What Do The Changes To Oscar Rules Mean For Anime?

Bill asks:

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about changes to the rules for voting in the Oscars. What does this mean for anime? Will this make it easier or harder for anime to get recognized by the Academy?

Indeed, much ado has been made about changes to the Oscar rules this year — changes made, for the second year in a row, after no non-Caucausian actors have even been nominated for any acting awards. The rule changes are intended to broaden the base of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ voting pool.

There have generally been two ways to get into the Academy: get nominated for an Oscar, or get sponsored in by two existing members. The sponsored candidates are then reviewed by a committee, who every spring lets in a bunch of new people. Membership then lasts a lifetime, and with membership come a bunch of free screeners and the ability to vote for the Oscars. Nominations are voted only by peers of that category (i.e. actors vote on actors, animators vote on animators, etc.), but then the final votes are open to the whole Academy.

As I’ve written before, the Academy consists largely of actors, many of whom had a career in the movies decades ago, but haven’t been active in showbiz for a very, very long time. The vast majority are elderly and white. I do not think that they are racist, but they have very clearly shown extreme biases towards very traditionally told dramas, often based around social causes but presented in a quiet, non-threatening way. Oscar attention can mean big business on home video and on VOD services, so film studios have started pandering hard to this base, which is how you get garbage like The Danish Girl and August, Osage County. Films that reflect a reality different from the worldview of these people often don’t get recognized. The prevailing theory is that films involving life as a minority often go ignored. And supporting that theory, there have been reports that this year’s hugely popular and lauded film Straight Outta Compton went unwatched by a huge chunk of Academy voters.

How old are Oscar voters? Well, let me put it this way: the Academy and studios still have to use paper ballots and send out DVD screeners instead of a more secure streaming system because too many of their members can’t handle using the internet, or even a Roku. And while the input of many older viewers can be valuable, depending so much on their likely very conservative tastes is probably not the best way of selecting the most artistically significant work in a given year.

So, the new rules (which have been met with a lot of fear and anger on the part of many voters) attempt to weed out some of the voters who didn’t spend very long in Hollywood before moving away and becoming a Real Estate agent or whatever for 40 years. If you haven’t worked in showbiz for a total of 30 years, have never been nominated for an Oscar, you are now “emeritus status,” which means you still get screeners and can call yourself an Academy member, but can’t vote. And for the next few years, the Academy will be ramping up their efforts to fill their ranks with younger, more active and more diverse members — the latter of which will be difficult considering the huge diversity problem within the movie business itself.

In getting nominated for Academy awards, anime has always faced an uphill battle. Initial nominations for Best Animated Feature are voted on by mostly older, retired American animators, and as many young otaku who have attended animation and illustration school can tell you, that generation of animators has often held anime with an attitude somewhere between disinterest and contempt. Anime is not animated according to the long-established rules of Western cel animation, and those who have worked their entire lives according to those rules without being exposed to anime often see the style as “wrong” — they complain the movement is stiff, the designs are flat, and the frame rate is low. These days even most of the old-timers have come around to the films made by Studio Ghibli, but they seem to be the exception that proves the rule.

The problem is, most of those old animators actually HAVE worked in the business for 30+ years, and so these new rules will leave their voting abilities untouched. And on the rare occasion an anime feature does get nominated, getting that final vote is still very difficult: while anime features are often one of the better animated films every year, it’s still next to impossible for them to compete with the popularity of most Pixar films. There are very few anime features that can compete for sheer popularity on the scale of something home-grown.

So overall, no, these new rules probably won’t have much effect on anime’s ability to win Oscars. We’ll just have to get our public pat on the head for having good taste somewhere else.

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