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Nomineering, Week 2: Academy Awards voters need to start reading the internet

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Welcome to Nomineering, where we take a weekly look at the news and stories behind the most lavish, high-budget spectacle the film industry has to offer: Oscar season. No matter how you feel about them, awards are one of the key ways to gut check what Hollywood itself thinks is important, with winning films often opening doors and setting the agenda for which kind of movies will be made in the coming years — and which ones won’t. From the surprise nominations that foretell an upset, to the last minute surges that see the most unlikely of films, um, crash into a Best Picture win, Nomineering tells the story from the beginning of the year all the way until the ceremony itself. This week we react to the 88th Academy Award nominations.

The Academy Awards have always been a bit of punching bag. That’s just what happens when you take an industry popularity contest and try to turn it into an annual televised spectacle; people either get annoyed that the popular favorites don’t win (remember when The King’s Speech beat Inception?) or are horrified when they actually do (that year Titanic took just about everything).

#OscarsSoWhite was Twitter at its best

But last year was a little different. A historic lack of diversity in the 2015 Oscar nominees met long-simmering frustration, and a woman named April Reign set off a firestorm with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. It was Twitter at its best, distilling an obvious truth down to a three-word hashtag that didn’t just take off online; it helped shape the Oscar conversation for the rest of the year. It had such an impact, that host Neil Patrick Harris tried to disarm the controversy with his opening joke (it didn’t really work). With that kind of impact, you’d think the message had been strongly received, and we would see at least baby steps forward in this year’s lists of Oscar nominees.

Then yesterday’s list happened.

We’ve already covered the nominees themselves, so I’ll just keep this to the topline details: across all 20 acting nominees, not a single actor of color. Other than The Revenant’s Alejandro Iñárritu, all five Best Director nominees are white men. And Creed, a critical and commercial success that only works because of the creative one-two punch of director Ryan Coogler and lead Michael B. Jordan, received just one nomination: for Sylvester Stallone. (For the record, the Academy shut out Coogler and Jordan’s Fruitvale Station back in 2014, as well.)

It’s not like there weren’t many highly worthy options. But still, nothing for Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation, or Will Smith in Concussion. Straight Outta Compton received a token nomination for Best Original Screenplay (all of its four nominated writers were white), and while something like Tangerine was always going to be an Oscar long shot, in the context of this year’s results it starts looking like a film that was destined to be ignored because of larger, institutional issues.

The Academy isn't a single, monolithic entity

Plenty of stories will say this is all due to the demographics of the Academy itself — 93 percent white and 76 percent male, per a 2013 Los Angeles Times survey — while the industry trades that help shape the nominee rosters shrug off responsibility and say things can’t improve until current members die off. (I’m serious, that’s actually an argument The Hollywood Reporter made yesterday.) But the Academy isn’t really a singular monolithic entity, particularly when it comes to the fragmented nominating process. Other than Best Picture, which is a free-for-all, only individuals within a certain area of expertise get to nominate their colleagues; directors nominate directors, for example, while actors all nominate for the acting categories. That’s why you see a film nominated for Best Picture, but not Best Director (Bridge of Spies), or earn Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress nominations, yet somehow honor neither the writer nor director (Steve Jobs).

All of which is to say that despite the larger demographic inertia, there’s potential for progress within different categories that could help set a new tone. It’s writers and directors that appear teed up to make the most immediate difference: 10 of the 21 writers invited to join the Academy last year were people of color, as were 10 of the 26 directors. Each amounts to just 2.5 percent of the total membership of their respective branches, but compare that to the massive Actors branch of the Academy: the eight actors of color that joined last year account for just 0.7 percent of total membership.

The Oscars are playing prestige keepaway at their own peril

What’s absurd is that changing the trend would simply ask Academy members to honor amazing filmmaking. Coogler’s work in Creed is fantastic; last year, Ava DuVernay delivered a Best Picture nominee with Selma, only to be snubbed herself. Hollywood has been notoriously slow to broaden its scope, to be certain, but now the Oscars — the industry’s flagship awards show — are playing prestige keepaway, refusing to acknowledge some of our most talented young actors and filmmakers at the same time that diversity and representation have become essential cultural currency.

Whether it’s in front of the camera — where there really hasn’t been a modern female superhero in a lead role until Daisy Ridley Force-grabbed a lightsaber last month — or behind it, where filmmakers like Michelle MacLaren have yet to release a big studio feature, audiences now clearly see and recognize these issues. They are hungry for representative films from diverse points of view, ones that cross lines of gender and color. It’s why the rage of #OscarsSoWhite took off in the first place; it’s why the Fast & Furious films, with their diverse cast, are such lasting worldwide successes.

Listen to the internet, Academy voters. You have a very specific mission moving forward: improve, or face increasing cultural irrelevancy.

Catch up with awards season news from the week:

Al Sharpton blasts Hollywood for another year of all-white Oscars nominations
"Talk is cheap." -Al Sharpton

Alejandro Iñárritu, Tom McCarthy, Adam McKay, George Miller, and Ridley Scott land Director’s Guild nominations
"The guild also instituted a new category, outstanding directorial achievement for a first-time feature film director." (Variety)

VES Awards: Star Wars, The Martian, and The Walk nominated
Like visual effects? Then you’ll want to know who the Visual Effects Society thinks is worth honoring. (Deadline)

Star Wars and Mad Max: Fury Road top CAS sound mixing award nominees
How about sound? The Cinema Audio Society announces nominations for its 52nd annual awards. (The Hollywood Reporter)