The Oscars are meant to reflect the very best that Hollywood has to offer, but they’re also a reflection of the people who get to vote on them. That’s why, after years of controversy over their less-than-diverse nominations, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has embarked on an unprecedented, years-long push to fill its ranks with new members who are different than the older white men tasked with the bulk of Oscar voting in the past.
What kind of effect are these new voters having on the films and artists that are ultimately chosen to contend for an Oscar? To find out, Vulture spoke specifically to voters who’ve been asked to join the Academy in the last two years, a group that skews younger and more diverse than the typical Oscar voter.
Of the 14 new members we talked to, who span several of the Academy’s branches, more than half were women, and more than a third were people of color. All of them spoke anonymously and with great candor, and it was fascinating to see where their opinions lined up with the conventional wisdom — and where they diverged and forged a more surprising, gutsy path. One new member, who joined in time to vote on last year’s winners, has already detected a tangible change in what the Academy decides to reward. “When Moonlight won,” said this voter, a young director, “it felt like the new members of the Academy, myself included, really had made a difference.”
The bulk of the new voters we surveyed were generally pleased with this year’s Oscar nominations, and many detected a clear delineation between traditional Academy picks and the sort of fare their freshman class was more inclined to go for. “With Get Out, Lady Bird, and even Call Me by Your Name, you’re feeling the younger demographic,” said another new member of the directors branch. “Then you have The Post and Darkest Hour, which definitely represents the older half of the Academy.”
“In general, it just feels like there is a feeling that we have to award people who have maybe been overlooked before,” said another new voter, who speculated that this desire for fresh perspectives may have hindered Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which scored fewer Oscar nominations than most pundits had initially expected, and Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed World War II film Dunkirk, which has not yet taken home a major prize this season. “It’s about not wanting to award people who they felt had been rewarded a lot in the past,” she said. “Maybe we need to give someone else a chance. I definitely think, whether it was conscious or subconscious, that was happening.”
According to one documentary-branch voter, the Academy sorely needs to strengthen its connection with young moviegoers. “It used to be, having a nomination would lead you to generate a certain amount of revenue, which is not happening anymore. In that way, I’m concerned: Are the Oscars going to become totally irrelevant?” she asked. “The Oscars feel like this weird southern debutante ball — it’s so antiquated. Usually the opening monologue is kind of entertaining, and there’s one or two people who say something outrageous, but other than that, it’s just looking at people in these fancy dresses. Young people aren’t even watching movies anymore … let alone, why would they watch something like that?”
Still, all of the new members took their duties seriously and felt their added perspectives were vital. “My joining the Academy is political, so I will never overlook that who I nominate is driven by my agenda,” said one new voter, a woman of color. “I looked at the history of membership, which is mostly older white males. I don’t think they are going to make any positive change. I’m not going to vote like them; I don’t want to think like them. They don’t represent me or the community of artists that is important to me.”
So what did these new Academy members have to say about the year’s Oscar picks and notable omissions? Here are their thoughts on what the Academy got right and where Hollywood still needs to do better.
The new voters are happiest that Get Out was recognized
When we asked the recent Academy members to point to the best example of their group’s influence this year, almost all of them mentioned the success of Jordan Peele’s comedy-horror hit Get Out, which earned nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay. “I think Get Out is the only masterpiece in the running this year, which is why it dominates my ballot,” said one voter in his 30s. “It feels really good that, in my opinion, the movie of the year in back-to-back years has been made by a black filmmaker showing a view of black life in America that we’ve rarely been allowed to see in mainstream culture, and I really hope this year’s voting reflects that again.”
One new voter in the acting branch was heartened that Get Out lead Daniel Kaluuya earned a nomination. “A weird, genre-defying horror-comedy with a social commentary about racism could’ve been terribly polarizing to voters,” he said, “but they recognized his great performance that absolutely carried the film and held it together from beginning to end.” Several members mentioned how well the Get Out awards campaign was run, with splashy ads declaring it the movie of the moment. “Good on Universal for really stepping up because it all starts with the studio — what they decide to green-light, what they put their money behind — and they did their job with Get Out,” said one voter.
That’s all the more important because some of our new members say they ran into interference from an older, more traditional wing of the Academy when it came to evaluating Peele’s movie. “I had multiple conversations with longtime Academy members who were like, ‘That was not an Oscar film,’” said one new voter. “And I’m like, ‘That’s bullshit. Watch it.’ Honestly, a few of them had not even seen it and they were saying it, so dispelling that kind of thing has been super important.” Said another new Oscar voter, herself a veteran of awards-season campaigns, “I think Get Out is a movie that we wouldn’t have necessarily thought of as an Academy movie two years ago. It doesn’t really fall into any of the boxes that we think these movies do. It came out in February, and that’s almost never worked for Academy … it actually is provocative. It questions everything. It’s brilliant.”
Many new members praised Peele’s inclusion in the Best Director category alongside Lady Bird’s Greta Gerwig, The Shape of Water’s Guillermo del Toro, Dunkirk’s Christopher Nolan, and Phantom Thread’s Paul Thomas Anderson, the latter of whom is the only filmmaker in that category to have been nominated before. “I was proud that the Academy nominated Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig for Best Director and that only two of the five nominated directors were white males,” said one voter. “It definitely doesn’t mean the representation problem in Hollywood has been solved, but I think it’s a sign that things are at least starting to move in the right direction.”
Female voters don’t go easy on Lady Bird
For all of that acclaim over this year’s diverse Best Director race, only one of the new members we polled is casting his vote in that category for Gerwig. “I love her, and I think she did something nearly impossible,” said the member. “It’s a hard movie to pull off well.” He also plans to vote for Lady Bird’s Laurie Metcalf in Best Supporting Actress and is leaning toward giving the film his Best Original Screenplay vote, too: “I probably would vote for Greta again there,” he said, adding, “I’m worried she’s not going to get anything.”
The new female voters we talked to were not nearly as ebullient. Aside from one woman in the directors branch who loved the film and will vote for its screenplay (though Jordan Peele is that voter’s pick over Gerwig for Best Director), several of the Academy’s new female additions felt that Lady Bird overperformed with Oscar. “I don’t know that Lady Bird deserved a Best Picture nomination,” said one woman in the producers branch. “It’s a good movie, I just don’t know that it gets Best Picture.” Two other new female voters echoed her sentiment. “I’m really proud of Greta; this is her first fucking film as a director!” said one female helmer. “That’s incredible, and she should be insanely proud of herself. Is it Oscar-worthy? I don’t think so. The same with Dee [Rees]. Is Mudbound Oscar-worthy? No, but it’s good. I just want more stories to be told by women because I don’t want to have to get behind a woman just to get behind the woman.”
“I totally found [Lady Bird] entertaining, and I’m a fan of Greta Gerwig, but does that deserve to be on this list?” asked another female voter. “I was very surprised by the traction that it got. I don’t want to bag it, but is it that people are so desperate to find women directors?” Continued the voter, “That’s a film where a few years ago you’d see it at Sundance and go, ‘That’s great,’ and maybe it gets bought for $5 million … but the fact that’s up against Dunkirk or Phantom Thread?” The voter also brought up that technically, Gerwig had already co-directed the 2008 indie Nights and Weekends: “She’s up for first-time director at the Independent Spirit Awards, but she co-directed a film before and everyone’s just decided to ignore that? People just want to champion her as a first-time filmmaker. Whatever.”
Another new voter, who is in the Academy’s casting branch, put it succinctly: “I think Greta’s film deserved the nomination,” she said, “but I think Call Me by Your Name is a better-directed movie than Lady Bird.”
The Three Billboards backlash may be overblown
Martin McDonagh’s film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has done well on the awards circuit: Stars Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell have picked up every televised trophy for their performances, and the film earned the top prize with the Screen Actors Guilds and BAFTA. That said, Three Billboards may be the most controversial contender in the Best Picture race, at least if you measure the online conversation about the film: McDonagh’s handling of its thorny racial issues has been criticized by New York Times writer Wesley Morris, and Rockwell’s character — a racist cop who exhibits personal growth when he tries to help McDormand get justice for her murdered daughter — has come in for special opprobrium on Twitter. Is the younger, more diverse Academy sensitive to that criticism, and will it affect Three Billboards and its Oscar hopes?
Our polled voters were unfazed: Only one new Academy member we spoke to found the film problematic, and nearly all of them were voting for it in at least one major category. In the four acting races, McDormand and Rockwell were by far the top picks of the new members. “I have to say my favorite is Three Billboards,” gushed one black voter, who was giving the film his number-one slot on the preferential ballot for Best Picture. “It’s super well-written and I love all the performances.” Added another voter: “I understand why people don’t like [Rockwell’s] character, but that doesn’t mean the movie is racist — I don’t buy into all of that stuff at all. I think that Twitter is a wonderful thing, but it’s also an incredibly dangerous thing, because it just stirs people up who then react in very immediate ways without really thinking about the nuance.”
Another new voter, a person of color, also defended how the movie portrays Rockwell’s character. “Many people don’t think he transitions far enough or the transition isn’t enough of an expunging of his sins, but I didn’t care,” said the voter. “I believe there are racists and morons and dangerous people, and still at the end of the day, they’re people. I’m not uninterested in watching their stories and seeing them onscreen if the story is engaging enough, and it doesn’t have to have redemption for them. It can remain complex and a head-scratcher.”
For one actress we spoke to, her only major issue with the film was a miscast supporting role. “I do love Three Billboards, and it’s surprising that Martin McDonagh didn’t get nominated for Best Director, but what the hell is going on with Abbie Cornish’s accent in that movie?” said the voter, singling out the actress who plays Woody Harrelson’s wife. “She doesn’t have an Australian accent in the first half of the movie — only in the second half. Did she leave the town and come back? I met Martin at the premiere and I wanted be like, ‘Um, I was available to act in this.’”
The voters are hostile to “hot takes,” but #MeToo had a definite effect
By and large, our polled members insisted that they didn’t pay attention to whisper campaigns and editorials meant to sway their vote. “I saw just about all the Best Picture nominees in the fall and my opinions were pretty set in stone before the whisper-campaign season started,” said one new voter. “Plus, that’s all taken on an even darker connotation now since we know it was a hallmark technique of Harvey Weinstein, and I know I want no part of his version of the industry.” Another member suggested that the Twitter discourse around a film isn’t likely to have a tangible effect on Oscar voting for at least another decade: “Once the millennials really start infiltrating the Academy,” he said, “that will be an interesting shift, to see how the dialogue moves through social-media channels. Because the older generation? It’s just not a thing.”
However, a few of the new Academy members admitted that their vote has been affected by external factors. One enormously successful producer said that the accusations of plagiarism against Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water have changed how he views the movie. “Knowing that Guillermo has a huge library and is influenced by so many different things and readily admits to borrowing things from other movies, his extreme denial really rubbed me the wrong way,” said the voter, who likened the situation to how Hillary Clinton mishandled her email controversy. “It’s not a big deal, like a mistake, but it was the same thing that I feel with Guillermo: [It would be better] if he just admitted that he might have seen it and had some influence on him, which it feels like he probably did, because of all the similarities. Pandering to try to get the votes … felt like it was disingenuous.”
Additional voters said they took into account the sexual-misconduct allegations that have roiled Hollywood, including the accusations lobbied against contenders like The Disaster Artist’s James Franco and The Meyerowitz Stories actor Dustin Hoffman. “[Franco] definitely fell out of the race for me,” said one actress, a new voter. “When I first saw The Disaster Artist, I felt he was very talented, but after all those allegations came out in the press, he definitely fell from grace with me. I cannot allow somebody to walk away with an award when they are not a good person, and harming women.” Another new member said he would not be voting for Best Actor candidate Gary Oldman, who was accused of domestic abuse in 2001 by his then-wife Donya Fiorentino, or Kobe Bryant, who was arrested for sexual assault in 2003 and has an animated short film in contention this year. “I don’t know why there hasn’t been more scrutiny of their inclusions,” said the voter, who worked on one of the most celebrated films of the last decade.
One new Academy member said that the conversation about #MeToo is complicated and ongoing. “Some artists I’ve celebrated in the past … now, it would be difficult to justify making that decision in the affirmative,” he admitted. “Is it possible to honor the film and not the person? It’s the conversation I keep coming back to with colleagues: Films are a collaborative art form, and it’s possible to honor them in ways that are not directly related to a perpetrator. That means you don’t have to throw the whole thing out, right?” The voter brought up a nearly completed Gore Vidal biopic starring Kevin Spacey and Michael Stuhlbarg that Netflix opted not to release after Spacey was accused of sexual assault. “I’m heartbroken that I won’t get to see it because I want more people to learn about Gore Vidal, and I’m sure Stuhlbarg was awesome in it,” he said. “Maybe we’ll get to a point where we don’t have to throw it all away just because one perpetrator was involved.”
The Florida Project deserved more
Which Oscar snub hurt the most? A majority of our polled voters suggested The Florida Project, Sean Baker’s brash, colorful study of a poor young woman and her daughter living in a cheap Florida motel. Though the film scored a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Willem Dafoe, it didn’t crack the field in Best Picture or Best Director. One voter said she was “really upset” about those snubs, while a member from the directors branch, who was mostly unimpressed by this year’s awards-season field, said, “The Florida Project should have been nominated for Best Picture considering what else got nominated.” The amount of new voters who rallied for the film suggests that The Florida Project could have made the lineup were it not for the older, more traditional voters who still dominate the Academy, and one new member put the dividing line in more stark terms: “I would have rather had The Florida Project or Mudbound on the ballot than Darkest Hour,” said the member, who is part of the producers branch. “They’re about class and economics and race and survival. Those movies feel like a better conversation [to have] than Darkest Hour or Dunkirk.”
Other members advocated on behalf of the snubbed Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game, the trilogy-ending War of the Planet of the Apes, and one of last year’s biggest superhero films: “I feel like if Get Out got in — if you’re going to include fun popcorn movies — why didn’t Wonder Woman get in?” asked one member. Still others were stymied by films that made the Best Picture list but should have picked up additional nominations in key categories. “For Best Editing, I was disappointed that Gregory Plotkin didn’t get nominated for Get Out,” said a voter who recently joined the Academy’s editing branch. “A lot of the dread and tension in the movie is told through reaction shots on Daniel Kaluuya’s face, which gets created in editing, and I thought Plotkin did a fantastic job. His background is in horror movies, and I personally wonder if Academy members had a bit of bias because of that.”
Two of the new members ignored more high-profile contenders during the nomination stage and cast their key votes for independent films that have been all but excluded from the awards conversation. “I was a very big fan of a small film called Crown Heights that, not surprisingly, totally flew under the radar,” said one member, who spent the season advocating for the wrongful-imprisonment drama starring Lakeith Stanfield and Nnamdi Asomugha. “It came out earlier in the year and just didn’t get the needed buzz but I thought it was a beautifully wrought film with excellent performances.” Another member championed the film Gook, which tells the story of the 1992 Los Angeles riots from a Korean-American perspective. “It’s Justin Chon’s directorial debut — he wrote it, produced it, acted in it,” said the member. “He made a very important film that has an important conversation about race and coming together, but it didn’t get enough eyeballs or have enough of a presence during the whole nomination process. I was very disappointed about that … I think the Academy is behind the times.”
That new voter, who is Asian, acknowledged that two-time Best Director winner Ang Lee has broken barriers in the film industry, but said that Asian-American stories still rarely have the support they need to make it into the awards conversation. “If you go to Asian film festivals in L.A. or San Francisco, you realize we have phenomenal projects. They’re nowhere to be found after the festivals,” she said. “With Gook, I know it’s a cast of unknowns, but look at Moonlight — that’s a cast of unknowns. How come that film got the attention that it got? I think it’s because African-American Academy members are very vocal. We, as the Asian-American contingent, are polite and sit in that culture of being polite.” This new Academy member is determined to change things: “Every year, I can endorse one new member. My member will always be Asian-Pacific.”
Was Call Me by Your Name handled correctly?
Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name was one of the most acclaimed films of 2017 and scored nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Song. Many members we spoke to considered its inclusion to be further evidence of the new and more youthful Academy’s tastes — one member who wasn’t voting for the film still said that her daughter was besotted with it — and our poll group broke decidedly for Call Me by Your Name writer James Ivory in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, while the film’s breakout lead Timothée Chalamet got nearly as many votes as Darkest Hour front-runner Gary Oldman in Best Actor.
That said, Call Me by Your Name is the lowest-grossing of the Best Picture nominees, and our polled members had some thoughts on how distributor Sony Pictures Classics had handled the movie. “I’m surprised it hasn’t done better at the box office,” said one voter, who added, “Somehow it’s become part of the conversation as if it’s a bigger film.” Two members complained about Call Me by Your Name’s marathon publicity campaign, which began at its Sundance Film Festival debut last January and has included other festival pit stops, a phalanx of media appearances, and countless audience Q&As over the last year. “I love Call Me by Your Name because it was my favorite viewing experience,” said one of our youngest polled voters, “but I felt like the marketing ruined it for me.
Another Academy member said that Call Me by Your Name waited too long to capitalize on its buzz: Though the film earned glowing reviews at Sundance and was a hotly anticipated title all year, it didn’t arrive in theaters until the end of November, and the platform-release plan was slow and prolonged. “I’m pleased that the Academy has paid attention to it — it’s justifiably one of the most moving accomplishments of the year on a lot of levels, and I’m happy that Timothée has gotten his due and James will probably walk away with an Oscar — but the release plan allowed for a backlash to metastasize,” said the member. “I don’t know that this film benefited from that long, drawn-out process. I think they did it that way because of this notion of an ‘Oscar window,’ and I hope that fades a little bit. That’s a vestigial thing.” This member had some advice for the strategists who are steering awards-season hopefuls out of Sundance or the Berlin Film Festival: “If there’s super-big enthusiasm for these films coming out of the winter festivals, get them in front of audiences and maximize their potential instead of killing your casts on these endless tours.”
#OscarsSoWhite is more than a black-or-white issue
Activist April Reign made headlines with her hashtag #OscarsSoWhite when all 20 of the acting nominees were white over two consecutive years. Now, two years out from that back-to-back backlash, “It’s really exciting that movies like Moonlight and Get Out are getting this level of recognition and even getting made in the first place,” said one young Academy member. “I think these movements are far more likely to play out amongst younger voters than older ones: There are a lot of voters in their 70s, 80s, and 90s in Beverly Hills whose view of the world is probably a little too locked-in, and a movie like Get Out might be too much for them. And if these movements do impact younger voters, I think it’s definitely a good thing. We’re trying to make up for 90-plus years of Hollywood only showing limited perspectives of the world.”
Ultimately, though, most of the new Academy members we polled said that #OscarsSoWhite would not affect their final vote. “I still think in general, a lot of people just vote on what they like,” said a voter in the publicity branch. Another new member opined, “Perhaps it’s made me more aware of inclusion issues overall, and that’s a good thing. That said, I wouldn’t vote for Jordan Peele to win Best Director over Christopher Nolan simply to avoid controversy. My vote goes to what I feel was the best achievement.”
Some new members noted that it’s too early for back-patting when it comes to the Academy’s diversity woes. “It’s still a lot of white dudes,” one voter told us, though she added that she’d be voting for many of them: “Timothée Chalamet? Love him, I feel like that was an amazing performance.” The harsh realities of the film business in 2018 complicate this issue, the new member confessed. “I have friends in the white-male space, and it’s so hard to get any film off the ground,” she said. “To try to hurt anyone who’s trying to do something that seems impossible, I feel bad about it … We’re supposed to be making room for women and people of color, but the entire ecosystem of indie film is failing. The economics are crumbling before our very eyes.”
Two new voters of Asian descent pointed to the exclusion of Downsizing breakout Hong Chau as proof that Hollywood still has plenty of ground to make up when it comes to diversity. “I was totally on the fence about the merits of Downsizing, but agreed with most that what Hong Chau was able to do — to steal the movie from all the other actors — was impressive,” said one of those two Academy members. “But it wasn’t actually until I met her that I was like, Holy shit, this woman did something really interesting beyond the perilous Asian cliché that was also potentially part of that role. When I got to talk to her about it, I was doubly impressed, and I think more Academy members would have been if they had been introduced to her further, but she just wasn’t out there enough. I’m sure people just thought, ‘She’s really an Asian with a thick accent,’ but she’s an actor who created that role. I get #OscarsSoWhite, but that doesn’t only apply to black people.”
An Asian voter in a different branch also voted for Chau and felt she was every bit the equal of The Shape of Water’s Octavia Spencer and Mudbound’s Mary J. Blige, two women who did make the final five for Best Supporting Actress. “The emotional colors [Chau] uses, the physicality of her character, the emotional distance she travels, and she said it’s a tribute to her parents — these are things that moved me,” said that voter. “I think Hong Chau should be part of that category and don’t understand why she’s not. Why not? Because we don’t have enough members to vote for her … When I saw the [nominated] actresses in a supporting role, I was very disappointed.”
The new voter said that last year, 25 Asian members of the Academy reached out as a group to then-president Cheryl Boone Isaacs to talk inclusion. Many were still sore about Asian jokes made by host Chris Rock at the previous Oscar ceremony, and were agitating for change to occur. “The dialogue started then,” said our voter. “But I have to congratulate [Isaacs] — she really opened up the ranks for diversity and women. This agenda is going to be carried on by [new Academy president] John Bailey … and this goes back to why I became an Academy member in 2016. It’s all because of #OscarsSoWhite.”
Added that new voter, “I felt like, in a small way, by becoming a member, I have this one vote. One vote is not a lot. But one vote can make a change.”
Tomorrow: How did these new Academy members vote when it came to the top eight Oscar categories on their ballots?