That is, performers—living, breathing human beings who appear on movie screens—are far less influential than they were just a few short years ago at the Oscar-granting Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Disclaimer: There is no link between leverage at the bargaining table and Oscar votes. Those things exist in separate dimensions, and the Academy has nothing to do with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which is trying to hammer out a contract with striking SAG-AFTRA.
Still, it’s fascinating to realize that actors have had a rough ride with entertainment companies even as performers have been gradually demoted in the hallmark Academy Awards process.
The numbers don’t lie. And the easiest way to get a grip on them is simply to compare the relative weight of actors in the Oscar voting pool back in August of 2015, when the film Academy first compiled an official tally of members for its bondholders, with the picture in June of this year, when a similar count was made for a new bond offering. (Invitations to 398 prospective new members sent a few days after the 2023 count aren’t likely to have altered balance much.)
The bottom line: In eight years, the overall number of Oscar voters rose by 48.7 percent, to 9,419 in 2023 from 6,335 in 2015. But the number of voting actors, whose branch is numerically the Academy’s largest, rose only 10.6 percent, to 1,276 from 1,153 in those same years. Put differently, actor-members made up 18.2 percent of the voting pool in 2015, but only 13.5 percent in 2023—a 25.8 percent decline in their share of the whole.
That’s a whopping loss of status. And it becomes all the more striking when compared to the changes in weight among other branches of filmmakers at the Academy.
Of the 17 branches that existed in 2015—now 18, with the addition of a production and technology branch—the actors ranked dead last in their percentage-increase of members. Second lowest on the totem pole was the sound branch, which increased members for the period by 21 percent, about double the gain by actors. Cinematographers were similarly suppressed, with a gain of 22.7 percent, as were writers, who added just 28.4 percent in the period, both far below the Academy’s overall membership growth.
Other groups that grew less than the whole included costume designers, production designers, directors, film editors, music creators, and producers.
Meanwhile, casting directors, documentarians, executives, make-up and hair artists, marketing and public relations people, short film and animation players, and visual effects types all gained at a rate higher than overall growth, thus increasing their relative influence in the Oscar game.
None gained as much as documentary makers, who saw their branch grow by 169.5 percent, to 644 members in 2023 from 239 in 2015. In terms of percentage growth, the short films and animation crowd came next, with an increase of 111.3 percent, to 858 in 2023 from 406 eight years earlier.
The only group to show an actual decline in membership for the period was a grab-bag of “at-large” members, who belong to none of the craft branches. That category fell 30.3 percent in eight years, to 154 from 221.
An Academy spokesperson declined to comment on the shift, which has the net effect of downscaling a branch that had long been larger than the others, perhaps because the number of actors far exceeds the number of directors or writers or cinematographers on most live-action films.
In any case, the changes—which resulted from annual new membership decisions over nearly a decade—seem to match the changing weight of various crafts in contemporary film. An explosion in computer-made fantasy effects couldn’t help but take a bite out of real, live performers. A worldwide obsession with relatively inexpensive, digitally driven documentaries would naturally claim space from the dramatic arts.
Those changes, in turn, have almost certainly affected the Oscars, particularly in the Best Picture category, where all the qualified members get a nominating vote. It’s a fair guess, for instance, that a lot of documentarians are more attuned to issues-and-idea films like Parasite, CODA, or Everything Everywhere All At Once than to performance-driven pictures like The Departed, The Artist or Birdman.
So the actors count for less than they used to. And that doesn’t seem to have made the movies more appealing.