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July 1, 2016

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Another Oscar year, another all-white ballot

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Paul Drinkwater / NBC via AP

Leonardo DiCaprio accepts the award for best actor in a motion picture drama for his role in “The Revenant” during the 73rd annual Golden Globe Awards on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Is it the members who vote on the Oscars, the films, the campaigns behind them or something else?

On Friday, the day after the Oscar nominations were announced, revealing that all 20 contenders for acting awards were white and that films with black themes had been shut out of the best picture category, industry critics were asking how filmdom’s top awards could be so narrowcast a second year in a row.

Fingers immediately pointed to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which gives out the Oscars and which, despite efforts to diversify its ranks in recent years, still skews older, male and white, according to a 2012 investigation by The Los Angeles Times. Academy members themselves were taken aback, saying in private conversations, “Don’t look at me,” but also, “This really doesn’t look good.”

But the truth probably springs from a murkier confluence of factors both sweeping and granular, from missteps and misjudgments in awards campaigns in support of individual movies to the systemic lack of diversity in Hollywood.

The studios behind two films that focus on black characters, “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton,” seemed to come late to the realization that their productions were awards contenders and proved unable to win enough votes. The Academy’s preferential voting system also works against films and actors not selected as voters’ top picks. And, perhaps the biggest factor of all, the industry’s overall offerings: Many of the 305 films eligible for Oscars did not, demographically speaking, reflect the lives and complexions of movie audiences.

“Every time I say the same thing: Until we get a position of power, with a green-light vote, it’s not going to change,” Spike Lee said in an interview a few hours after the nominations came out. “We may win an Oscar now and then, but an Oscar is not going to fundamentally change how Hollywood does business. I’m not talking about Hollywood stars. I’m talking about executives. We’re not in the room.”

Chief among the surprise omissions this year were Idris Elba, projected to get a best supporting actor nomination for his performance as an African warlord in “Beasts of No Nation”; Michael B. Jordan, the shining lead boxer of “Creed”; and the biopic “Straight Outta Compton,” about the seminal rappers N.W.A. The star of “Concussion,” Will Smith, had also been considered a possible nominee.

Yet “Concussion” was overlooked entirely; the only nomination for “Creed” went to a supporting actor, Sylvester Stallone; and “Compton” landed just one nomination, for its white writers. (They were handpicked by two of the film’s producers, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.)

Nearly all potential Oscar films are the subject of expensive, monthslong campaigns to woo Academy voters, and some said the “Creed” campaign was too late out of the gate. That film was released in late November, long after campaigning had begun for other eventual best-picture nominees like “Room.”

Elba’s exclusion was the biggest head-scratcher, not least because Netflix had conducted an extensive campaign, including blanketing Hollywood with ads. (Though the film’s subject was tough and the fact that Netflix, new to the scene, was behind the film might have hurt it.)

“Straight Outta Compton” did receive recognition from the industry’s guilds, which hand out awards that are considered clues to the Oscars because their memberships overlap with the Academy’s. The producers, screen actors and writers guilds all nominated “Compton” as among the year’s best. (The Golden Globes are not considered Oscar predictors because foreign journalists hand out those awards.) So what happened with the Academy?

Academy members and watchers said chances were voters did not love “Compton” enough, or at least not enough to make it their top choice, necessary for a film to advance in the preferential voting system.

Gangsta rap is also a hard sell to an Academy that in years past failed to give a best picture nomination to the Eminem drama “8 Mile” (2002) or the widely praised “Boyz N the Hood” (1991), which nonetheless earned nominations for John Singleton, its writer and director.

“Did anyone in the marketing department say ‘Straight Outta Compton’ really has potential with older white men?” said Marty Kaplan, a professor of entertainment and media at the University of Southern California. “It’s a challenge in a group dominated by older white men to make it a contender without buzz among their peers.”

Yet this was also the same Academy that awarded best picture two years ago to “12 Years a Slave” and named one of its stars, Lupita Nyong’o, best supporting actress. Its lead, Chiwetel Ejiofor, was also up for best actor. But “12 Years a Slave” had a narrative that resonated deeply with voters, and the awards campaign included advertisements that simply read, “It’s time.”

The omission of minority actors two years in a row is an aberration in recent Academy history: The last time there were only white acting nominees for two consecutive years was for films released in 1997 and 1998.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is black and became the Academy’s president in 2013, said on Friday that while she found the all-white nominations “unfortunate, really disappointing,” she did not see a trend in the back-to-back shutouts.

“I don’t think there’s any pattern at all,” she said, noting that good work was perennially snubbed at the Oscars.

Isaacs has made diversity both in membership and awards recognition a touchstone of her presidency. In November, Lee was awarded an honorary Oscar, and for the Feb. 28 ceremony, Reginald Hudlin is a producer and Chris Rock is the host.

Part of Isaacs’ effort to broaden the voter ranks has involved inviting a younger, more diverse crowd to join the Academy, which bestows lifetime memberships. A good number of the 322 people invited last year were from abroad, and one awards campaigner privately suggested that this group could be making it tougher for African-American films, whose stories might resonate less with international audiences. But Isaacs dismissed this notion, adding that the international component of the Academy was probably too small to significantly shift awards trends.

So was this year’s shutout just an unlucky bounce? “A bounce I never want to see happen again,” she said.

Still, Hollywood as a whole remains stubbornly behind sports, music and television when it comes to diversity. This is borne out in studies about who is chosen to make films: The Directors Guild of America found that over a two-year period, just over 1 in 10 films had been made by minority directors.

“Hollywood,” Lee said, shaking his head, “They got it on lock.”

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