As Olive Oyl sang of Bluto in Robert Altman’s Popeye, the new Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has one incontestable quality: It’s large. Exactly how large won’t be clear for a while. But the Academy’s decision last month to invite 928 new members should push the overall membership past 9,000, depending on how many invitees accept, and how many current members died, were booted out, or otherwise fell away in the last year.
That would be about 11 percent larger than the Academy was just two weeks ago, and 56 percent bigger than in early 2012, when the Los Angeles Times helped provoke a diversity-specific expansion with a survey that found the group’s then-membership of 5,765 to be too male, and too white.
If the trend lines continue, next year’s invitation list could push membership over 10,000. Topping the five-digit mark, the group would then be very large—about three times the seating capacity of the Dolby Theater, where it presents the Oscars every year.
Whether that actually matters or not, I don’t know. But a trip to the archives certainly underscores just how large what used to be a very small, proudly exclusive film academy has gotten to be.
The little acorn from which this mighty oak grew was tiny indeed. According to a doctoral dissertation entitled A Historical Study Of The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences (1927-1947), submitted by Pierre Norman Sands to the faculty of the University of Southern California in 1966, the Academy began in 1927 with 36 founders, all of whom were born in the 1880s and 1890s. To an organizing banquet at the Biltmore Hotel on May 11, 1927, 300 film worthies were invited. By Sands’ count, just 231 joined that night, and they were cautioned against promiscuously asking peers to join what was conceived as a strictly limited, invitation-only club.
For a while, the insiders were pretty good at keeping the doors closed. By 1929, the membership had grown only to 400—this at a time when, by Sands’ reckoning, theaters were selling 100 million tickets a week, roughly three times the attendance on a decent mid-summer week today.
By 1932, membership had doubled again, to about 800. But the Depression took its toll on film stars and everyone else. In the late 1930s, according to Sands, the Academy was back down to about 400 dues-paying members.
World War II came and went. Things got better. By 1947, when Sands stopped counting, Academy membership was up to a robust 1,650, and there it seems to have stuck for a while. By 1955, according to the International Motion Picture Almanac, overall membership stood at 1,705. The ranks were small enough that Academy president Charles Brackett a few years earlier proposed that the group should have a general meeting once or twice a year, just so members would know what their association was up to. The idea never caught on, but it wasn’t laughed off. You could still fit the membership in a good-sized movie palace. (Even San Diego Comic-Con’s Hall H, which seats 6,500, wouldn’t do it now; but the Hollywood Bowl might suit.)
But something happened in the 1960s. Exactly as the film business came under pressure from television, membership in the Academy began to grow. By 1965, according to the Almanac, it had reached 2,500, up 47 percent in a decade. Come 1978, according to one of the few Academy annual reports actually to bother quoting a membership number, the ranks had swollen another 61 percent, to 4,032.
As membership crept above 5,000 in the mid-1990s, Arthur Hiller, one of the Academy’s estimable presidents, proudly noted that “nearly 400 of our members don’t live in the United States.” One suspects that the Academy is currently inviting nearly that many outlanders to join each year. Indeed, if the foreign membership keeps growing, some of those global citizens will probably start looking for seats on the Academy board (but governance is another story).
Membership seems to have peaked at 6,500 or so around 2010, then it perhaps slipped a little, as Academy officials briefly returned to the exclusivity principle, and trimmed the annual invitation list to as few as 176 in 2012.
But then came #OscarsSoWhite, and the diversity push of 2016. “Exclusive” became a dirty word. “Inclusion” became the order of the day. Growth became a primary tool in achieving diversity goals by 2020.
And, whatever else it may be, the resulting Academy, like Olive Oyl’s beau in Popeye, is indisputably large.