What the Oscars Can Learn From the NFL

One of the biggest moments at the 1993 Academy Awards was the presentation of Best Actor in a Leading Role. The competition included big names like Clint Eastwood, Denzel Washington, and even Robert Downey Jr. But the winner was a man who was long overdue: Al Pacino. Make no mistake, his performance in Scent of a Woman was exceptional… but this was a snub. Why? Denzel Washington’s eponymous take on the visionary leader in Malcolm X was incredible. When asked about the loss, Denzel wasn’t too upset, after all, he had already won for his performance in Glory. What was shocking, though, was that he actually voted for Pacino on the grounds that he had lost so many times. Denzel’s generosity was admirable, but his act was a microcosm of the flaws in the Oscar voting process.

Voting at the Academy Awards is a true challenge since each member is tasked with comparing a subjective art form. What further complicates matters is that like any system with politics involved, most voters are subject to outside influence. This can be as innocent as Denzel’s vote for Pacino or as blatant as members voting for a movie they have never even seen. Admittedly, it is a tall order to ask Oscar voters to consider titles and performances in a vacuum, so it might be time to consider a change of direction if the Academy wants to start addressing its PR problems.

In essence, what the Oscars need is a better view of the big picture. If Academy members are going to factor in what critics, crowds, and even other awards shows favor, perhaps they need to reevaluate their voting system… and they can find an example in the last place they would expect: on the football field.

In the NFL, it is a prestigious honor to be selected to the Pro Bowl. Each season, players are chosen based on their position and how many votes they receive. The voting is open to players, coaches, and fans, with each group’s ballot counting for a third of the vote. While a sport with numbers may seem easier to quantify than an art form, it is important to realize that the Pro Bowl is hardly a meritocracy. Once a player has become popular with fans, they tend to make the Pro Bowl even in a down year. The most extreme example of this is Jeff Saturday, who was selected in spite being cut from the starting lineup before the end of the season. For that reason, being a Pro Bowler doesn’t carry the same weight as receiving an “All-Pro” distinction, which is far more selective and chosen by a group of sportswriters.

So why does the “All-Pro” process hold up better?

Few writers understand the nuances of football like a professional player or coach, but what they do have is a commanding knowledge of the bigger picture of the league. Players and coaches spend obsessive amounts of time practicing, conditioning, and studying their own plays and footage of their immediate opponents, so most NFL personnel know a lot more about their teammates and competition than the league as a whole. This narrow view is analogous to problems in the Oscar voting system.

The Academy fancies itself as the most prestigious award show in all of cinema (which is debatable) but it conflates this prestige with knowledge. A group of voters consisting of accomplished industry professionals does not necessarily produce a body with an objective look on artistic greatness. If anything, having a polished record can lead to tunnel vision.

Now, this isn’t to say that pro sports have it all figured out — in some ways it’s apples to oranges. The biggest disparity between the Oscars and the NFL is the proverbial playing field. Once an athlete goes pro, they have already “made it,” at least in the sense that one good season is apt to bring in accolades and their value will go up. Film professionals, on the other hand, are a much more diverse group. Some stars and filmmakers are super rich and successful, but most people behind the camera are virtual unknowns. So if award ceremonies are supposed to be a stepping stone for budding innovators, then why do they seem to award the same people and the same kinds of movies?

A notorious example of this is how the 1995 Academy Awards saw three well-known titles pitted against each other for Best Picture: Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, and The Shawshank Redemption. Gump ran away with the ceremony, winning Best Picture and 5 other awards, while Pulp Fiction only won for Best Original Screenplay and Shawshank went home empty-handed. Was it a bad call by the voters? Not necessarily, as Forrest Gump is still a popular film, so it obviously resonated with a lot of viewers. Critically, though, it does not hold up, whereas The Shawshank Redemption is seen as an iconic masterpiece and Pulp Fiction is often listed among the greatest pictures ever made.

 
One underlying problem is that voters are a very predictable bunch. Every year, there seems to be that at least one film that gets produced as “Oscar Bait.” Some production companies rely on these cash ploys that shamelessly appeal to the voter sensibilities of the Academy- and this has gotten worse since they expanded the Best Picture category from 5 to 10 titles.

This presents a paradox: The Academy is supposed to reward greatness in film, regardless of popularity, but it is impossible to overlook something that resonates with so many — after all, reaching people is one of the most important qualities of art, so there’s bound to be some natural crowd hype.

With all that in mind, how can the Oscars go All-Pro and avoid spiraling into Pro Bowl territory? It can start by expanding the voter pool.

A larger and more diverse voter pool could establish natural counters to one another. Fans are the most honest evaluation of popular appeal, the Academy understands the insider look, and critics bring in the big picture while reducing the impact of Oscar Bait. By having these three groups, each bringing a unique perspective to the voting process, the Oscars would likely reduce genre bias and might avoiding a different bias altogether: the subject matter.

We all know that representation in the Academy is a problem- and it’s an important one- but what it seems like nobody talks about is how having a body of film professionals inevitably favors titles that have to do with the arts. La La Land is a love letter to the LA film scene and it will likely win Best Picture this year. Argo won because it was a historical piece that portrayed Hollywood in such a favorable light. The most indefensible example of voter bias is how The Act of Killing did not win Best Documentary. The Act of Killing was heralded as a masterpiece achievement of cinema and a crucial lens into both genocide and human nature, so how could it have lost? Because its competition was a movie called 20 Feet From Stardom which chronicled backup singers and their struggle of being overshadowed and undervalued. This was a clear case of subject matter bias with members of the Academy relating more to the struggles of fellow artists.

It is unlikely a change to Oscar voting this extreme this will never happen because the last thing the Academy wants is to devalue the prestige of membership. However, more outside involvement would lead to more authentic results and broadcast companies ought to consider that it would likely lead to much higher ratings.


Thanks for reading! You can Follow me on Twitter and check out my podcast, Movie Musing, for more analysis. Edited by Mark Febrizio and Demetrios Festa.

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