Numlock Awards: How the Actors lost power, and how the world gained it.

Numlock Awards is your one-stop awards season newsletter, and it’s back! Every week, join Walt Hickey and Michael Domanico as they break down the math behind the Oscars and the best narratives going into film’s biggest night. Today’s edition comes from Walter.

Right now, Academy ballots are out, with branches voting to nominate people from their categories and everyone voting on Best Picture.

I wanted to take this weekend to go into a fascinating change that’s happened over the course of the past ten years as it relates to the Academy. As I’ve mentioned, this year is a key inflection point for the organization, a year when I believe that the number of members inducted after 2011 now actually exceeds the number of members who were in AMPAS in 2011.

While the old guard and the young guard is one story of that shift, there has been a significant swing in branch power I wanted to highlight. Namely, in the Academy’s pursuit of growth over the past several years, lots of powerful branches have lost in aggregate a lot of voting power to some of the other branches.

I think that this is a really important issue for the following reason: people don’t actually really get how the Academy has changed. Every year, when the new members are rolled out, the conversation is invariably on the acting branch, because actors are well-known people and the inclusion of specifically non-white actors is a significant effort in Hollywood.

However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the transformation of the Academy. In 2011, there were 1,172 actors in the Acting branch of the Academy. Today, there are 1,363, a net increase of 191 people over 10 years, increasing 16 percent.

That’s nothing.

The Documentary branch went from 166 people to 597 over the same period, adding 431 people and increasing 250 percent in size. Short films and feature animation went from 349 to 823, a 135 percent increase. The VFX branch doubled to 587 members, the members-at-large rose 121 percent to 544 people, makeup and hair is up 85 percent, I could (and will!) go on. The Actors branch growing 16 percent is rookie numbers, and the rest of the Academy significantly outpaced them.

As a result, setting aside pre-2011 and post-2011, there’s been a serious shift in the voting composition of the Academy.

(Quick note: there were two branch changes over the past decade, with the Designers branch splitting into Production Design and Costume Design, and the Casting Directors spinning off from the Members-at-Large. For this analysis I’m just keeping everyone in their 2011 groupings to keep everything apples to apples.)

First up, looking at the net change in branch sizes, over the past decade five branches really increased in size and power:

In 2011, the Visual Effects, Short films and Feature Animation, Members At Large and Documentary branches were about 18 percent of the Academy. Over the next decade, they would account for about 46 percent of all net new members added into AMPAS. As a result, the four — plus Casting, spun out of At-Large — now account for 29 percent of the Academy.

Meanwhile, many branches kept pace with the overall growth of the organization:

All of these branches saw their relative weight in AMPAS stay within 1 percentage point of what it was ten years ago. They combined to be 40 percent of the vote in 2011, they were about 36 percent of the new blood added to the organization since, and today they’re 39 percent of the vote.

The growth of the Visual Effects, Short Films and Feature Animation, Members At Large, Casting and Documentary branches came at the expense of four branches who have lost about 10 percent of their vote share in the Academy:

These branches combined to 41 percent of the Academy in 2011. However, they were only a fifth of the growth of the group in the past decade, and today are just 32 percent. The majority of the 9 percentage point aggregate transfer of power came out of the Acting branch, which in 2011 had about 20.3 percent of the AMPAS vote and today holds 14.6 percent, a 5.7 percentage point loss.

That all said here’s basically the power shift over the past 10 years:

There are a lot of implications here. The way that the Academy votes on Best Picture is such that slight shifts in power can have amplified effects. I think the Members-at-Large branch is fascinating and that’s the analysis you’re going to get next weekend. I think that the short film and feature animation, visual effects, and documentary branches also have developed a much larger international footprint over the past 10 years.

That last bit gets at the AMPAS long game, I think. My argument is that the people who run the Oscars realized that their most significant long-term liability was not reflecting global film. As it stands, the Academy Awards are a prestigious global prize in film, however, if it’s just a bunch of people in New York and Los Angeles picking the winners, that’s going to be an enormous problem for them maintaining global legitimacy in years down the line. So a significant, under-covered component of their diversity push has been representing global film, inviting them into the club a bit. There is a reason that in their announcement of the Class of 2020 they highlighted that the group was 49 percent international, from 68 countries.

That may also be why they are strenuously specific when they say that 36 percent of new members in 2020 were from “underrepresented ethnic/racial communities in the organization.” An American reading that in a post-#OscarsSoWhite world may think it sounds similar to “African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos and other underrepresented American minority groups,” but that isn’t actually what it’s saying.

The Academy may be responding to demands in the way the American film industry treats underrepresented groups, but that progress is a side effect of their main work, which has been to simply make the organization more globally focused.

How will the branch power shifts actually shift the Academy’s thinking? It’s not like we’ve seen a documentary, animated film, or VFX-heavy feature start dominating the Best Picture nominees. No, I think we’re seeing it a little more implicitly in the globalization of the races. Roma and Parasite, both foreign-language films, had excellent Oscar runs, with the latter becoming the first Best International Feature nominee to win the prize. I thought it was weird that none of the Parasite actors got a nomination, but then again, while the Actors branch has been growing, it hasn’t been growing the same way as the rest of the Academy.