The Academy hit the magic number, and this year is the inflection point

Post-2012 Academy voters now equal pre-2012 members!

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.

When I write about the Oscars, I try to get at the heart of what’s happening within the Academy as a group of voters. This isn’t the only way to look at it. The Academy would prefer you see the Oscars as a true coronation of the finest in film achievement and the first draft of film history. Cinephiles won’t fall for that, but they will argue that these are creative works that engage with and provoke societal narratives, and the quality and timeliness of a work is what can nab it the Oscar. Others look to the commercial angle, following it like a promotional campaign, letting the best promoted film win. All of these are coherent and valid and in one way or another correct.

I like looking at it like an election, which is fundamentally what it is. It’s a group of people who vote on a thing. They may take their cues on how to vote for that thing as the coronation or as a work of culture riding a narrative or as a campaign that can be won, but end of the day they’re filling out a ballot. So to me, understanding this group of people is paramount to understanding the Oscars.

It’s incredibly difficult to get across how significant the past several years have been for the Academy. The easiest way I can do that is with this chart:

This is the number of voting members there were at the end of each calendar year. Right now, we’re north of 9,000, and the number has been steadily rising since Cheryl Boone Isaacs took the helm of the organization and early in her term announced plans to begin expanding the organization to better reflect what Hollywood actually looked like. A year or so after that push began we had the first #OscarsSoWhite year, and that pretty succinctly gave the organization the impetus to actually implement the ambitious expansion plans Isaacs had been pushing for. After decades with 5,000 to 6,000 voting members, the organization embarked on a deliberate expansion.

Basically, all of the conventional wisdom we have about the Oscars is from before that line turns into a hockey stick.

(I want to give a quick shout out to Steve Pond at The Wrap, who has dutifully compiled these annual figures for many years now. These charts combine data I pulled from archived versions of the AMPAS site and his annual writeup on the subject.)

However, it’s not just that more folks are being added, it’s also that people die, and as a result the actual composition of the Academy, I believe, has finally hit a point that the number of people inducted since 2012 now exceeds the total number of people in the organization prior to 2012. There’s a chance I’m wrong, but even then the numbers look pretty even.

This chart looks at the composition of the Academy with the assumption that everyone who is invited joins. That’s not actually the case, but bear with me here:

Under these circumstances of maximum replacement, 5,141 people in the Academy have joined since 2012, and 4,221 of the people who were in the Academy in 2011 are still voters. That’s 55 percent being new folks, which is too high, but like I said: upper bound.

This chart looks at the composition of the Academy with the assumption that of those invited to join, 90 percent accept. I think that’s low. But for the purposes of getting a range of possibility, here’s the chart:

That would give us 4,730 people in the Academy from 2011 or earlier, and 4,632 from 2012 or later. Under an incredibly conservative scenario, we’re pretty much tied here.

(See a note down below for why things are flatter from 2019 to 2020, there’s a reason for that!)

In general, I think this is a significant reason that lots of awards (actors, mostly) are still fairly predictable while Best Picture (everyone nominates and votes!) is becoming destabilized.

There were 1,172 actors in the Academy in 2011, and 1,363 in 2020. That’s a gain of 16.2 percent, which is pretty small.

In the Academy as a whole, there were 5,783 voters in 2011, and now there are 9,362, which is a 62 percent increase. That’s massive. The visual effects branch has doubled in size! The Short Films and Feature Animation branch is up 135 percent! The Documentary branch is up 259 percent!

The organization is in significant flux internally — will probably do some posts on that later this cycle — with some branches ascending in power and some in decline.

The end result is this: under the conservative case, this year’s Academy Awards is the first where the new membership (2012 or later) and the earlier membership (2011 or earlier) are about evenly matched in size:

Now again, don’t conclude this means “young and diverse people are half the Academy” because while the Academy has made some gains in diversity there’s still significant asymmetries in the organization compared to society as a whole. Indeed, if there’s a thing that lots of the newer members of the Academy have in common it’s actually a broader international footprint, as the Academy is also attempting to make its membership better reflect global film, not just U.S. demographics. More on that later, probably.

But at the end of the day, 2021 is the year I’ve been waiting for. The old ways of predicting the Oscars are getting worse, and we need to catch up to the current reality as fast as we can. That’s why I built the model the way I did, and this year will be an inflection point to see what the future of the Academy preferences will bring.

Quick fun postscript note on why 2020 seemed to flatten out: the Academy this year voted to make all the agents into full voting members of the Academy in the members-at-large branch rather than associate members, who do not vote for the Oscars. As a result of this shift, this year associates lost 109 members and the members-at-large gained 116, so probably a little over a hundred agents became full-fledged Oscar voters. Based on my best estimate given the growth of the associates branch in the past decade, about 50 of those hundred-ish agents joined since 2012. As a result, the number of voters popped this year — 819 invitees and like a hundred upgraded agents — but some of those agents are pre-2011, so the number flattens out just a bit.