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Sonoma's Academy voter on controversial Oscar ballot

“I get close to a hundred ‘screeners’ every year, and I religiously go through them all, watching every single film,” says Bill Jasper of Sonoma.

As a retired CEO of Dolby Laboratories, Jasper has been an active voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 1999. This year’s ceremony – which will be televised Sunday night, Feb. 28 – marks the 17th consecutive year that Jasper has voted in the Oscars. Over the last two decades, he’s seen literally thousands of films, many in actual movie theaters.

Most of the films he sees are on “screeners” – that’s movie-speak for specially produced DVD or Blu Ray releases of films, sent out by the studios to voting members of the Academy. The idea is that, if the voter somehow never got around to seeing the film in a theater, they’ll be willing to plug it in and give it a chance, and maybe a nomination, from their own living room.

“It’s grueling,” admits Jasper, describing the process of watching dozens of films over the course of several weeks prior to the Oscar nominations. “But it’s part of the responsibility a member agrees to. I’m sure everyone who votes is conscientious, and tries to see all the films they can, and judge them fairly.”

With this remark, Jasper touches upon an issue that has all of Hollywood talking – the complete absence of any non-white nominees in this year’s list of best actor and actress categories, the second consecutive year this has happened. Before nominations were announced in mid-January, there had been strong certainty that movies like “Straight Outta Compton,” “Creed,” “Concussion,” and “Beasts of No Nation” — films with strong performances by African-Americans — would receive nods for the quality of the acting.

The subsequent snubs set off weeks of rabid soul-searching and angry finger-pointing, fueled by plenty of vigorous talk-show analysis, spirited newspaper columns and blog posts, and massive social media protests, with a highly visible internet campaign featuring the social media tag “OscarsSoWhite.”

As a result, the Academy, in a state of emergency damage control, has introduced sweeping changes, creating rules designed to ease out older members who have not been active in the industry for 10 years or more, while making it easier for new members to join.

The stated goal is to double the number of non-white members by 2020. This might not be so hard, since the current demographics of the Academy show it was 94 percent white, meaning the non-white membership will need to be grown from 6 percent to 12, still only a fraction of what some feel it should be.

As for the changes the Academy has now imposed, Jasper says they are unlikely to affect him personally, since – as a board member of Dolby - he is still actively involved in the movie industry. So he will continue voting as he always has. Otherwise, he’s not certain the changes will end up having the effect they are designed to bring about.

“I presume the Board of the Academy looked at their demographics, wanted to see some changes, and decided to open up the ranks by easing some restrictions,” he says, adding that by easing out long-term members, the Academy’s implication is that older voters are less likely to give awards to non-white artists. It’s a notion Jasper rejects.

“People say they are shocked – and I admit that I was surprised at some of the performances that weren’t included – but I think that’s just the way it turned out. The film I was surprised didn’t get anything was 'Concussion,' a very powerful film. But everybody has their own opinion, and I’m sure everyone who votes is conscientious.”

The process of Academy voting, mysterious to those who only know the Oscars from watching the awards show once a year, is relatively simple, Jasper explains. In the first round, members vote to nominate films and artists according to the branch they are in. There are 17 branches in the Academy. Directors cast votes for Best Director. Cinematographers cast votes for Best Cinematography. Everyone votes for Best Picture. As an “at large” member, Jasper is only allowed to vote for Best Picture in the first round, but in the second round, after the nominations are announced, he is allowed to vote in every category.

“In the first round, when voting for Best Picture,” he says, “everybody votes for five films, and we have to rank them in order. In the second round, when we pick from the nominees and choose one to receive the award, it’s up to our own conscious whether we see all the films nominated or not. There’s no rule saying you can’t vote if you haven’t seen all the films. That would be impossible.”

Whatever comes of the current uproar, Jasper says he’s looking forward to the Oscars, and hopes that the best films – or the best of those that made the cut – will end up with a golden statue. He has confidence that that could happen.

“I really don’t think there is any bias when people come to vote,” he says. “I don’t think anyone looks at the color of the skin. If it’s good, people are going to put their vote to that.”

Email David Templeton at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.