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In just a few short days, Hollywood’s Dolby Theater will be filled with directors, producers, writers, cinematographers, editors, composers, animators, set-designers, and actors and actresses all vying to go home with an eight-pound golden trophy.
It all comes down to the opinions of the nearly 8,000 voting members within the Academy, and over the last few years, those opinions have become increasingly difficult to predict. It’s partly due to the rapid expansion and diversification of Academy members, which has added more than 2,000 members in the past three years alone.
Hollywood’s emblematic institution has made a considerable effort to diversify its voting members since the 2015 #OscarsSoWhite campaign, protesting the lack of diversity among the nominees.
Based on the most recent demographic numbers provided by the Academy, 49 percent of members added in 2018 were women, raising the overall proportion of women to 31 percent, up from 25 percent in 2015. Similarly, 38 percent of new members are people of color, increasing the overall composition of racial minority members to 16 percent in 2018, up from 8 percent in 2015. While these stats represent a sizable change in the makeup of the Academy in a short amount of time, it still falls short of reflecting the demographic makeup of the United States.
"The goal is always to match the overall mix of the country's population, and the Academy has never come close to that," said Jason Squire, a professor of cinematic practice at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and former 21st Century Fox executive.
Squire says it will take the Academy much more time to reflect the U.S. population due the organization’s structure and rules. For instance, new members must be sponsored by two existing members before being admitted into the exclusive club.
"We now see that happening slowly thanks to this wonderful rage for social inclusion. However, the board’s ceremonies are so passe, it will take a long time to adjust," he added.
How the voting process works
Nearly 8,000 industry professionals decide who wins the esteemed awards. The voting process starts in late December, according to the Academy's website, when members cast ballots -- both online and sent in by mail -- to nominate films.
Once nominees are announced in mid-January, final voting is conducted online only and tabulated by the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
After nominees are announced, members have a four week window to watch and analyze each film that is up for a potential award. This year, 30 movies are nominated across all categories, excluding shorts. With the average movie feature run time at two hours, that's at least 60 hours, or 2.5 days worth of film to watch.
The Academy offers theater screenings of nominated films in a handful of cities in the U.S., but it claims to have members in 2018 in 59 different countries. Streaming is also available for nominated films, but only in certain categories.
Instead, Academy member Russell Schwartz said they generally rely on studios to distribute films considered to be award-worthy in the lead up to the Oscars.
“Studios will hand out DVDs to everybody,” said Schwartz, an associate professor of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University. He’s been a part of the Academy for over 20 years. “They want their movies to be seen by Academy members so it’s also a way of allowing people to catch up on movies they were not able to see in the movie theaters.”
Even though the rules may seem lax, Mary Murphy, a senior lecturer at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said in her experience covering the industry, most Academy members take voting seriously.
“I don't think there are any safeguards, but there is an honor code,” said Murphy, who covered the Oscars for over 25 years for various media outlets including the LA Times and Esquirer. “As a member of the Screen Actors Guild myself, I feel obligated to watch everything nominated for an award. I've been to a lot of Academy screenings and people are there and take things seriously.”
The awards ceremony has operated on this system of trust since its inception. Academy members told ABC News that the honor code is enough to protect the integrity of the awards.
"There's really no excuse to not see the films nominated,” said Alexandra Rose, Chair of Special Projects and Industry Initiatives at Chapman University. She’s been a member of the Academy since 1980. "I feel very committed to watch all the movies because it's important to give every filmmaker his or her chance. But it’s an accurate statement to say there’s nothing checking if people watch all nominated movies.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences declined to comment on this story.