Academy President On Diversity Of New Oscar Voters: “This Is A Change I Truly Believe People In Our Industry Are Ready For And Want”


Last night, the Board Of Governors of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences approved a record-shattering 683 new members, more that double last year’s 322, which had been the most given keys to Oscar’s kingdom previously. Beyond that though there was tremendous pressure to come up with a list that goes a long way in diversifying the membership, especially to meet the Academy’s goal stated on January 22 to “double the number of diverse members” in the organization by 2020 — meaning women and people of color.

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Although the numbers released today were impressive, with a total of 46% of new members being female and 41% people of color, it only inched the Academy toward its goal by increasing female members to an overall 27%, up just 2% from last year, and people of color to overall 11%, which is up just 3% from last year, before the latest #OscarsSoWhite crisis engulfed the Oscar race and sent the Academy spinning into crisis mode.

Still, when you look inside the enormous new member list the Academy is clearly on the right track, but will have much more to do in the next four years to meet its desired mark. What also was impressive was the sheer number of truly great international filmmakers entering the hallowed group for the first time, from 80-year-old double Palme d’Or winner Ken Loach to 25-year-old Canadian wonder director Xavier Dolan. Overall, the numbers of international members increased by an astounding 283, proving the branches did their job in reaching out on a global basis. A total of 59 countries are involved in that number, making the Academy look more like the United Nations than ever before. It makes you wonder if the organization was just lazy in the past in seeking out these world-class movie makers.

When I spoke to Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs today she agreed they needed a kickstart. “As much as that (member recruitment) activity had been working, maybe it wasn’t working well enough, and especially with regard that we wanted to make sure everyone knew this was a global organization,” she said, while praising the efforts of the 17 individual branches who rose to the occasion this year. “And certainly that’s true for many distinguished  filmmakers throughout the world who had no idea they could become members. We realized that, and all this diversity conversation helped in many ways. But the Academy is really open and that’s something many people don’t get.”

Boone Isaacs said the criteria is set and monitored by each branch and they must take into account that this just isn’t your father’s movie business anymore. “The industry is changing, it’s evolving, it’s increasing,” she said. “The interest in the international world is at its height, more than it has been in a very long time with the proliferation of feature animated films, of documentaries, of diverse storytelling, new technologies in producing  and distributing movies. We need to stay on top of that.”

Cheryl Boone Isaacs

As an example of where this drive really took hold in the class of 2016  is the increase in the number of women admitted to the Directors Branch, which until now has largely been a small boys club numbering less that 400. Of the 91 new directors admitted today more than 50 of them are female, and many of color. “Previously there were 35 women and now there are 88 — isn’t that something?” she said. “The directors branch really rallied and came together and did their homework. They talked about the talent that was out there and were not part of our organization. They were absolutely fabulous.”

She noted the often-heard laments about not enough women being hired to direct, but said this should help change the trajectory. “This is a change that I truly believe people in our industry are ready for and want. This conversation  has really exploded and energized people in so many different ways. A few months ago  you might not have thought the increase of women in the Directors Branch would be this,would you?”  she asked. “And we are going to continue to keep this conversation going with regard to inclusion and that is of genre, of storytelling, of skill sets, of age, of gender, of national origin and people of color, all of it because that is the vibrancy of the motion picture business. This is our goal.”

Among the new women directors by the way are Lana and Lily Wachowski, meaning you can also add transgendered people to the list of minorities for whom the Academy has swung opens its doors.

Still, going by the demographics the Academy supplied today with 27% women and 11% people of color, that adds up to 38%.That means, unless animals like Lassie are also voting  members, that 62% of the group  remains white males — still a dominant number (it is even higher if women of color are counted twice in those aformentioned categories). Boone Isaacs didn’t have, or just didn’t want to offer,  the Academy’s official figure on that when I asked, but do the math. “The stats of our organization being overwhelmingly white male? Not so good,” she said. “Steps (for change) started actually a few years ago. It didn’t just start in January. It’s like driving a car. You are going from first into second and third and fourth. That’s just the way it is,”  she added, noting that an effort to recruit younger and more relevant members to join that was started by then-President Gregory Peck in the late 1960s and early ’70s has some similarity to what today’s Academy is doing. “Both drives had to do with inclusion, both drives had to do with relevancy and conversation, and that’s what they have in common,” she said.

The Birth of a Nation
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But will it change the way Oscars are handed out? Will this new fresh blood make a difference and prevent a third consecutive embarrassing year with no people of color in any of the four acting categories? Boone Isaacs didn’t take a strong stand on that. Oscar voting is part of a democracy done in private, one vote for each member and all equal in that regard.

“I am hoping we recognize the best talent there is in the year,” she said. “We are an organization of professionals. We are now bringing in more diverse voices, but these are people at the top of their form. Actors, cinematographers and everyone else know exactly what they are looking for and that’s not going to change. But I think the diversity of product is going to be wider so ergo there is more chance of diversity for nominations.

Many are looking to Fox Searchlight’s upcoming October release and Sundance sensation The Birth Of A Nation about the Nat Turner -led slave revolt to be a real player this year and help ease criticism of the Academy.  That film’s writer, director, producer and star Nate Parker was one of the new members inducted today.

As for the much-discussed upcoming Board Of Governors election, which for the first time was open to everyone in the Academy, voting for each branch’s four finalists begins today and runs through July 12. Judging by the very white and establishment-oriented list of finalists that includes 10 incumbents running for re-election, Boone Isaacs is aware it is not all it could be but is sanguine.

“It’s year one, and certainly with today’s news this is an evolution and a change and you are going to see more people wishing to get involved, not only becoming members now but to get involved,” she said. “I think each year we will just keep growing and changing.”

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