Amid widening outcry, Academy of Motion Pictures may change its rules for more diversity

After the N.W.A biopic "Straight Outta Compton" failed to land a nomination, the academy leadership appears ready to consider returning to a fixed group of 10 nominees.

After the N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton” failed to land a nomination, the academy leadership appears ready to consider returning to a fixed group of 10 nominees.

(Jaimie Trueblood / AP)

Under the gun to address a growing controversy about the lack of diversity among Oscar nominees, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is weighing new rules designed to include more people of color among its membership — and, potentially, the actors and films they choose to honor.

At a closed-door meeting Tuesday night, the academy’s 51-member Board of Governors will discuss expanding the number of films in the best picture category to 10 every year and increasing the number of acting nominees in each category.

In addition, the board will consider changing the way the academy invites new members by allowing prospective members to put themselves forward, rather than waiting to be sponsored by current members, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic.

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The measures come in response to the widening outcry over the Academy Award nominations announced last week, in which all 20 people nominated in the acting categories, for the second consecutive year, were white.


But some of the measures are likely to face resistance, according to several academy members, who cautioned against the board moving too quickly in the heat of a crisis.

Former academy president Howard Koch conceded that this year’s selections are “not reflecting the truth of our culture and civilization.” But Koch added: “What I don’t want to see happen is, let’s not find a way to increase the number of awards or the number of people so that we can get a diverse person nominated.

“That, to me, is panic. We shouldn’t be panicked. We should be saying, hey, this is an industry problem. We need to change it, and we need to do better,” he said.

Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs declined to comment. Earlier this week, she issued a statement promising that the organization was making “big changes” and taking “dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership.”

Her statement followed pledges by director Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett Smith to stay home from the Oscar telecast on Feb. 28 and social-media calls for a boycott of the show. Pinkett Smith’s husband, actor Will Smith, announced Thursday that he would not attend the ceremony either.

Weeks before there are any winners, we already know that only white actors will take home an Oscar in 2016.

The academy’s decision to take up the issue weeks before its telecast shows how concerned the organization is about the effect of the controversy. Typically the academy waits until spring — months after the telecast — to institute major rule changes, but this year’s nominees have provoked an uproar that threatens the image and the financial health of the organization.

If a boycott gains traction and hurts TV ratings for the show, it could affect the future sales of TV rights, which constitute the academy’s primary source of revenue.

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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. In November, Boone Isaacs announced a new initiative, called A2020, intended to diversify the staff of the organization.

But given the size of the academy — and the fact that its members, mostly older white men, have lifetime tenure — any change to the organization’s overall demographics will come slowly.

Another, far less likely change the board could make at Tuesday’s meeting would be to cull its rolls of members who haven’t actively worked in the film industry for a period of several years, which was the approach then-academy President Gregory Peck took in 1970 in response to criticism that the organization was out of touch with changes in the industry.

Since the board itself includes some members who have not been active in film for more than a decade, it’s unlikely they would push for such a measure, and, indeed, to do so would inspire outrage, and potentially lawsuits, among many longtime academy members.

Pushing inactive academy members out of the institution would be difficult in part because members receive a wide variety of perks, including meet-and-greets with Oscar nominees and DVD screeners of films before they are released to the general public.

“Nobody wants to give up their free screeners,” academy member and producer Lucy Fisher, a former executive at Columbia TriStar and Warner Bros., said at a panel discussion on diversity at Bloomberg’s Century City offices this week, drawing laughs from the crowd.

Last year, when the academy nominated an all-white group of actors, passing over a critically praised performance by David Oyelowo in “Selma,” it inspired the trending social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. But awards watchers said much of the blame belonged with the studios greenlighting films, which had given minority actors precious few roles to begin with.

This year, when the academy failed to nominate “Straight Outta Compton” for best picture, and overlooked performances by black actors including Idris Elba, Smith, Samuel L. Jackson and Michael B. Jordan, the controversy heightened, with some activists calling for Oscars host Chris Rock to step away from his duties. Boone Isaacs, in a statement, described herself as “heartbroken and frustrated by the lack of inclusion.”

If the academy changes the way the best picture nominees are determined, it would mark a decided shift from the feeling, just 10 months ago, when the group was considering constricting the category to five nominees again, the standard in place from 1944 to 2008.

But after the N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton” failed to land a nomination, the academy leadership appears ready to consider returning to a fixed group of 10 nominees, the method used in 2009 and 2010.

Several academy members, speaking on condition of anonymity, echoed Koch’s sentiment, saying they were concerned the organization was moving too hastily.

“It’s a knee-jerk response to this year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy that, if enacted, won’t necessarily solve anything other than the academy’s current public relations disaster,” says one academy member who, because of the sensitive nature of the issue, asked not to be identified.

The best picture nominees are currently determined by a preferential balloting system. The voting academy members are asked to list up to five movies and rank them in order of preference. To earn a nomination, a movie must be one of the top choices of at least 5% of the voters.

First-place votes (commonly referred to as “passion votes” by Oscars campaign consultants) matter greatly because this is where the dozen or so PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants initially look when tabulating the ballots.

Many academy members believe that the system favors independent dramas like “Room” or “Brooklyn” at the expense of popular commercial fare like “Straight Outta Compton,” a movie that some awards consultants believe showed up as the No. 4 or 5 movie on a great many ballots but lacked the ardent support of voters who would put it at No. 1.

Another option would be to make sure academy members really are watching the films they have access to.

“That’s the really dark underbelly because there’s no follow-up about that,” said acting branch member Jennifer Warren, who is also chair of the Alliance of Women Directors.

“If [the academy] put pressure on their members to ask if they’ve seen all the films that should be in the running … and they had to be slightly embarrassed when they said they’d only seen certain ones, I think that would help. I really think that if all the academy members had seen [films like ‘Compton’ and ‘Creed’], those nominations would be there.”

Times staff writers Josh Rottenberg and John Corrigan contributed to this report.


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