Facing an angry outcry among some of its members, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Board of Governors circulated a letter to its members on Monday aimed at clarifying new membership rules announced in January.
Under the new rules, which were enacted in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, academy members could lose their voting rights and be shifted to "emeritus" status if they don't remain active in the film industry, a change that was met with outrage among many older members who felt they were being unfairly purged from the academy ranks.
In its letter, the academy leadership sought to tamp down those concerns, suggesting that the number of members affected will not be as large as may be feared.
"There has been a lot of confusion about what we’re planning to do regarding voting status, and this has resulted in some anger and frustration," the academy acknowledged in its letter. "Some members feel they will lose their voting privileges simply because they’re retired. Some feel they are being accused of racial bias. Others feel they are being cast as 'over the hill.' None of these is true. In fact, most members who fear losing their vote, will not."
Under the new membership requirements, each new academy member receives voting privileges for a 10-year period, which will be renewed for another 10 years if the member remains active in the film business. Members would be granted lifetime voting rights after three 10-year terms, whether consecutive or not, or if they have received an Oscar nomination.
In its letter, the academy clarified that the first 10-year clock will begin not with admission to the academy but with a member's "first qualifying work." Thus, those who earned academy membership deep into their careers will be given credit retroactively for all the work they did before that point.
It will be left to the individual branches to determine what constitutes being "active." "While 'activity' remains our first criterion, your branch can take other factors into account as well to allow you to retain your voting privileges," the letter stated. "Again, we want voting for those who are, or were, the most active, but we also want to be inclusive and fair. The benefit of the doubt goes to the member."
The bottom line, the letter stated, is that the only members who will stand to lose their voting privileges will be "those few who both have not worked in a long time AND who did not work for a long time when they were active."
Even as the academy has dedicated itself to doubling the number of minorities and women in its ranks by 2020, the organization's leadership pushed back against the perception among some that the new voting rules represented ageism or were simply aimed at diversifying the academy.
"Despite what you may have heard, and despite the timing of our announcement, this proposal is actually not about diversity," the letter said. "We have other proposals to advance the growth of diversity. This initiative, required by our bylaws, has to do with relevance."
That said, meeting the academy's stated diversity goals will not be easy no matter how the new membership rules are interpreted and enforced. According to an analysis by The Times, Oscar voters are 91% white and 76% male. Some have questioned whether there are enough qualified women and minorities working in the film industry to dramatically shift those numbers in such a short period.
But in an interview with The Times in February, academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs said she was confident the goals could be met.
“There are enough qualified people,” Boone Isaacs said, adding that academy leaders will “do everything in our power to meet our goals because we know that this is the right thing to do. We’re going to make it happen.”