Well, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has never been accused of moving too swiftly on making sweeping changes, but it clearly reversed that image with today’s announced actions being implemented to increase diversity in the Oscar-giving organization. And, judging from emails and phone calls I am getting, it already is setting off new controversies — this time among members who feel the entire Academy should have had a chance to weigh in before these new changes were made. More on that in a moment.
Of course, intense industry pressure and nightmarish PR about the second year in a row of all-white acting nominations moved the group, and particularly President Cheryl Boone Isaacs — who was really hurled toward the fire — into action. As I have often stated, she and CEO Dawn Hudson have made it a hallmark of their administration to try and increase diversity in the Academy membership, but AMPAS has been not moving fast enough for some, who were outraged by the very Caucasian lineup of this year’s Oscar nominees. The bottom line is that even with all of today’s announcements, it might not change the way the Academy thinks, or votes, in future years. You can’t assume that just because you increase — or actually double — the number of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, women and so on that it will mean they will simply vote for their own. Aren’t the Oscars about the work on screen — regardless of who might have done it?
Aside from being a kind of reverse racism, it’s also wrongheaded thinking. That is not at all where the Academy is coming from with these changes (orchestrated by Boone Isaacs in coordination with the Board of Governors’ Membership and Administration Committee chaired by writer-director and Academy Secretary Phil Alden Robinson). They know that with a group that is about 94% white and 77% male, the real world was passing them by. Change, or at least the appearance of change, was needed — fast.
So as Deadline has reported, the Academy held a stealth Board of Governors meeting Thursday night, very much under the radar since they already had a BOG meeting scheduled for next Tuesday (which will still be taking place, I am told) and where it was thought the diversity issue would be front and center. Clearly time was of the essence, and although not all issues were addressed today (at least in the announcement following the meeting) after last week’s Oscar nominations brought about fierce rounds of criticism, a key component of the complaints was, and for my money it has been addressed in a very smart way. It is at least a promising start. Setting a moon shot-type goal of doubling the number of women and minority members by 2020 is a realistic and encouraging step forward considering the current demographic breakdown. Of course, the Academy didn’t — and likely won’t — provide the press with the raw numbers of women and non-white members currently in the organization, so I am not sure how many new members from those sectors we are talking about, but it’s historic in Oscarland. The board is looking to secure the future of the organization, not dwell on what it is, or was.
Following the lead of many other guilds and organizations, the Academy has also gotten rid of the “lifetime” clause and now will bring in new members for a 10-year period followed by a review. Their membership only gets renewed if they have been active during that time. Then, after three 10-year terms where they remain active, they get a lifetime invite.
This would have been a huge problem had it also applied to those who are already members, but the Academy has built in a lot of criteria that enables them to retain voting rights if they qualified under these terms during the course of their career. A quick check on IMDb of several older members I know who have not worked actively in years showed across the board they would still be eligible to vote based on their previous career work over the decades. One actor I know says her phone is ringing off the hook from nervous members of a certain age, and the Academy would be wise to reassure them of these changes. They might not get it just yet. Be sensitive.
Another longtime member just emailed me: “I believe the ENTIRE current membership should have a chance to voice their opinions before any major membership change … Why is the Board making such a major change so swiftly? Just for TV ratings? … Why does the Board believe the current membership is racist as a group? Many people mention age. Well those older member are Baby Boomers for God’s sake. That group out of all of the members have fought harder for minority and women’s rights than any other.”
Clearly the Academy leaders might be getting blowback from its own members, and will have to further explain these changes — and why it felt the need to move so quickly to quiet the firestorm. Once they do, I personally think they will see these are smart changes that will have little effect on the current membership for the most part. But there seems to be some anger brewing anyway. A top male studio executive, and Academy member, also emailed a strong opinion: “I think the Board Of Governors has made an egregious error in judgment. And not even consulting the membership (have a meeting — let people be heard) is insulting.”
On the opposite side came a statement from Warner Bros Chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara, who richly praised the move. “The changes made by AMPAS are a great step toward broadening the diversity and inclusivity of the Academy and, by extension, the industry,” he said. “Entertainment is a global business, and the content we produce and its creators need to reflect the diversity and different perspectives of the worldwide audience we serve. At Warner Bros, we’re committed to this goal, but there is more we must and will do.”
The Academy emphasizes it isn’t kicking out anyone (as Gregory Peck’s administration tried to do in 1970) and even if for some reason members don’t qualify under the new fairly inclusive guidelines, they can still be Emeritus Members with “all the privileges of membership, except voting.” If you talk to as many Academy members as I do, you know one of the “privileges” they really prize is getting all those free screeners. In order to cushion the blow for a current member who might be downgraded, Boone Isaacs addressed that concern in a letter sent to members today that explained the changes. While noting the changes won’t affect this year’s final voting, she said, “We have no reason to believe this will affect you receiving screeners.”
That part remains to be seen, however, as the Academy has steadfastly refused to get directly involved in the screener business (save for the cool set they send for Foreign Language, Shorts and Docs), and it is up to the studios to do that. I doubt distributors would keep non-voters on the list. What do they gain from that? I know one studio consultant who regularly combs the obits and immediately eliminates dead members from their Academy mailing list, just in case those screeners might fall into the hands of family members or others.
At any rate, opening the previously closed-door process of recruiting members is a very welcome move as is the addition of three new Governors from diverse backgrounds who will now join the overwhelmingly white board. The release didn’t indicate how the new members will be integrated into the board since the BOG is made up of three Governors each representing their own branch. Are these Governors-at-Large?
Between now and the next meeting Tuesday, I am certain the Academy will be hearing a large range of opinions (get ready, guys), but the board’s unanimous vote of approval for these changes means the ship has sailed. Let’s see now how they address further rule changes for the Oscar race itself (including that issue of going back to 10 firm Best Picture nominees). This is far from over.