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Kicking it into 'high gear,' academy president says Oscar changes are 'the right thing to do'

Following a week of protests and intense scrutiny, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' 51-member board of governors on Thursday night unanimously approved a series of sweeping and historic changes designed to diversify its membership.

The extensive new rules include a commitment to doubling the number of women and minorities in the academy by 2020 and limiting lifetime voting rights.

"It's the right thing to do," academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs said in an interview Friday. "We've been a more than predominantly white institution for a long time. We thought, we've got to change this and reflect the community much better."

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

The board's action comes as the academy has faced a backlash over selecting an all-white slate of acting nominees for the second year in a row. Director Spike Lee and actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith pledged to stay home from the Oscar telecast on Feb. 28, and activists called for a boycott of the show.

The academy board, which Boone Isaacs said had been planning some of these changes for months, accelerated its schedule in response to the burgeoning crisis, approving the measures in an emergency meeting held at the academy's Beverly Hills offices.

"It was not difficult, and it did not take long," Boone Isaacs said of the board's vote. "The process here had already begun. Last Thursday [the day of the Oscar nominations], we really just kicked that into high gear. The conversation out there was raging."

By doubling the number of women and minorities, the board hopes that women will compose 48% and diverse groups more than 14% of the total membership.

For the last three years, the awards body has been in the midst of a push for more diversity, inviting larger and demographically broader groups to join its 6,261 voting members. But given the size of the academy and the fact that members belong for life, any change to the organization's overall demographics had been incremental.

The new academy rules are designed to speed up the process of change, as the board passed a series of measures that would remove from its voting rolls members who have not been active in the film industry for many years and establish a precedent requiring active engagement in the industry for new members. The new rules stipulate that:

• Each new member's voting status will last 10 years and will be renewed if that 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.

• Those who do not qualify for active status will be moved to emeritus status, which means they enjoy the privileges of membership, such as access to screenings and events, but cannot vote on the Oscars.

"Our members are in a business where people come in and out," Boone Isaacs said. "Our goal is to make our voting body reflective of filmmaking professionals who are active today."

There is precedent for the new rules, which do not apply to voting on this year's Oscars. In 1970, when the academy began to seem out of step with the rapidly changing times, then-academy President Gregory Peck began recruiting younger members and culling the academy rolls of people who hadn't worked in more than seven years.

What the board did not do was change any of its voting processes, such as raising the number of best picture nominees to 10 or eliminating its complex preferential ballot system, which some speculated might have hurt "Straight Outta Compton," a popular, critically acclaimed film on the hip-hop group N.W.A that failed to secure a best picture nomination.

"We're not touching [the voting]," Boone Isaacs said.

The academy also will launch a campaign to identify and recruit women and minority members who represent greater diversity, and will add new members who are not governors to its executive and board committees to influence key decisions.

Early reaction to the changes from academy members was mainly positive, though some stipulated that all new members should be held to the same standard as current members.

"I'm thrilled that they took action," said former academy President Hawk Koch. "I like that they've acted fast. I think they've acted well.

"I do want to make sure that no matter who we bring in, they have the same level of expertise and qualification for membership, that it is not diluted to bring in more women and diverse members, but it stays high."

"Mainly, the thing to me that's good is purging the active-member rolls," said Bill Mechanic, former head of Fox Filmed Entertainment and producer of the 2010 Academy Awards telecast. "I have sat on committees [within the academy] trying to do just that for nearly a decade."

The academy's decision to take up the issue weeks before its telecast shows how concerned the organization was about the effect of the controversy — typically it waits until spring to institute major rule changes.

Some of the academy's older members are likely to be upset by the speed of the change, though public relations experts said the board had no choice but to act fast.

"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," said Anne Buchanan of Buchanan Public Relations. "That's what the academy did today. It translated its commitment to diversity into bold action. Equally impressive was the way it went about it. The academy is not only striving to invite more outsiders in; it is also attempting to reform itself from the inside out."

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Some who had earlier raised concerns about the academy's all-white slate of nominations praised the move.

"I'm very encouraged," April Reign, the former attorney and managing editor of who created the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in 2015, said after the academy announced the rules changes.

"I think that the changes that will be made will make a significant difference. I appreciate the fact that the vote was unanimous, which indicates to me that the academy is serious about making the organization more inclusive and more diverse. ... But we still need to put pressure on the Hollywood studio heads to make more inclusive and diverse films, because the academy can only nominate quality work that has been made."

Reaction was also generally positive around Hollywood. Ken Howard, president of SAG-AFTRA, the union representing about 160,000 actors and other performers, called the changes "well intended, and I think it should be acceptable to people. 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."

Upon receiving a letter from the academy outlining the changes, African American director and academy member Ava DuVernay, whose movie "Selma" last year was a focal point of the controversy, tweeted, "Shame is a helluva motivator."

Times staff writers Tre'vell Anderson, Meg James, Ryan Faughnder, Richard Verrier and Glenn Whipp contributed to this report.


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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 23, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Academy acts to foster diversity in the Oscars" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe