Oscars boycott: Should Academy rules about membership be changed?

Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs says the Academy will be 'taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership.' How would the Academy change?

Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
An Oscar statue appears at the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

How will the Academy move forward after a debacle in which the acting nominees for this year’s Oscars were all white for the second year in a row? 

Following the announcement of this year’s Oscars nominees last week, criticism of the Academy erupted and #OscarsSoWhite trended on Twitter. Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith announced Monday that they would boycott the award ceremony on Feb. 28. A similar controversy bubbled up last year after all the acting nominees were white, all the directing nominees were male, and all the screenwriting nominees were male.

This year, several women are nominated in the screenwriting categories, though the best directing contenders remain all male.

Now Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the first African-American to hold that position, has released a statement

“I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion,” she said. “...It’s time for big changes. The Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership. In the coming days and weeks we will conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond.” 

How would change come about to the Academy?

It’s no secret that the Academy currently skews older and white. In 2012, the Los Angeles Times released a study revealing that the Academy was at that time 77 percent male and almost 94 percent Caucasian. The median age of the Academy voters was 62. 

Each year, the Academy invites workers in the industry to become members – last year, the Academy invited more than 300 people. These invitations happen yearly. The Academy is currently made up of more than 6,000 members and is led by a board of governors.

A candidate needs to be sponsored by two current members and be okayed by the board of governors. Once someone is accepted, it’s a lifetime membership. 

For an actor to be invited, only one of many branches in the Academy, a candidate must have appeared in a scripted role in at least three feature films and one of the movies must have come out in the last five years, with all of the films “reflect[ing] the high standards of the Academy,” according to the Academy website; have been nominated for an acting Oscar; or “otherwise achieved unique distinction, earned special merit or made an outstanding contribution as a motion picture actor.”

Isaacs reportedly wasn’t the only high-ranking person at the Academy to push for change following the release of the nominations. According to TheWrap, on the same day as Isaacs, Phil Alden Robinson, a screenwriter who is a member of the board of governors and the secretary for the board, reportedly e-mailed other members and governors asking governors to look at the rules for becoming a member so as to increase diversity and to bring forward Academy members who are minorities and who could become part of the board of governors. 

Could these changes make a difference anytime soon?

The Academy has attempted to increase the diversity of its members in the past few years, with invitations given to actors David Oyelowo, Kevin Hart, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Dev Patel, Song Kang-ho, and Choi Min-sik as well as directors Abderrahmane Sissako and Joon-ho Bon and musicians Common and John Legend this past year. 

“Do these freshman members change the nature of the game?” Stephen Galloway of the Hollywood Reporter wrote. “The answer is yes, though the full effects of change won’t be felt for a few more years. This new class is notably more diverse than its more established brethren.” 

But director and writer Lexi Alexander wrote for the New York Times, “When your starting point to a members’ club for life is 94 percent white and 77 percent male, admitting about 300 new, diverse members a year is hardly going to tip the scale.” 

Inactive workers in the industry who hold on to that lifetime membership are part of the issue, Alexander writes.

“The Academy must increase membership until all groups are equally represented, or they should consider eliminating lifelong membership and replacing non-active members with diverse active ones,” Alexander wrote. “Apparently the Academy is considering asking members who have not been either nominated or awarded Oscars to move to associate membership status after a decade or two without making new films. I think this [is] a good idea. Without this, turnover of membership is too slow.” 

An anonymous member of the Academy discussed this idea with TheWrap, saying it has merit but would be a big shift. 

“There’s an argument to be made that you should have to be an active participant in the industry in order to be eligible to vote,” he or she said. “But eliminating voting members would require a massive bylaws change.”

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