With 276 membership invitations going out today — exactly 100 more new members than were invited to join the elite 6000+ organization last year — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has clearly begun to live up to its goal of being more inclusive. And not only in increasing its numbers but also in the group’s stated goal of increasing diversity. One person I spoke with today who was involved in the selection of new members from their branch was worried that the Academy might be drifting into affirmative action territory and cutting out more deserving applicants. But outgoing Academy president Hawk Koch was thrilled with the results of the initiative, which was approved at a Board of Governors meeting last October. It’s one he personally lobbied for with every peer group as they considered applications for membership to their individual branches.
When we spoke this morning, Koch said it was “mission accomplished” but added that along with diversity he emphasized qualifications. “I did say along with that our criteria doesn’t change: They still have to be the best of the best, just be aware of diversity”, he said. “I am very excited that we have such a talented and diverse group of artists and filmmakers. It’s like everything else I have tried to do this year. We are moving forward. We are more inclusive and are cultivating the next generation, and that’s what we need to do”.
In recent years getting an Oscar nomination has usually meant getting an invite to join (if not already a member). But because nearly all of this year’s 20 acting nominees are already members, only Amour’s Emmanuelle Riva was admitted today — at age 86 she not only was the oldest Best Actress nominee ever, but she is now certainly one of the oldest to finally gain Academy membership. However, she is still not the oldest this year: That honor goes to Shoah’s director Claude Lanzmann, who turns 88 in November and was one of a whopping 42 new members admitted to the relatively new Documentary branch, a list that also includes 85-year-olds Agnes Varda and legendary French filmmaker Marcel Ophuls. Koch says the previous quotas meant the Documentary branch couldn’t catch up, but by relaxing them this year certain branches like Docu and Visual Effects (which admitted 24) were able to pick up the pace. Even he was shocked that Ophuls had never been a member. The Academy even admitted Iranian director Jafar Panahi — the center of controversy when the helmer of This Is Not A Film and The Circle was placed under house arrest in his native country — to both Documentary and Director branches. “He is over the moon; he’s so excited,” Koch said of Panahi, despite the director’s difficulties.
A look at the 22 actors who were admitted in addition to Riva include a particularly diverse group including Miriam Colon, Rosario Dawson, Kimberly Elise, Lucy Liu, Jennifer Lopez, Alma Martinez, Sandra Oh, Paula Patton, Michael Pena, Danny Trejo, Chris Tucker and Geno Silva. They may not all be household names but that’s a significant number — actually more than half repping minorities — to be admitted in a single year. Jason Bateman, 78-year-old Charles Grodin, Jason Schwartzman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are among those representing the traditional white males thought to comprise much of the Academy. At this year’s Governors Ball I was talking to Koch when Gordon-Levitt actually revealed he wasn’t a member and would love to join. Now he’s a member. Like everything else in Hollywood, it helps to know the right people. Oddly not invited to join, at least yet, is 2012 Best Actress nominee Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts Of The Southern Wild). The 9-year old star who is next going to make Annie for Sony would have seemed the perfect fit for the Academy: a young black female who was nominated. Kid nominees have become members in the past even at her age, but alas Wallis will have to wait. She has time.
Among the more interesting names on the list is new Warner Bros CEO Kevin Tsujihara, who represents diversity in the Executives branch and power at the same time — the ideal combination for a new member in the new-age Academy. And finally gaining admittance as a Member-At-Large is 2013 and 2014 Oscar show co-producer Neil Meron, who has waited several years for the invite even though his partner Craig Zadan is a longtime member. Go figure.
Curoiusly, 1984 Best Song Score Oscar winner Prince (Purple Rain) has finally been invited to join nearly two decades later. “One of the things I asked this year was to take a look at people who aren’t in the Academy that should be in the Academy”, Koch said. “It had nothing to do with diversity or gender or anything else, and one of the people who came up on that list was Prince. Our staff brought to the music branch that Prince was not a member and many of them said, ‘He’s not?’ Sometimes people get overlooked. Nobody was doing anything on purpose… I am proud our staff looked at that and we came up with several names of people who got in this year so I am excited about it.” Ironically, the category Prince won was abandoned the next year and has not been re-instated. (His last major film credit was for writing a song in the 2006 Animated Feature Oscar winner Happy Feet.)
Among the large contingent of new black members in the key Directing and Writing branches are Ava DuVernay, Steve McQueen, Tim Story, Reggie Rock Bythewood and Tina Gordon Chism — another good showing for the Acad’s diversity efforts. Across all categories a record 22 Latinos were invited, pleasing the National Latino Media Council which had recently met with the Academy after veteran Lupe Ontiveros was omitted from the Oscar show’s obit reel. Women in general made a strong showing, representing 85 of the new members, and foreign artists are also widely represented this year, burnishng the Academy’s goal of being an international club. But a club it still is: By comparison the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has 16,443 active national members (an increase of more than a thousand during the last year) for this Emmy voting season, and more than 18,000 members total.
Koch says despite the successful bid to widen the Academy’s outreach and begin to reduce the media’s image of it as an “old white man’s club”, requirements to get in remain stiff. “There’s a reason why the Oscars are so looked upon by everybody in our industry as the number one, the gold standard”, Koch said. “And the reason is everyone who gets these awards knows that the only people who vote for these are Academy members and it’s tough to get into the Academy.
For those newcomers previously on the outside looking in, it just got a little easier.