Academy Board Endorses Changes to Increase Diversity in Oscar Nominees and Itself
By Michael Cieply
LOS ANGELES — Confronting a fierce protest over a second straight year of all-white Oscar acting nominations, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said on Friday that it would make radical changes to its voting requirements, recruiting process and governing structure, with an aim toward increasing the diversity of its membership.
The changes were approved at an unusual special meeting of the group’s 51-member governing board Thursday night. The session ended with a unanimous vote to endorse the new processes, but action on possible changes to Oscar balloting was deferred for later consideration. The board said its goal was to double the number of female and minority members by 2020.
“The academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” the academy’s president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, said in a statement. Ms. Isaacs referred to an often-repeated complaint that the academy, in its lack of diversity, reflects the demographics of a film industry that for years has been primarily white and male.
The most striking of the changes is a requirement that the voting status of both new and current members be reviewed every 10 years.
Voting status may be revoked for those who have not been active in the film business in a decade. But members who have had three 10-year terms will have lifetime voting rights, as will those who have won or been nominated for an Academy Award.
The academy’s membership is made up of roughly 6,200 movie professionals around the world, and it was not immediately clear how many would be purged from the voting rolls by the new rule.
The changes, and possible balloting adjustments, will not affect this year’s awards, which will be presented on Feb. 28.
In the short term, the new rules and processes may tamp down some of the criticism that resulted when no film focusing primarily on minority characters was among this year’s eight best picture nominees, and all 20 acting nominees were white.
Ava DuVernay, who was not nominated last year for her direction of the best picture nominee “Selma,” declined to comment on the changes, but tweeted the academy’s letter, and added, “One good step in a long, complicated journey for people of color + women artists.”
But the moves by the academy, which aims to replace older members with a younger, more diverse group, are certain to be met with some criticism, and perhaps resistance. Academy voting rights rank among Hollywood’s more coveted marks of status, not least because of the screening invitations and flattering attention that come with them.
“I’m squarely in what I would call the mentorship phase of my life,” said Sam Weisman, a member of the academy’s directors’ branch since 1998. While working steadily in television, he has not had a feature directing credit since “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star” in 2003.
“I judge the Nicholl fellowships and the Student Academy Awards, but am I not qualified to vote?” asked Mr. Weisman, referring to academy mentorship programs in which he has been involved.
The academy will also expand its governing board by adding three new seats. Those are to be filled by the group’s president with an eye toward increasing the number of women and minorities on the board. Currently, about a third of the board members are women and Ms. Isaacs is its only African-American.
In a parallel move, the academy will add new members from diverse backgrounds to its various committees.
Stephanie Allain, a producer of “Beyond the Lights” (2014) and “Hustle & Flow” (2005) and a member of the academy, said she was elated, especially with the addition of three members to Board of Governors who, she assumed, would be women or people of color.
“The world is watching, basically, so what are we going to do?” said Ms. Allain, who is black. “Are we going to do the right thing? And I think that we have.”
Many in the industry say that especially in the studio world, opportunities have been slower to come to female filmmakers, an imbalance that the academy’s proposed expansion is unlikely to fix.
“The academy is the endgame,” Ms. Allain said. “But the beginning of the game is the industry responding to the curated talent that comes through programs like Film Independent, the folks that go through the Sundance Film Festival and the LA Film Festival. They just need jobs. That’s how we’re really going to solve the problem — not by more programs or committees, but by jobs.”
Without providing details, the academy’s statement also said it would “supplement the traditional process” by which members are recruited — an invitation process meant to focus on achievement — with “an ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity.”
One person briefed on the changes, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of confidentiality strictures, said the supplemental recruiting would be a year-round process, and would be heavily influenced by staff and officers rather than traditional membership committees. While Will Smith, who was overlooked as a nominee for his role in “Concussion,” has said he will not attend this year’s ceremony, Charlotte Rampling, who was nominated for best actress for “45 Years,” condemned much of the protest on Friday as being “racist against whites.”
“One can never really know, but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final list,” Ms. Rampling said in an interview with the French radio network Europe 1 that was done before the academy made its announcement.
Still far from certain is whether the voting changes, and further possible tweaks to the Oscar ballot — for instance a return to the 10-film field of best picture nominees used in 2010 and 2011 — will restore the more diverse set of nominations that prevailed in the decade leading to the choice of “12 Years a Slave” as best picture in 2014.
In those 10 years, 24 of the 200 acting nominees were black, approximately matching the proportion of blacks in the North American movie audience and population, according to statistics compiled by the Motion Picture Association of America.
Black actors who won Oscars during that period included Octavia Spencer for “The Help,” Mo’Nique for “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” Jennifer Hudson for “Dreamgirls” and Jamie Foxx for “Ray.” When Mr. Foxx won, in 2005, he was also nominated for best supporting actor for his role in “Collateral.”
In 2014, Lupita Nyong’o was named best supporting actress for her role in “12 Years a Slave,” John Ridley won an Oscar for writing its adapted screenplay, and Steve McQueen, who is also black, was nominated as the film’s director, but lost to Alfonso Cuarón, who is Mexican. Last year’s best director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, is also Mexican.
Last year, however, along with Ms. DuVernay being left out, David Oyelowo was not nominated for his critically acclaimed role as Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma.”
This year’s shutout of minority actors caused particular outrage among those who had believed Mr. Smith might be nominated, or perhaps Michael B. Jordan for his role in “Creed” or Idris Elba as a supporting actor for “Beasts of No Nation.” The director of “Creed,” Ryan Coogler, who is black, was also overlooked.
“Straight Outta Compton” faced a tougher climb in the acting categories, because its young cast was an ensemble, with no obvious leads. But the film has been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild ensemble award, and for a best film award from the Producers Guild of America.
“I think it’s completely ridiculous to bring in ethnicity to the evaluation of creative performances and filmmaking and acting,” said Kieth Merrilll, 75, who won an Oscar in 1974 for his documentary “The Great American Cowboy” and was nominated in 1998 for best documentary short. He also noted that he had an adopted black daughter and four black grandchildren. “We’re supposed to be evaluating talent in categories, and one of the categories is ‘What is their ethnicity?’ To make it one of the categories is ridiculous.”
The speed and breadth of the board’s Thursday night action surprised even some academy insiders, who at midweek were predicting no action until a regularly scheduled board meeting on Tuesday, and who were strongly playing down any steps to trim the voting rights of older members.
How the academy deals with the intricacies of “activity” in the film business may raise complex questions, said Mr. Weisman, the director. If, like Mr. Weisman, a director has had development deals that did not result in a film, will he be ruled inactive? Will writers who have generated scripts that were not bought, or made, likewise lose privileges? Might a cagey executive put a dormant publicist on low-cost retainer during Oscar season, protecting and perhaps influencing that member’s vote?
In its statement on Friday, the academy said those members who are moved to emeritus status because they have not met the new activity criteria would not pay dues, but would continue to enjoy the privileges of membership other than voting.
Cara Buckley contributed reporting from Park City, Utah; Rachel Donadio from Paris; and Lorne Manly and Melena Ryzik from New York.