In a sign of Hollywood's new world order, the Academy turns to TV talent to diversify

Going to television once meant your film career was over. Now, it can mean you will be bestowed one of the highest honors in Hollywood: an invitation to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In a move to diversify the 90-year-old organization’s mainly white, mainly male ranks, and perhaps render the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag obsolete, the academy invited an unprecedented 774 new members to join last Wednesday.

And television, it appears, provided many of those names.

Phylicia Rashad (“The Cosby Show”), Donald Glover (“Atlanta”), Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”), Debbie Allen (“Grey’s Anatomy”), Priyanka Chopra (“Quantico”), Sharon Gless (“Cagney & Lacey”) and Lou Ferrigno (yes, you read that right — the TV “Hulk” of 1970s fame) and TV legend Betty White, are among this year’s class of invitees.

Who was invited to join the film academy's largest class of all? The list of 774 names »

Sure, they’ve all done work in major motion pictures, but that’s not where their success or notoriety lives.

Just try to name an indelible Betty White film role without turning to Google. And did you know the striking Chopra from Hollywood, or Bollywood, before “Quantico”?

The inclusion of TV industry folk in the academy is a highly visible symbol of how the caste system of Hollywood has changed — TV is no longer seen as something less than film, if only because there is much more cross-pollination of talent.

Over the past decade film stars have gone to TV in hopes of Emmys, which they often got: Kate Winslet, Al Pacino, Julianne Moore, Michael Douglas, Jessica Lange, to name just a few. Now television is infiltrating the Oscars.

Given that TV is inarguably the ascendant medium, it’s only good business for film to make what was once known as small-screen talent part of its fold.

NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” is and was home to several of the names now on the list of academy invitees: Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Molly Shannon.

And premium and basic cable gave the academy several standouts. HBO boosted the careers of Adam Driver from “Girls” and Riz Ahmed from “The Night Of,” AMC made Jon Hamm a household name with his role on “Mad Men,” and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele — writer-director of this year’s buzzed-about blockbuster horror hit “Get Out” and invited by multiple branches of the academy— sprang from Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele.”

To be eligible to join, these actors had to have, according to the academy, “a minimum of three theatrical feature film credits, in all of which the roles played were scripted roles, one of which was released in the past five years, and all of which are of a caliber that reflect the high standards of the Academy.”

It does not say that we must remember or even know what those roles were.

But their inclusion into the honored position of academy member is not totally out of left field. Bill Mumy, whose most notable role was as the young Will Robinson in “Lost in Space,” has been a member since 1975.

It has, however, ruffled the feathers of several veterans who say the academy is diluting its rarefied ranks by inviting in prospective members who haven’t yet paid their proverbial dues. Ironically, Mumy is one of those critics: Don’t "capitulate to a handful of whiners," he wrote in a Hollywood Reporter guest column in 2016 regarding the academy’s efforts to open up the doors and let in more members.

But where else was the academy going to look for eligible industry professionals to diversify its organization?

Not its own backyard: a 2016 report by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that 97% of major studio film directors are male, 87% white and only 21% of the top executive positions are held by women.

Just 3.4% of film directors were female, and only 7% of films had a cast whose race and ethnicity reflected the country's diversity (minorities make up nearly 40% of the U.S. population).

The past few years alone in television have shown, at least anecdotally, as the more diverse medium.

From Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Harlots” to FX’s “Atlanta” and “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” to Netflix’s “Master of None” and “Luke Cage” to TNT’s “Claws” to ABC’s “black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat” television appears miles ahead of film when it comes to productions made by, written and starring women and people of color.

While television’s diversity numbers are up from film, it too still has a long way to go to reflect the viewership it serves.

According to a 2015 diversity report from UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies, just 5.9% of the creators of scripted broadcast shows were racial minorities in the 2012-2013 TV season, 28.9% were women and 19% of programs were ethnically balanced. Show creators of color fared better in cable, at 10.7% — but women were worse off at 22.6%.

Television, however, offers far more opportunity to those shut out of the film world due to the medium’s sheer volume and scope. An ever-expanding plethora of broadcast, cable and streaming shows needs people to run them, write them and bring them to life.

Networks who took chances on shows made by or starring women and people of color — “Scandal,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Mr. Robot” — are now reaping the rewards in ratings and Emmys.

And if you can make it in TV, you can make it anywhere. Even film.

lorraine.ali@latimes.com

@lorraineali

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