Movie Academy Takes Dramatic Steps to Diversify Membership

Actor John Krasinski and President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Cheryl Boone Isaacs
Actor John Krasinski and President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Cheryl Boone Isaacs

Following boycotts by celebrities and outrage expressed by moviegoers on Twitter, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced historic, sweeping changes designed to increase diversity in its voting membership.

The Academy intends to “double the number of women and diverse members by 2020,” according to a statement released Friday. Some actions to achieve the plan will take effect immediately.

The announcement came after accusations of racism and the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter campaign that were reignited Jan. 14 when black actors were snubbed from all Academy Awards acting categories for the second consecutive year.

“The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” said Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs on Friday. “These new measures regarding governance and voting will have an immediate impact and begin the process of significantly changing our membership composition.”

The governing board’s actions are “designed to make the Academy’s membership, its governing bodies, and its voting members significantly more diverse” following a “unanimous” vote, according to the statement.

Some of new initiatives include restrictions on Academy members’ traditionally lifelong voting privileges; a global campaign to identify new diverse voting members; three new governors seats added to the Academy board that will be nominated by Academy president Isaacs—who has previously stated that greater diversity is her goal—and approved by the Board; and new members to be added to the Board who will be involved in “key governance” and decision making.

The changes designed to boost diversity among its membership that will begin later this year include:

-Each new member’s voting status will last 10 years, and will be renewed if that new member has been active in motion pictures during that decade.

-Members will receive lifetime voting rights after three 10-year terms; or if they have won or been nominated for an Academy Award.

-The Academy will supplement the traditional process in which current members sponsor new members by launching a global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity.

-Effective immediately, The Academy will establish three new governor seats that will be nominated by the President for three-year terms and confirmed by the Board.

-The Academy will add new members who are not Governors to its executive and board committees where key decisions about membership and governance are made.

The standards for new members will apply retroactively to current members.

The statement explains: “If a current member has not been active in the last 10 years they can still qualify by meeting the other criteria. Those who do not qualify for active status will be moved to emeritus status. Emeritus members do not pay dues but enjoy all the privileges of membership, except voting.”

However, the statement notes that the new standards “will not affect voting for this year’s Oscars” for current members with voting privileges. Meaning, the same crop of Academy voters who determined nominees this year are still eligible to cast votes for the 89th ceremony along with the forthcoming more diverse membership class.

The swift response comes as the Academy’s practices have been engulfed in criticism for the second year in a row. Again, actors of color were snubbed among the nominations that were announced. Critics have accused the Academy’s exclusive membership—one that is dominated by older white males—of ignoring a diverse slate of films and actors of color in 2015 that have won critical praise, box office success and recognition from several high caliber award programs.

Films with black lead actors like “Straight Outta Compton,” “Concussion,” “Creed” and “Beasts of No Nation,” among others, earned nods, honors and kudos throughout the award season. Interestingly, it was “Compton’s” white screenwriters and “Creed’s” white actor Sylvester Stallone who earned the Academy’s favor with nominations.

For many, it looked like history repeating—and “#OscarsSoWhite” became the sequel the organization desperately wanted to avoid. The hashtag became a trending Twitter topic again after the live televised announcement revealed a ballot that excludes people of color among the nominated actors. The all-white theme continued in most of the other major categories.

Actress Jada Pinkett—whose husband Will Smith was snubbed after a much-praised performance in “Concussion”—announced in a Facebook video on Jan. 18, Martin Luther King Jr Day, that she planned to boycott the ceremony.

“Begging for acknowledgement, or even asking, diminishes dignity and diminishes power. And we are a dignified people and we are powerful,” she said. “Let’s do us, differently.”

Honorary Oscar winner Spike Lee, who collected his statue months earlier at a separate ceremony, condemned the Academy for its lack of inclusion and said he would also not attend the program. Instead, he stated that he preferred to watch a basketball game.

More support came from Oscar winner Michael Moore, who tweeted: “I support @jadapsmith and @SpikeLee and will join with them. I believe the Academy will fix this. Thank you President Cheryl Boone Isaacs.”

Isaacs issued a statement on Jan. 19 amid the fallout and growing outcry, promising to “conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond.”

Continuing, “As many of you know, we have implemented changes to diversify our membership in the last four years. But the change is not coming as fast as we would like.” Isaacs, who already made history as the Academy’s first black female President, said she is “both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion.”

Pressure was also put on Chris Rock—who is serving as the host of the ceremony on Feb. 28—to drop out as a sign of solidarity.

“Chris, please do not do the Oscars awards. You mean a lot man, don’t do it,” urged rapper 50 Cent in an Instagram message. “The Talk” host Sheryl Underwood suggested he walk on stage and make a dramatic statement by relinquishing his duties at the start of the program on live television.

Rock so far has issued no comment on the boycott and appears to still plan to host the ceremony. However the day after nominations were announced, he took to Twitter to note the racial divide. “The #Oscars. The White BET Awards” he tweeted.

Will Smith later announced on Jan. 21 that he planned to join his wife’s cause. “We’re part of this community but at this current time, we’re uncomfortable to stand there and say that this is OK,” he told Good Morning America.

It was later that evening that the Academy’s governing board voted on the sweeping changes that were announced Friday.

During Isaac’s tenure as Academy president, a position she was elected to in 2013, she lifted a previous cap on its membership that kept it so old and so white. One of her pushes for diversity included adding 400 new members to the 2015 voting class.

Still, the small step wasn’t enough to make an impact. The current Academy membership—believed to comprise of nearly 6,000 tastemakers—is 94 percent white and 77 percent male; the median age is 62.

Some Hollywood observers have said that the monochromatic, male-dominated voting delegation has systemically discriminated against people of color and women in the Oscar nominations process.

The Academy’s members recognize outstanding achievement in film through its annual Academy Awards nominations, and their votes determine the winners of coveted Oscar statues–considered the highest honor in filmmaking.

Membership is select and has traditionally been bestowed for one’s lifetime and requires sponsorship by a current member. Of course, Academy Award winners are encouraged to apply. But such a distinction doesn’t guarantee membership.

An exhaustive 2012 study by LA Times found that many members come from varied backgrounds—and the pathway to entry can simply be a matter of whom you know.

While some members are actors, directors, writers, cinematographers, film editors, publicists, grips and makeup artists who are active in the entertainment industry, it is not a requirement. Retirees and nonprofessionals have acquired lifetime Academy memberships too.

The LA Times survey found among the Academy’s voting membership: a nun, a bookstore owner, a retired Peace Corps recruiter and a person languishing in prison with voting privileges still in tact, NPR notes.

However, all of that is to be no more. The Academy now demands that its members posses proper qualifications to vote on the most prestigious award in cinema. And it intends on having a more balanced, robust class of voters and influencers.

Incredibly, in Oscar history only one female has won Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker” in 2009, and only one woman of color has received a Best Actress statue, Halle Berry in 2002 for “Monster’s Ball.” In a 2014 Newsweek study of Academy Award voting statistics, it cited significant disparities in how Best Picture statues have been awarded. “Films with meaty roles for women are, by and large, considered lower caliber by the Academy,” Newsweek found.

Men of color have won only six Best Actor Oscars; black winners include Forest Whitaker (2006, “The Last King of Scotland”), Jamie Foxx (2004, “Ray”), Denzel Washington (2001, “Training Day”) and Sidney Poitier (1963, “Lilies of the Field”); Ben Kingsleywhose mother is white and father is of Indian decent (1982, “Ghandi”), and Yul Brynnerwho is Eurasian (1956, “The King and I”).

On Jan. 12, the Academy rolled out promotional posters with the tagline: “We all dream in gold.” Perhaps in time the dreams of actors and filmmakers will be even more colorful.