new “representation and inclusion standards” for awards, with a task force to come out with these by July 31.

Written by Shalini Langer | New Delhi | Updated: June 16, 2020 8:01:10 am
The task force will develop the new standards in collaboration with the Producers Guild of America. (File Photo)

Falling viewership, goof-ups by anchors, mix-ups by presenters, OscarsSoWhite accusations, and now the pandemic that has ripped through the heart of movie business and put its own show next year under a cloud — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been struggling to get things right the past few years. Post George Floyd though, it can afford few mistakes.

So, came the announcement Friday that the Academy is aiming to develop new “representation and inclusion standards” for awards, with a task force to come out with these by July 31. Films submitted this year will not be affected. The Academy also announced that the best picture category will now be fixed at 10 films, rather than the fluctuating number of nominations since the 2010 Oscars.

The notification

The new rules are part of the Academy’s “Aperture 2025 equity and inclusion” initiative, to address “institutionalised inequity” within the organisation and industry. Announcing the rules, Academy CEO Dawn Hudson said, “The need to address this issue is urgent. To that end, we will amend our rules to ensure that all voices are heard and celebrated.”

The task force will develop the new standards in collaboration with the Producers Guild of America.

“Unconscious bias training”, already undertaken by the Academy’s Board of Governors, will be made mandatory now for most of the senior Academy staff, as well as offered to its nearly 9,000 members.

Also read | Oscars postponed by two months to April due to coronavirus chaos

On Wednesday, the Academy unveiled a new board of governors, including director Ava DuVernay and Lynette Howell Taylor, increasing the number of women to 26 in the 54-member board, and people of colour to 12.

The background

It took 73 years after the Oscars started for the best actress award to be won by a black woman, with Halle Berry getting it for Monster’s Ball in 2002. This was 62 years after Hattie McDaniel became the first Black person ever to win an Oscar, incidentally for Gone With the Wind, which is itself seeing a renewed backlash over its casual racism.

The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag followed the 2015 nominations, all 20 of which in acting categories went to white performers. The next year, only one nominee in the major acting and directing categories was not White.

In the wake of the controversy, the Academy announced major changes to its membership, seeking to bring in more representation.

Incidentally, this year, amid the criticism over only one acting Oscar nomination for people of colour — Cynthia Erivo, for her role as slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman — some media reports mentioned Antonio Banderas. He was nominated for best actor for his role in Pain and Glory. Banderas is actually from Spain, and does not identify as a person of colour.

Also read | Oscars 2020 nominations: Snubs and surprises

OSCARS 2021 the 93rd Academy Awards are still a go, scheduled to be held in Los Angeles on Feb. 28, 2021. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)

The precedent

While how the Academy will go about its inclusion standards will be clear only by July 31, it could take some cues from BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Awards) that became the first major awards body to introduce diversity and inclusion criteria in 2018. A report that year showed that 94% of all BAFTA film award nominees had been white.

Since 2018, all entries in two categories in BAFTA awards — outstanding British film, and outstanding debut by a British writer, director or producer — are required to meet at least two of four standards, for increasing “the representation of under-represented groups”. These include “on-screen representation, themes and narratives; project leadership and creative practitioners; industry access and opportunities; and opportunities for diversity in audience development”.

BAFTA also announced changes in its membership process to include more women and ethnic minorities. It has also been conducting unconscious bias training for its senior executives.

Welcoming the Academy’s announcement, BAFTA said it hoped they could together reach a uniform set of diversity requirements.

The impact

BAFTA nominations in the years since have shown that in the categories set aside for meeting diversity standards, smaller films have managed to get a foot in, though women directors continue to be under-represented.

But as Prince William, the president of BAFTA, noted in his speech at the awards this year, the nomination of only white performers in acting categories in 2020 showed there was a long way to go. “BAFTA have launched a full and thorough review of the entire awards process,” he said.

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Cesar Awards

Earlier this year, the entire board overseeing the Cesar Academy, which distributes France’s equivalent of the Oscars, resigned following industry-wide backlash over 12 nominations going to controversial director Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy (about Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer wrongly persecuted for treason by the French army). Academy head Alain Terzian had justified the choice saying the academy “should not take moral positions” about giving awards.

In the wake of the uproar, Polanski, who faces several sexual assault allegations, did not attend the awards ceremony, where the film, incidentally, was a big winner.

Many industry executives highlighted the lack of gender parity, diversity and transparency within the Cesar’s voting body, as well as the academy itself. The Cesar Academy later vowed to reform its operating model.

Oscar Best Picture nominees

In 2009, the Academy doubled the number of best picture contenders to 10, to counter accusations that its voting was tilted in favour of box-office favourites like Titanic and The Lord of the Rings. In 2018, the Academy tried to add a category for ‘popular films’, but that idea was quickly junked. Then, for a while nominations were dominated by arthouse films, with the Academy seen as shunning acclaimed hits like The Dark Knight.

However, when the numbers went to 10, some members complained it diluted the prestige of a best picture nomination. So, two years later, the Academy decided to make it flexible, between five and 10 nominations.

The reaction

An Academy Award voter, bestselling writer Stephen King set off a firestorm in January this year when, asked about the fact that the just-announced Oscar nominees included no women directors or actors of colour, he said, “I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong.”

Director Martin Scorsese last year rejected a question on the lack of prominent roles for women in his films, saying, “that’s not even a valid point”. His films would include such roles “if a story calls for a female lead”, he said.

Oscar winner writer-director Joel Coen, while underlining that diversity was important, said in 2016, “You don’t sit down and … say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog’ — right?”

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