In case you missed it, the nominations for the 88th Annual Academy Awards (the Oscars) were announced this morning, and while there were many expected nominations and surprises, one thing most news outlets seem to agree on is that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the people that run the Oscars) failed by yet again creating a field of nominees that was mostly white (in many categories, all white). With representation of non-white actors and directors and writers and designers and creators of all kinds at the forefront of discussion in Hollywood (and, well, everywhere), this year's Oscar nominations are clearly seen as, if not a step backwards, then a decided rooting in old ways.
Tweets were tweeted, op-eds were ed-ed, and headlines were fired off decrying the lack of diversity.
But nothing's going to change.
Because for an organization as big as the Oscars (and its governing body, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), all of these tweets and articles are just noise. People still want Oscars, people still cover the Oscars, and people still want to talk about the Oscars. The Academy Awards are a cultural institution, and their importance is unimpeachable.
The Oscars began when Louis B. Mayer, then head of MGM Studios decided to create an organization "to benefit of the film industry" (source). That organization became the International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927, and two years later, it held its first awards ceremony. The first ceremony was a very exclusive event, limited to 270 guests, and grew from year to year. By the second ceremony, interest in it ballooned to the point that a live radio broadcast accompanied the ceremony.
I take this little historical detour to demonstrate that important people within the industry decided they wanted to honor the people they thought were great, and before long the public--as with most things concerning Hollywood--became obsessed with it.
The thing is, though, the Oscars aren't an objective standard of excellence. You don't need an Oscar to make movies the way you need a license to practice medicine, or law. Some guys (white guys) decided the Oscars were important, and everyone just accepted that.
88 years later, that hasn't changed much.
Now, are the Oscars a bad thing? Ultimately, no. It is nice to have a ceremony awarding excellence and achievement within a given industry or community, especially if the people handing out the awards are agreed upon as being the ones who best speak for the industry or community at large.
But what happens when there is no agreement over the opinions of those people? Coverage of the Oscars is, obviously, at an all-time high. Literally everyone and anyone who has something to say about the Oscars can say it, and say it at any time. In the early years of the ceremony, actors were awarded for their body of work throughout the year (e.g., Emil Jannings and Janet Gaynor), but now it's for a single performance in a single film (within a single category), and unofficially for a performance in a film released in the fall of that year.
Really, the fall is Awards (Oscar) season. Many "Oscar-worthy" films come out throughout the year (this year, Mad Max: Fury Road is nominated for ten Oscars while it was released in May), but it's usually not until late September, early October that we see a glut of films that are obvious contenders. That's when the industry around an awards ceremony for another industry really kicks off. There are other awards ceremonies which struggle for legitimacy in their own right (the Golden Globes screams as the first example) while generally being considered weather vanes for the all-important Oscars; there are lists upon lists upon lists of Best Films and Oscar predictions and odds makers and analysis of campaigning and all of this with the intention of understanding, predicting, and participating in the Oscars.
With the explosion of Oscars coverage, debate over the choices of nominees and winners is at an all-time high, but more importantly, the Oscars are revealed as fallible. An Oscar win is undeniably still a boon to someone's career or a film's financial success, but nowadays the Oscars are very much considered an opinion amongst many. They are still, in many ways, considered the final opinion, but there is no shortage of "X Number of Times the Oscars Got it Wrong" articles to demonstrate the debate. It seems the Oscars are infallible until they are not.
If the Oscars are fallible, and there is so much frustration over the lack of non-white representation in their nominees and wins, why are they still "important"? Ultimately, as I said above, no one needs the Oscars. In many ways, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and its award show needs everyone else. (Sidenote: the Academy has many functions, apparently, but, really, and for relevance, it's basically synonymous with the Oscars.) It needs the people who make and star in movies to aim for their approval (the Oscars), and it needs the press to discuss the relevance and importance of the Oscars, and it needs the general public to consume news about the Oscars, to validate their choices for nominees and winners by running out to the theater and seeing those choices or renting/buying them on home video, and, last, but not least, tuning in to the actual broadcast of the awards ceremony on television.
There's clearly a systemic lack of appreciation for or consideration of diversity within the Academy voters (there will always be the argument that film is a subjective medium so it's impossible to argue the idea that an all-white nominee category is illegitimate on merit alone, but, there is also the argument that there were non-white creators deserving of nominations--especially this year--so, for the sake of this article, let's stick with the latter). There are no non-white actors nominated this year across the four categories. There were none last year, three the year before, two the year before that, three the year before that. That's 8% non-white, 92% white over the course of five years. (There is also the argument that the nominees reflect the representation in the industry as a whole, but, really, if the Oscars and the Academy as institutions are the great equalizer as they are purported to be, the final word on all of film for the year, then surely they will find greatness in even the smallest of eligible films, no?) If the Academy isn't listening on a fundamental level (that level being the existence of deserving actors who are not white), then why not make them listen on a monetary level?
The bigger the organization, the harder it is to change their mind and their heart. On the flip side, that organization is more likely going to listen to their wallet. If critics remember that the Academy is only important because the press and the public make it important, they'll realize just how much power they have. If you want to incite change, you have to be willing to inflict real and lasting damage on an institution--no matter how "important" or "beloved" it is. Otherwise, it's all lip-service. It comes off as placating and pandering and a token diversity sentiment while you really still want all the validation an Oscar can still bestow.
If you want something from people that aren't obligated to give you anything, you have to be willing to put up with the way in which they do things. You don't have to want what they're selling, though. The Oscars aren't the only game in town--in fact, they're not even a game you have to play. The Oscars are still important to many people, but there are also many excellent films that don't have the Oscars' seal of approval. If critics of the lack of diversity in the Oscars keep tuning in to the Oscars, covering them for news websites, discussing them, and generally considering them to be important while the Academy and its products lose no steam monetarily or in their reputation, what incentive does the Academy have to change? As far as the Academy can tell, its relevance isn't in question. The Academy is going to double-down on the fact that its opinion is the final one and it doesn't matter who or what anyone else thinks is deserving. "If your opinion mattered," the Academy can say, "then you would be an Academy voter." That is, of course, unless you stop giving the Academy your attention and money.
You just have to weigh how much you want an Oscar against how much you're willing to put up with to get one.