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An Oscar for diversity

Editorial

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is overwhelmingly white and male. The organization can, and should, change that.

February 25, 2012
  • The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes on who should receive Oscars, reveals that the organization is overwhelmingly white and male.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes on who should… (Bob D'Amico / ABC / AMPAS )

Recently on this page we observed that despite the nomination of two black women for acting Oscars this year, leading roles and influence in the entertainment industry continue to be largely out of reach for African Americans. Now, a months-long investigation by The Times into the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes on who should receive Oscars, reveals that the organization is overwhelmingly white and male.

We're not surprised, and neither are Academy officials. They say they're trying to address this issue in several ways. They cite the organization's various outreach programs and note that members of the 15 branches of the Academy — which include cinematographers, art directors, documentarians and the largest group, actors — are urged to seek out eligible applicants beyond the parameters of white and male. Members are also encouraged to act as judges in Academy-sponsored competitions for student filmmakers and aspiring writers, exercises that could help identify talented young people from diverse backgrounds.

In the last few years, there has been an uptick in the number of women and minorities earning spots among the 5,765 voting members of the Academy. Nevertheless, based on The Times' study, which confirmed the identities of 5,112 members, the Academy today is almost 94% white and 77% male. Last year, according to Academy officials, of the 178 people accepted for membership, only 30% were women and 10% were nonwhite.

However, officials say, it's a slow process to alter the membership, which is drawn from the entertainment industry itself. If the industry isn't diversifying its ranks, they ask, how can the Academy?

It can start on two fronts. Let's not forget that the Academy's members are among the industry's most influential producers, directors, writers, performers, composers and designers. The executive branch — which at 98% white is the Academy's least integrated group, beating out the writers branch by a smidgen — includes the studio heads and production executives who actually get movies made. They don't have to wait for the industry to change. It's in their hands to change it.

The Academy can also diversify its membership committees and its board of governors. The current board consists of 43 members. Only six are women, including the sole person of color among the governors. Changes at the top of the organization could set a different tone and foster more discussion about how to interact with talented minorities and women working in the entertainment business. A more diverse governing board would probably choose more nonwhite presenters; last year, there were only three.

There's no question that the Academy, a venerable organization that cherishes its traditions, faces challenges in making substantial changes. For example, the governors are selected branch by branch, with no one branch allowed more than three members on the board. New applicants are voted on only once a year. After a period of rapid growth and relaxed standards for admission in the 1990s, new memberships were limited and requirements were made stricter in 2004. Today, a certain number of work credits as well as sponsorship by two current members, an endorsement of a branch committee or an Oscar nomination are necessary before an applicant is even considered. Membership is for life.

It may be that the only way the Academy can push itself toward diversity is to make some changes to its rules. It's not a matter of lowering standards. Not every longtime member would get in under the newer restrictions, and not every more recently accepted member fulfilled all the current requirements. Last year, before she even appeared in her Oscar-nominated role in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," Rooney Mara was accepted into the acting branch with just two relatively significant film credits instead of the Academy's mandated three. It's a matter of being flexible and aggressive.

Instead of lamenting the state of the entertainment industry, Academy officials, if they choose, have a chance to lead the way in making Hollywood more diverse.

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