Oscar's Diversity Crisis: What The Academy Should, Could & Shouldn't Do

So now it has been a week since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences stunned the modern world by again nominating 20 white actors for a second year in a row to compete for the industry’s highest award. The pressure, to say the least, has been mounting on the Academy to take public steps — before cries of boycott take hold beyond a few voices — and apparently they will, perhaps as soon as next week’s scheduled Board Of Governors meeting.

Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs has promised “dramatic” moves, so it will be interesting to see just how dramatic. In Pete Hammond badgemany ways it seems to me the media is blowing this all out of proportion. The Academy has awarded Oscars and nominations to many actors of color in the past, but the breathless coverage makes it seem like none of it ever happened. As Will Smith pointed out in his GMA interview this morning, he was oscars 2016 key artOscar-nominated twice and both times lost to other black actors. It just seems now, for this moment, things may be headed again in the wrong direction, just as they seem to be in the country at large.

As I have written many times, Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson have already made an unprecedented and significant effort to diversify the mostly white, mostly male membership by urging, and getting, the various branches to open their gates to minorities — far more than in the past. In fact, when I spoke to Boone Isaacs after that announcement in June, she was clearly thrilled at the progress. And it should be noted they have had success in bringing in filmmakers and actors with diverse backgrounds who never had a chance to join this very exclusive club before.

But with those 322 new members invited last June, the desired effect on the actual Oscar nominees has yet to take hold, as witnessed by the clear disappointment Boone Isaacs shared with me shortly after she announced this year’s nominations. “We need to speed it up,”  she said at the time, and repeated that in a statement released earlier this week.

So, to avoid spiraling the Academy further into crisis mode, here’s — from my POV — what they should, could and shouldn’t do at that meeting.

SHOULD DO: As I floated on Monday, an immediate return to a hard list of 10 Best Picture nominees that first began in 2009. It lasted just two years before an effort to appease loud voices opposing that move led to an amendment calling instead for a rolling number of five to 10 nominees. In the five years since that change went into place, we have had three years with nine nominees and the past two with eight. The PGA, which is the Image (1) Academylogo_c__140301025407.jpg for post 691651one group with a similar preferential balloting process as the Academy, is a good barometer of the success of a firm 10 — particularly this year when they nominated Straight Outta Compton and the Academy didn’t. It is highly likely that movie would have made Oscar’s list if two other films became eligible. Of course, the risk is always expanding the list and still ignoring films with diverse storylines, creating even more controversy than the Academy bargained for.

Furthermore, the voting methodology should be tweaked to allow members to really have 10 choices instead of the five they are allowed now. One producer told me this week he was upset he could only vote for five movies. He wanted to see Compton acknowledged, so he put it in fifth place even though in reality it probably was a little lower than that for him. He feels a number of fellow Academy members might have listed it had they had the opportunity to put in 10 choices.

COULD DO:  Since the spotlight for two years running seems squarely on the Actors Branch (by far the largest, and with the most minority members) and an all-white lineup of 20 nominees, why not put in place a system where more nominations, if warranted, are possible in the acting categories? This would truly be one of those dramatic moves to which Boone Isaacs was referring. I even advocated this a couple of years ago when competition for Best Actor was so intense and overcrowded (as it seems to be every year) and proposed employing a system of being able to nominate anywhere from five to 10 thesps in each of the four categories. If the quality is there, why not?

The answer from critics of theOscars 3 idea may lie in the fact that this has no precedent in the Academy annals. A firm number of five acting  nominees has been the rule since 1936. In the handful of contests before that, the number was usually three, but somewhat complicated by write-in votes which were finally banned in 1935. If the Academy really wanted to get dramatic for this year, they could bring back write-in votes for the final balloting. That’s right. Do it now. In addition to adding suspense and publicity with an extra unknown factor, it could allow those who feel Will Smith or Idris Elba or even Straight Outta Compton were robbed to feel they have an opportunity to have their voices heard. This will never happen, but it’s fun to speculate, right?


SHOULD DO: Keep up the diversity efforts, but drop the once-a-year policy for new members. Invite them on a monthly basis instead of every June. Free up the individual branches to go their own way; don’t put limits on them. The Television Academy, which has come up with lots of diverse Emmy winners in recent years, has nearly 20,000 members now. Why does the Motion Picture Academy have to be such a closed shop?

COULD DO: Go back to then-President Gregory Peck’s effort in the early 1970s when attempts were made to let only those active in the industry vote and move those who were inactive for many years into associate status. This is something the Writers Guild regularly does: If you aren’t an active WGA writer for at least four years, you are moved into a non-voting membership status. The Television Academy implemented this idea two years ago by putting stringent requirements on those who could serve as a Governor, — you had to show your credits or be declared ineligible to serve in that capacity. That might be something the Motion Picture Academy should also require, and it could possibly even help to make their BOG a little more diverse in the process. It has been true for some time that Boone Isaacs is the only person of color on that board.

SHOULDN’T DO: What I just suggested they could do. You don’t want to trade one crisis for another, and it could get ugly. Also, it likely wouldn’t really help in the ultimate goal of diversifying the Academy membership. For instance, one of the newest voting members of the Actors Branch is Sonny Skyhawk,  a Native American (and activist in the industry on their behalf) who certainly is a beneficiary of the major move towards diversity. But according to IMDb, he  has had only one minor film role in 15 years, and not much before that. If they started to purge the rolls based on actual film credits he would probably be out, and that’s not the idea.


SHOULD DO: Keep up the public diversity efforts. As I said last week, the day I joined the Academy’s first-ever “Careers In Film Summit” in the fall was inspiring. This was an all-day event at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre designed to let mostly minority students from local schools in on the secrets of how to make it in the industry. As I sat on my panel and looked out at that packed crowd of eager faces, and talked to them from the stage and one on one, I realized this is the kind of thing the Academy should be doing, and thankfully is doing. I would expand on it. And I would encourage all those big important names that populate the Academy membership to start looking at ways to bring more diversity into the actual films they greenlight. If these kids don’t have a chance, you are never going to get those special movies the Academy could nominate.

This could be a pivotal moment Academy, and even a welcome one, if more good comes out of it. Do the right thing.

    1. Exactly. For example:
      Brie Larson.
      Nominated for room.
      She’s been acting for 20 years.
      and this wasn’t a bigtime paycheck.
      She was great also in
      trainwreck as the sister.

  1. The Academy should be recognizing the best movies of the year, not pushing some race agenda. End of story.

      1. It’s just an excuse to perpetuate the gangsta culture instead of assimilating into the civilized world of family life and work ethic. that’s award enough for most people.

  2. All this noise is really inappropriate.

    As few stories note ~ which this one does ~ it is the Actors Branch that is responsible for this situation. The story notes that this Branch is actually very diverse.

    Further, everyone knows a huge obstacle for every film in this Oscar marathon is getting viewers to see that movie. Okay many people did not have any want-to-see for BEASTS OF NO NATION. Is that blame that belongs to the Academy?

    Look at the messed up Director’s Branch. They were petty and pissy in not nominating Ridley Scott. There is no other explanation.

    Maybe Actors Branch members thought the Will Smith performance was average and not stellar? I personally did not think it could be called Great by any stretch of generosity. Maybe some Actors branch members are jealous of Will Smith’s success. Maybe they are annoyed that he has used his power to make his kids into movie stars.

    Does stuff like that happen? Look again at Ridley Scott or Steven Spielberg and their situation this year.

    Sure it would be nice if the Nominations were more diverse.

    Sure it would be nice if the Lakers were not so pathetic this year.

    Sure it would have been nice if I had won that giant Lottery.

    1. I agree. This story is blown way out of proportion. Has everyone forgotten about Denzel Washington (two Oscars), Halle Berry, Whoopi Goldberg, Octavia Spencer, Lupita Nyong’o, Cuba Gooding, Jr? This is totally ridiculous and will ruin the Oscars if they make any changes. It is a competition. Sometimes people lose. Get over it!

  3. Selma was robbed last year of a nomination. That is certain. But what are we up in arms about this year? Creed not being nominated? Straight Outta Compton? Concussion? All three were good movies… but by no means Oscar worthy films. In the past 20 years, black actors have won 10 Oscars. 12 Years a Slave won multiple Oscars two years ago, including Best Picture. What’s the outrage? Films are subjective, and the Academy is filled with a diverse, liberal-minded members.

    1. Selma was not robbed. It was a bad movie that was only being considered because it was a “race issues” movie.

      1. I agree with you. Selma wasn’t an Oscar worthy film. I think people were pushing it because it was a black female director more than anything else.

      2. I agree with you and Rob.
        What’s worst is that I get a lot of crap for being the one of the few black people who thought Selma was a terrible movie from other black people.

    2. Why did they cast an actor with a British accent as MLK? Certainly there are great black US actors or even Idris Elba who would have been more dynamic than what was delivered. And the fictionalizing of LBJ’s words was abhorrent.

      I believe Par thought because of Oprah Winfrey’s involvement (and AMPAS honoring black civil rights films in the past) AMPAS members would fall over each other to nominate the film. In our office we phoned Par 3 times asking for screeners of the film and never got a one. They mishandled it and that is why I believe it didn’t get a nom.

  4. Has this whole thing been because of Will Smith? He’s the only black actor that was on a Golden Globe ballot and not on the Oscars. Seems like this whole thing is completely overblown since no one raised a stink then. And that’s for 10 lead actors, not just 5 like the Oscars.

    So Will Smith’s nomination was on the chopping block, and all of a sudden we have a HUGE diversity problem that wasn’t there a month and a half ago, and the entire thing holding it together was just ONE (undeserved) nomination for Will Smith in “Concussion”?


  5. The Academy Awards nominees list is something that a minuscule fraction of the population will ever be on. It is therefore foolish to expect that every year it will approximately reflect the ethnic proportions of society in general. The remedy is not to parachute clearly tokenistic members like (with respect) Sonny Skyhawk into the Academy but rather for the industry in general to focus on casting diversely and making interesting films about diverse characters. We can already see this happening with wonderful results! Snubbed mega movie stars complaining about not being nominated for an Academy Award is actually disrespectful to the thousands of (black, brown and white) actors who are nervously devoting their lives to finding roles that will kickstart their careers.

    1. Good comment. I’m sure Sonny Skyhawk is a lovely man but how did he ever get into the Academy with one minor credit? I had a friend denied this year with some huge producing credits but was told he needed just one more…It took me 10 years to get in and I had to have a worthy body of work And now we should consider letting someone in because we need them not for the body of their work but the color of their skin? And don’t even think of trying to get older people out because they haven’t worked for a certain length of time. You would wipe out the Actors branch and some icons of the industry. Idris Elba had it right: “Diversity in the modern world is more than just skin colour – it’s gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, social background, and – most important of all, as far as I’m concerned – diversity of thought.”

      And that says it all.

      1. Sonny Skyhawk’s real name is Charles Brito and he is of Mexican descent. He was one of those who was invited not because of his acting credentials but because he had two people sponsor him as a Native American.

        This begs the question. How do we know what the person’s ethnicity really is? Many people are multi-racial. Johnny Depp says he Cherokee (although many say otherwise). So would Depp qualify as a minority? How much ancestry would qualify a person of black, Asian, or Latino? Surely, we can’t assume anything just by physical appearance. That’s a question Jada Smith never addressed.

  6. Here’s the ultimate rub: Will Smith wants the Academy to have more diverse nominations and yet he has not had a single black director on any of his movies. He can stick his kids in his movies but he can’t give a break to any of the black directors in Hollywood

    1. I was thinking the same thing. Same with writers on the movies that his production company (Overbook) produce. Rarely do they have black writers yet alone a black director. Hypocrisy at it’s finest. I am a female African American in the industry and am more upset about that then the Academy Awards White nominations. All nominees were well deserved. Idris was deserved…but not Will. But there is a limit to the number of nominees, Idris just came in 6th.

  7. It sounds like there are ways to help change the situation—let’s hope some of these emotions can be channeled into thinking these things out and getting started on the paths people can agree on…Some of us are rather sad if the Oscars can’t be about entertainment this year—especially since some of us are very gloomy that we won’t be seeing President Obama in years to come as situations around the world are getting bleak..The rich, beautiful, and famous, should also remember that the poor come in all colors in our country…

    I hope Ridley Scott gets some kind of other special award in his lifetime. He hasn’t acted like a man born of earlier decades—he has supported strong acting roles for women. And he has given the unseen masses plenty of joy in their lives…

  8. Culling out older members of the Academy simply because they are no longer regularly employed is insulting and grossly unfair. Just ask aging actors. As long as a member takes his/her responsibilities seriously, view the films and vote based on an abundance of experience and knowledge, he/she deserves to retain their membership and the right to both nominate and vote. Expelling members or curtailing their voting privileges is as bigoted on ageism grounds as are charges of racism. Both are bogus.

    1. Preach, EK. Ageism doesn’t get much media attention, they’re far more focused on racism, but it’s out there, and is disturbingly a huge part of this Academy Awards “fix.” And it makes zero sense, for the very reasons you describe.

  9. If a white actor is better than a black actor, than the white actor should win. And if a black actor is better than the white actor, he/she should then win. Easy as that!!

  10. The Academy shouldn’t do anything. Will Smith is in the same category as Bruce Willis & Harrison Ford. Talented, charming, plenty of fans… but not Oscar-caliber. The likes of Sylvester Stallone and Robin Williams only get nods for “career-spanning work” (and Williams was chasing an Oscar just as hard as Smith is now). Fact is, Smith isn’t that good. Halle Berry and Jaime Foxx got “one great performance” Oscars, and went on to prove they were undeserved. Voters remember that, much like they remember having to sit through “Wild Wild West.”

  11. Maybe they should go back to the old way of judging — not on line — in a room with requirements etc.
    I understand there were people who didn’t vote for ‘straight out of Compton ‘ because it wasn’t their type of movie – so while they should have seen it vote, they never saw it … Hence , no vote ..
    Samuel L. Jackson, should have been nominated — he should have never been overlooked!!! The format of judging needs to change.. It would be a good way to start…

  12. So Mr Hammands solution is to basically water down the awards by expanding the number of nominations.

  13. FACT:

    Since 1995 12.5% of the past 20 Academy Award recipients in the acting category were black.

    Blacks make up 13% of the American population.


    1. Actually 15% of the last 20 Best Actor winners were black. 5% of the last 20 Best Actress winners were black. And yes, African-Americans make up 13% of the population. Those are the figures for what they’re worth. I think the main thing that is annoying the Smiths is that Will is not part of that 15%

  14. The Academy should do nothing different! Our legacy is in our ability to chose those films that excel. Whether it’s an actor, writer, editor, director, cinematographer — each individual has been completely vetted, each individual is invested in maintaining the Academy’s integrity. To accuse voters/peers of voting based on skin color is disgusting. Are we to lower standards for admittance? Setup a double standard? A standard for white members, and a separate standard for blacks? Now, this is the part I don’t get. The whiners are saying that if there was more black members that more black talent would be nominated. So, they are saying that blacks will vote for blacks regardless of the excellence or quality of the film. THAT is racist.

    Jada, your husbands role was mediocre. Sorry, but facts are facts. I’m sure he’ll get a BET Award, or an IMAGE Award, etc. after all those blck awards have nothing to do with quality — those awards are all about the color of one’s skin.

    Leave our Academy alone. And, to our president — you have made this a political issue. It’s time for you to step down in favor of someone who cares about our history, and our purpose. We ARE NOT The People’s Choice Awards.

    Thank you ~

    1. “Leave our Academy alone. our history, and our purpose.”
      Spoken like a true klansmen. Hope the mid-day cross burning didn’t stall you from posting this nonsense.

  15. There are 2 ideas that have merit above the others: Since the Oscars have become such a big hullabaloo and run all Sunday night on TV I don’t think it would be such a bad idea to expand the the number of nominees for acting awards since I believe it will build more interest in the telecast. But beware: What are you going to do if there are now 40 white nominees instead of 20, just like the Best Picture category started to have 10 indy type films and no mainstream “commercial” fare. Also you shouldn’t assume that just because your adding more “diversity” the new members are going to expand the diversity pie: they can be easily influenced and enticed by studio’s campaigns as the current members sometimes are.

    The idea for outreach into the community is the most important idea you had, and similar to the Grammy outreach program in the schools, which is a great success. That is where the change will happen.

  16. “Go back to then-President Gregory Peck’s effort in the early 1970s when attempts were made to let only those active in the industry vote and move those who were inactive for many years into associate status”

    This is the answer. The inactive members are still members (they are not being purged) but they can’t vote for current films if they are not currently in the industry. An Academy membership is a lifetime privilege and they should still get all the perks, but asking old white men to change their ways is not the best strategy.

  17. I see some of you “traditionalist” would rather keep it all as it was even if some of the policies were erected during Jim Crow era. One commentator mentioned the fact that black people make up 13% percent of the population therefore 12% black winners in 20 years as if it was fair. That might have been an interesting point of reference, IF only American actors were able to be nominated for Oscars. And due to the fact actors from overseas can be nominated maybe some of you should consider the fact that white people are NOT the majority in the rest of the world. People of color are the worldwide majority. It’s ok to include POC behind the scenes and in front of the camera in prominent positions. Most of you seemed to have also missed Pete’s very poignant message at the end about encouraging new talent from ALL walks of life to tell their story on film. And guess what…they will work JUST as hard as their white counterparts…why? Because they too take their craft serious just like any other actor/actress in Hollywood (if not harder due to the lack of roles). But here’s the best part… after all this diversity sets in…It won’t take away from the brilliant performances of the Brie Larson’s or Leo DiCaprio’s of the world. Everyone will be shining. But they can’t be the only ones give the opportunity to do so.

    Fun Fact: Sandra Bullock was nominated for an NAACP Image Award in 2010. Sam Smith won Best New Artist at the BET Awards just this past year..and guess what!!!…He wasn’t the first white winner!!!! Whoooohooo!

    People of Color = not just Black, but Hispanic, Asian and “Other”

    1. IT’S AN AWARD SHOW!! Stop making it political NO ONE is entitled to be nominated. And NO, the Academy DOES NOT have to reflect ‘diversity’! THIS awards, unlike The People’s Choice Awards, etc., ARE EXCLUSIVE. PERIOD. if you don’t like it, don’t watch.

  18. The following are a list of things the Academy can do without much negative impact to the membership list (well except the last one), nor delve into the realm of quotas. These are a bunch I thought of off the top of my head. I could come up with more. This isn’t that difficult to do.

    Should do: Move the deadline for balloting from around Jan 8 to around Jan 22. More time = more awareness.

    Should do: Relax some of the strict campaigning rules for the smaller films. More campaigning = more awareness.

    Could do: Steadfast 10 nominee for BP. More opportunities for BP could either increase or maintain the diversity. Going back to five would only go in the wrong direction.

    Could do: Increase the acting and directing nominations—could go to a firm 10 or some number between 5 and 10 like BP.

    Should do: Sponsor Academy film festivals showcasing the potential nominees—a la Cannes. Again exposure = awareness.

    What they should really do: Move inactive members (those who do not consistently work in their branch for a set time window) to final voting only.

  19. This situation mirrors the overall problem with race in this country. Black actors feel slighted but cannot point to any criteria that supports their feelings of being left out. There is no hard set of rules that define a great acting performance so the process is entirely subjective. Without any set criteria, they are left to conclude that their exclusion is based on race alone. The Academy has awarded its highest honor several times over the years to Black actors and actresses as well as Hispanic members of the film community. When awards are given simply because of skin color, the award is diminished.

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