What difference will some 928 new Academy voters make to next year’s Oscar race? (That’s assuming they all join.) That impressive number is the result of efforts by Academy CEO Dawn Hudson and then-AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who spearheaded the movement to radically update the older-white-male-dominated voting membership. The 2016 #OscarsSoWhite nomination debacle was three years ago, when all 24 nominated actors were lily white.
Since 2016, the annual member invites have slowly moved the needle toward real diversity and the membership rolls have burgeoned, inviting 683 new members in 2016 and 774 in 2017. 2,385 new members in three years have pushed the voting total toward 8,200. Women now account for 31 percent, with people of color at 16 percent. Significantly, international members (460, or about half, of this year’s 928 invitees) now represent 77 countries.
So now that the membership has new blood, what will it mean? We assess the shifts below.
Cannes Film Festival
1. International voting blocs
The Academy is not monolithic. The more mainstream branches continue to dominate — actors (168 more this year), casting directors, producers, executives, and publicists. The brainiest (and most likely to lean indie and international) are the directors, documentarians, editors, and writers. Crafts are increasingly foreign, too: cinematographers, production and costume designers, composers, sound mixers and editors, visual effects artists, and short and animation makers.
The Academy’s younger and more diverse voters break down into several significant blocs: Asia, Europe, a large group of English speakers from the U.K. and Australia, and Spanish speakers from the Americas and Spain. (Scandinavia and Africa remain small.)
The international membership represents about 20 percent of voters. Obviously, domestic member rolls are still far bigger — but not as dominant as they once were. And the trend will only continue as the Board of Governors will presumably re-elect foreign-friendly AMPAS president John Bailey at the next Academy board meeting in August.
2. Campaign strategists will adapt.
The same old Academy groups in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and London will be reachable by Oscar promoters, but the campaign rules have radically changed. Distributors and consultants can continue to throw premieres or DVD launch parties with their painstakingly collected Academy member mailing lists. But inviting Academy members to screenings and events, or sending them screeners, now requires using Academy-sanctioned mailing houses that are provided official lists of members who have opted in. Publicists will now target these lists by zip code or branch affiliations. It’s a new world. “It’s about the movie, not about how we eat,” said one PR agency chief.
Could that translate to more foreign-language movies entering more major category Oscar races? They would still have to be real hits in America, like Michael Haneke’s “Amour” which landed five nominations including Picture, Actress, Director, Screenplay and Foreign Language — which it won. Another Sony Pictures Classics title, “Toni Erdmann,” may have swept the European Film Awards, but it was never a popular player stateside.
Due to the increased influx of foreign talent in all branches, publicists and marketers will have to find ways to deal with members who are more spread out — which makes networking a bit harder. Some wonder about the international members who don’t speak English; while festivals may have subtitled prints, where Oscars are concerned, English is the lingua franca.
3. Voters may embrace more genres
Judging from the popularity of 2017’s “The Shape of Water” and “Get Out,” the more diverse membership may continue to appreciate a wider swath of genres. For example, word of mouth is strong on “Black Panther” as more voters sample the global phenomenon, and Christopher Nolan predicts it will be the first superhero movie to enter the Best Picture race. Compared to “Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins, Ryan Coogler brought in more Oscar nominees as his craft collaborators, from “Mudbound” cinematographer Rachel Morrison to costume designer Ruth Carter (“Malcolm X” and “Amistad”).
“It’s wonderful when a mass audience film like ‘Black Panther’ not only entertains but works,” wrote one Academy publicist in an email. “It entertains and enlightens without force feeding. It’s really quite a cinematic achievement.”
This year A24 (“Ex Machina,” “Room,” “Lady Bird”) will support summer thriller hits “Hereditary” and “First Reformed” with Oscar campaigns, especially stars Toni Collette and Ethan Hawke, respectively. And “First Reformed” writer-director Paul Schrader is long overdue for a nomination. Paramount horror smash “A Quiet Place” is also getting strong buzz — but that may prove a genre bridge too far.
Finally, while mainstream voters will still respond to Academy fodder like classy period dramas “Darkest Hour” and “Theory of Everything,” new voters may lean toward edgier auteurs such as Paul Thomas Anderson, whose “Phantom Thread” scored a surprise six nominations. This year, Oscar perennial Focus Features will be pushing a well-rounded slate: Spike Lee’s Cannes hit “BlacKkKlansman,” two films directed by women — Josie Rourke’s “Mary, Queen of Scots,” from Working Title, and Mimi Leder’s Ruth Bader Ginsberg biopic “On the Basis of Sex” — as well as gay conversion drama “Boy Erased” starring Lucas Hedges.
Ultimately, any contender needs strong want-to-see in order to be pulled off the screener pile. On the one hand, notes one indie distributor, “the more inclusion-oriented invites will lead nominating toward more upscale choices,” but on the other, “the larger numbers of voters favor more successful films.” That gives the rare films that tick both boxes the advantage — from mass-audience “Black Panther” to breakout indie documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
“The Academy has historically been populist with a few exceptions like ‘Moonlight,'” writes one Oscar campaigner. “It’s never been a critics’ body and rarely lines up with critics’ picks with a few exceptions. As more and more women, minorities, ethnicities, homosexual/transgenders get jobs and achieve positions of power, we will see a greater diversity of films being made and consequently honored. I also think some of the issues are generational. I am less prejudiced than my parents, but my niece and nephew are less prejudiced than I am … this takes time and exposure to other ways, other people, etc. but it’s a beginning.”