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Hollywood leaders applaud sweeping film Academy changes

Hollywood industry leaders are cheering the latest efforts to diversify the overwhelmingly white and male cast of Oscar voters. 

Following widespread outcry over the dearth of nonwhite acting nominees, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' 51-member board of governors responded to the pressure on Friday with a series of sweeping changes.

#OscarsSoWhite: Full coverage of the boycott and Hollywood's reaction

The board committed to doubling the number of women and minority members in the academy by 2020. It also approved a series of changes limiting members' lifetime voting rights, in a bid to make room for a more diverse group of voters.

New members' voting status will last 10 years, and will be renewed if that new member has been active in the business. Lifetime voting rights can be earned with three active decades or an Oscar nomination or win. The same standards will be applied to current members. 

While the changes may trigger controversy within the established academy membership, many film industry veterans expressed support for the changes.

"I'm very much in support of this change, and I applaud the academy for acting decisively to respond to a very real problem," said filmmaker Marshall Herskovitz, a former president of the Producers Guild of America.  

Pressure on the academy to take action had been mounting since a furor erupted last week when the Oscar nominations were announced. It was the second year in row marked by a conspicuous absence of nonwhite nominees in the acting categories.

The academy's move follows pledges by director Spike Lee and actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith to not attend the Feb. 28 Oscar gala, and calls for a boycott of the show online.

Ken Howard, veteran actor and president of SAG-AFTRA, the union representing about 160,000 actors and other performers, applauded the announcement.

“I think the effort is well intended and I think it should be acceptable to people,” Howard said. “The criticism is that [the academy] is just a bunch of old white guys -- and that’s fair -- and how are we going to remedy that? They are doing that.”

Veteran producer Bill Mechanic, former head of Fox Filmed Entertainment and producer of the 2010 Academy Awards, said it was an important step to try to fix the academy's diversity problem. 

"Mainly, the thing to me that’s good is purging the active member rolls," he said. "I have sat on committees [within the academy] trying to do just that for nearly a decade."

Still, the board of governors had to balance the desire for more diversity with its need to protect voting members who are veterans of the film business. Herskovitz said the new rules seem fair to veteran members.

"They've done it in such a way to balance the need to diversify the membership with the very real responsibility we have to members with long and distinguished careers who deserve to have lifetime recognition by the academy," he said.   

Hollywood studios have been silent on the Oscar flap. But on Friday one major studio weighed in. In a statement, Warner Bros. Chairman Kevin Tsujihara called the changes a "great step toward broadening the diversity and inclusivity of the Academy and, by extension, the industry.  Entertainment is a global business, and the content we produce and its creators need to reflect the diversity and different perspectives of the worldwide audience we serve."

Crisis public relations specialists, in the days leading up to the changes, had said the academy would need to take a strong stand to respond to a perception that it was out of touch with the broader American population.

Anne Buchanan, who runs a communications firm outside of Philadelphia, said it was imperative for the board to act decisively.

"When an organization is in the middle of a full-blown crisis, as the academy was, it must take swift and immediate action to stem reputational loss," she said. "That's what the academy did today."

Producer Bill Gerber, an academy member whose credits include the 2013 film “Grudge Match,” said that the academy should continue to probe this issue.

“They really should get out to the stakeholders and a diverse group of people – and I don’t necessarily mean race, I mean people all over the place – and ask, what are we doing wrong?” he said. “What’s the disconnect?”

David White, executive director of SAG-AFTRA, praised Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson for their swift response to the uproar.

"I think it is appropriate to applaud Cheryl and Dawn who I know care a lot about this and ensured that it got to the top of the agenda as quickly as it did," said White, who is African American. "However, this is only one step and the truth is we have a pipeline problem. We do not have enough people of color in the pipeline of decision making."

Follow Ryan Faughnder on Twitter for more entertainment business coverage: @rfaughnder

Times staff writers Meg James, Stephen Battaglio, Daniel Miller, Rebecca Keegan and Richard Verrier contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

Updates:

This post was updated at 5:34 p.m. to included additional reaction

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