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Oscar-Winning Film Professor Reflects on Academy Picks

  • Penelope Poulou

This year, the Academy Awards continued a trend. The film chosen as best picture wasn’t a blockbuster. Oscar winners did not fit the classic picture of Hollywood’s glamor and glory.

Still, “Birdman” was an unusual Best-Picture winner: Director Alejandro G. Inarritu’s dark comedy was surreal and innovative, thought-provoking but not heart-rending.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may be departing from the softer, more emotionally accessible films it selected before, says Russell Williams II, a film professor at American University in Washington and an Academy Award-winning sound mixer. He picked up Oscars for the 1989 film “Glory” and for 1990’s “Dances With Wolves.”

Williams said edgier TV content has shown Hollywood that audiences are eager for more sophisticated content. For example, the phenomenally popular cable TV series “Breaking Bad” focused on an average family man and cancer patient who, unable to pay his medical bills, turns to lucrative drug dealing.

FILE - 'Birdman' director Alejandro Iñárritu appears backstage at the Academy Awards.

FILE - 'Birdman' director Alejandro Iñárritu appears backstage at the Academy Awards.

But, Williams said, making an independent, offbeat movie for theater distribution carries higher risk than developing a quirky television series.

If a film does not sell enough tickets in the first two weeks of its release, studios lose money, he said. But cable TV, with steady revenue from monthly subscriber fees, can afford to experiment with content.

Blockbusters pay the bills

So, where does Hollywood get the money to risk on smaller, character- driven stories like “Still Alice,” for which Julianne Moore won a best-actress Oscar for her portrayal of a college professor with early onset Alzheimer’s disease?

Blockbusters, Williams said.

Major studios, he said, have a two-tier approach: “The big summer movies are supposed to raise the money that is going to finance the rest of the year’s work.”

So, “Jurassic World” — the fourth installment in the sci-fi “Jurassic Park” series, due out in June — is expected to pay for smaller films, some of which will end up on next year’s Oscar list.

Williams said that Hollywood is more diverse today than it was 10 or 20 years ago and that the academy has become more receptive to international filmmakers and cast members. For example, Mexican nationals have nabbed the best-director Oscars for the last two years: Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity” in 2014 and Inarritu for “Birdman” this year.

With the world increasingly connected, and nations such as China becoming major movie consumers, the stage for both actors and filmmakers is getting larger and larger.

Technology simultaneously has made the world smaller, said this year’s best-actor winner, Eddie Redmayne. The British national, who portrayed cosmologist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” said international actors no longer need to travel to Hollywood to audition. They can do it through Skype or FaceTime.

U.S., academy demographics differ

But what has not changed is the academy’s composition: roughly 6,000 overwhelmingly white and aging Oscar voters. (They’re primarily film-industry professionals, and membership usually is for life, the Los Angeles Times reported in a 2012 feature on the secretive voting body.) This year, they nominated no women or people of color as Oscar finalists, opening up the academy to charges of sexism and racial bias.

Williams, a voter himself, said the criticism is not always fair.

He agreed it’s going to take years before the academy’s demographics reflect the country’s. Roughly 13 percent of U.S. residents are black, census data show. Approximately 2 percent of academy voters were black when the LA Times did its report several years ago.

Williams said the academy’s admission rules are stringent. Many members are Oscar winners themselves. Others can get nominated by two academy members from the same field, who first have to justify why their nominee is indispensable to the film community.

Usually, such nominees must have years of experience and recognition in his field. So, Williams concluded, the only way the voting community will get younger and more diverse is through attrition.

Still, Williams stressed, no one wins an Oscar without white votes. He’s among 32 African-Americans to have won an Oscar over the years.

"So, everybody in the academy cannot be a bigot," he said. "There is no way I am a two-time Academy winner without having the majority of the white voters vote for me."

He recently donated his two golden trophies to Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History And Culture, which is slated to open in 2016.

So, how does Williams explain this year’s snub in several key Oscar categories of Ava DuVernay’s African-American civil rights drama "Selma," which was a best-picture nominee and won one Oscar for best song?

FILE - "Selma" director Ava DuVernay

FILE - "Selma" director Ava DuVernay

Williams suggests its portrayal of racial violence only a few decades ago may have made some voters uncomfortable, in the same way Clint Eastwood’s "American Sniper," about a more insular approach to the war in Iraq, may have alienated some others.

Campaign efforts

Voting also has to do with how much independent studios have campaigned for their films before the Oscars. Williams said studios have to spend a minimum $2 million to send DVDs to all voting members, pay for commercials and advertise on websites.

"It’s not called ‘show love,’ it’s called ‘show business’ and it is really the business of the show that dictates how these other things operate," Williams said.

Ultimately, Williams said, the Oscars’ ceremony and its winners are the window dressing of the American movie industry while blockbusters pay the bills.

Hollywood, he said, is a bottom-line business. As a rising athlete tells a prospective sports agent in the 1996 best-picture nominee "Jerry Maguire," "Show me the money."

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