Oscars 'not popularity contest but specialists' pick'

TOO white, too old, too many weird rules, too snobbish: Every year, when nomination season comes around, the list of gripes hurled at the Academy Awards is long. Cheryl Boone Isaacs has heard them all.

Ms Isaacs, president of the body that runs the Awards, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), thinks that what critics see as weaknesses are actually strengths.

"What's unique about the Oscars is that the voting is done by film-makers," she tells The Straits Times, explaining why nominations and results are often at odds with what film critics and fans want.

Simply put, the Academy Awards is not a contest of popularity nor of critical acclaim.

There are 17 branches of the Academy, each representing a career specialisation in the film industry. Directors vote in the Best Director category, and writers for Best Screenplay, for example. These are specialists, not journalists (as in the Golden Globes) or fans (in the various people's choice contests).

Specialists look at films in a different way and sees things that others may not, says Ms Isaacs, 65.

"Our voters are human, but at the same time they look at the skills it takes, for example, in editing or visual effects. They are looking for the best examples of the craft," she says.

She spoke to The Straits Times on Friday, before her closing keynote address at the film trade event ScreenSingapore 2015. The 35th president of AMPAS, elected in 2013, she is the first African-American and third woman to hold this post.

Industry outsiders are also often puzzled by why popular and well-crafted works from directors such as Christopher Nolan (Inception, 2010, and the Dark Knight trilogy, 2005-2012) are snubbed in all categories except for the technical ones and why animated pictures like The Lego Movie (2014) are given the cold shoulder.

Serious middlebrow dramas tend to dominate the nominations.

Of this, Ms Isaacs says that while voting is a subjective process, she believes there is no implicit bias against certain directors or genres like science fiction, superhero blockbusters, horror or comedy.

"Every film is eligible to win Best Picture - an animation film, documentary, foreign language. People think that voting happens with a few people in a room making decisions. There are 7,000 voters," she says.

Since coming to office, Ms Isaacs has spoken of the need for racial diversity in Hollywood films, in particular after this year's Oscars, which featured an overwhelmingly white roster of nominations for acting, sparking an outcry on the Internet.

Another issue that non-Americans have with the Oscar competition is the restrictions on the use of English in films submitted to the the Best Foreign Language Film category. In 2005, Eric Khoo's drama Be With Me was disqualified for having too much English dialogue.

That restriction penalises countries like Singapore, where large sections of the population speak English, critics say.

Ms Isaacs's advice: Submit films with English dialogue into the other, more general categories, where it will compete with films from Hollywood and from other English-speaking countries.

"That's when the fun begins," she says.

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