Saturday, October 22, 2016
  • Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016
Path To Diversity For Oscars Runs Through Studios, Academy
In this Feb. 20, 2015 file photo, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs arrives at the 52nd Annual ICG Publicists Awards, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)
  • --

Change at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, where membership is for life, does not come easily. As Spike Lee said on Tuesday, its 6,000-plus membership can't be changed "hocus pocus, presto chango" overnight.

Efforts have been made. Since becoming the academy's first African-American president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs has worked to induct a higher rate of minorities and unveiled a five-year initiative to promote diversity in the industry. But after the Academy's second-straight year of all-white acting nominees, Boone Isaacs is now promising even bigger changes: "We need to do more, and better and more quickly," she said.

Just how much she can do to alter the democratic voting of the academy's membership is unclear; Boone Isaacs declined interview requests from The Associated Press. But here are some of the measures available to her and the Board of Governors of the academy.

The academy can ultimately only vote for the films that get made. This year, there were several notable contenders that feature strong minority performances (including "Creed," ''Beasts of No Nation" and "Sicario") but they remain the exceptions. Studies have repeatedly found that the movie industry lags in movies featuring black, Hispanic and Asian protagonists; that movie directors are overwhelming white and male; and that executives with the power to greenlight are almost entirely white.

"We're not in the room when it happens," said Lee, who advocates that studios follow some version of the NFL's Rooney Rule, which stipulates that minority coaches be interviewed for head coaching vacancies.

The academy doesn't have the power to make such changes, but as the industry's most prestigious body and the producer of the Oscars, it holds considerable sway. The academy could seek to direct criticism toward the studios, and work with them to effect progress.

"The industry has been building up over a very long time, starting with white men running the studios who hire other people who look like them," Dawn Hudson, chief executive of the academy, wrote in an op-ed in the Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday. "It just hasn't changed that much, and it won't until there's a concerted effort on every single front: talent, the executives in the studios, the people we mentor."

The precise racial makeup of the academy isn't publicly known, but a 2012 survey by the Los Angeles Times found that the academy was 94 percent white and 77 percent male. More diverse member classes in the last three years have improved on those percentages, but many don't think enough of a dent has been made.

"The lack of diversity among the nominees signals, perhaps, that these voters are selecting actors and narratives in their own image," says Robin Means Coleman, a professor of communication studios and Afro-American and African studies at the University of Michigan.

Membership to the academy, conducted once a year, is limited to those who have "achieved distinction" in the industry, with various standards for each branch. Candidates don't apply, but are sponsored by academy members.

"Perhaps the ratio of new diverse members could be based on either the population of diverse theatergoers or the dollars spent by diverse theatergoers," recommends Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television.

"The goal here is not to dilute an individual's unique perspective as an academy voter, whether they are diverse or not, but simply to increase diversity of voices and therefore choices," he said.

In 2009, the Oscars went from five to 10 best picture nominees. Two years later, it revised to a preferential voting system that can yield anywhere between five to 10 nominees. The system is geared to reward films that receive first-place votes, reasoning that best picture nominees should be only of the highest of merit.

But exactly what effect this has on the resulting nominees is a matter of constant conjecture. Tyler Perry, who helped produce the best picture-nominated "Precious" (2009), believes more transparency could help.

"If we saw the numbers of how many people voted for what movie, I think a lot of this would go away," Perry said at a Television Critics Association event. "If 'The Revenant' had 10,000 votes and 'Straight Outta Compton' had 9,999 votes, that one vote made the difference. That's what my interest would be. What are the votes? I don't think it's racism."

Another possibility would be to return to 10 nominees. In such a scenario, "Straight Outta Compton" may well have joined the nominees, along with either Todd Haynes' acclaimed lesbian romance "Carol" or a popular blockbuster like "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." More nominees means more moviegoers, from more walks of life, would see their favorite films represented at the Oscars, and tune-in to watch.

A more controversial tactic would be for Boone Isaacs to sift through the academy's membership and jettison older members who are no longer active in the industry. Such a move would surely be met by resistance, though there is some precedent for it.

Faced with charges of being out-of-touch with American society in the late '60s, then-academy president Gregory Peck led a purge of the academy in an effort to lower the average age of the membership. Following a two-year study of membership to various academy branches, Peck and the Board of Governors took away the right to vote for the Oscars from many retired members, and brought in classes of younger members. In all, he changed the status of nearly 500 members.