Academy’s diversity push crashes into the math and definitions

Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, announces the nominations for the Academy Awards from Beverly Hills on Jan. 15, 2015.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

How do you get into one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?

The answer is simple – and complicated.

The academy’s key mandate states that candidates must have “demonstrated exceptional achievement in the field of theatrical motion pictures.” And, while membership criteria vary among the academy’s individual branches, all potential members must be sponsored by two members from whichever of the academy’s branches — such as acting or directing — that the candidate is seeking to join. (The exception are Oscars nominees, who are automatically considered for, but not guaranteed, membership.)

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But the definition of “exceptional achievement” leaves a lot open to interpretation. And the requirement that two academy members sponsor new candidates, critics say, can have the effect of favoring friends and colleagues of members — which could mean favoring whites and males, given that the 6,261 voting members are 91% white and 76% male, even after several years of talk of diversifying the organization.

So after nearly 90 years as the public face of the movie business, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finds itself at a crossroads.


Facing a firestorm for the second year in a row over the lack of Oscar nominations for any actors of color, the academy in January announced sweeping changes directed at making the overwhelmingly white and male institution more reflective of not just the film industry but the world around it. The aim: to double the number of women and minorities — currently about 1,500 and 535, respectively — in its ranks by 2020.

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The Times estimates that to achieve that goal, the academy would have to invite at least 375 women and more than 130 people of color each year for the next four years. To put that in context, last year’s class of academy invitees — touted as the largest and most diverse ever — was 322 people, and the majority of them were white men.

The academy’s diversity push has itself been met with controversy among a large swath of the group’s rank-and-file members, many of whom protested the notion that older, less active voters could be purged from the rolls in the name of diversity.

Under the academy’s traditional membership process — which it has said it will “supplement” with a global recruitment campaign in an effort to boost diversity — after potential new members have been reviewed by branch committees, recommendations for membership are passed along to the academy’s Board of Governors, which ultimately decides who will be invited to join.

Given the under-representation of women and minorities in the film industry as a whole, some are doubtful the academy’s goals can be met without lowering the traditionally stringent membership requirements. In an interview with The Times in February, former academy President Hawk Koch called the targets “impossible” to reach, saying, “There aren’t that many qualified people, period, of any race or gender, to invite each year.”

There is unquestionably a large number of qualified women and minorities working in the industry ... who are just waiting for the academy to open its doors to them.

At the same time, there is unquestionably a large number of qualified women and minorities working in the industry — from household names like Aziz Ansari and Michael B. Jordan to editors, writers, makeup artists and other unsung below-the-line talent — who are just waiting for the academy to open its doors to them.

As one of Hollywood’s oldest and most prestigious institutions prepares to announce its newest list of invitees in late June, academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs has made it clear that, whatever the challenges involved, she’s ready to open those doors.

“We know this is the right thing to do,” Boone Isaacs told The Times in February. “We’re going to make it happen.”

Times staff writer Rebecca Keegan contributed to this report.


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