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Oscars boycott: the Academy changes its membership rules to deal with diversity problems

Lifetime Oscar voting rights for Academy members are no longer a guarantee, among other things.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, speaks to reporters on Oscar nomination morning.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, speaks to reporters on Oscar nomination morning.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is making sweeping changes to its membership, in hopes of diversifying both its members and the annual Oscar nominees, after the second straight year with no nonwhite acting nominees and similar representation problems in numerous other categories. The Los Angeles Times has full details.

If you read between the lines of essentially everything written about the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, you'll note that Academy members, while saying they, themselves, voted for various people of color, are often quick to point out the huge number of older Academy members, who hold very different views.

Indeed, the most recent survey of the Academy's membership — conducted by the Los Angeles Times in 2012 — concluded that the average Academy member is a 63-year-old white man.

The new measures, arrived at after an emergency AMPAS board meeting on Thursday, January 21 and publicly announced January 22, are designed to combat this membership problem head on.

The Academy has been adding lots of younger, more diverse members (though nowhere near as diverse as it would like to boast) in recent years. But it's also got hundreds of older members, who haven't been involved in the film industry in ages, who continue to vote every year.

The new measures will attempt to tackle both of these problems.

Here's what the Academy is doing

The biggest portion of the Academy's initiative is designed to clear out voting members who are not currently active in the film industry.

Here's how it will work, according to Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaac's statement:

  • New members will be eligible for a 10-year membership in the Academy. During that decade, they will have to be active in the film industry in some capacity.
  • If they are active, their membership will be automatically renewed for another 10-year term at the end of the first one.
  • After three 10-year terms, they will become lifetime members of the Academy, who can vote in the Oscars going forward.
  • Academy members who have been nominated for or have won Academy Awards will similarly be eligible to vote in the Oscars until death.
  • These rules also apply retroactively. Thus, some Academy members will lose their voting rights beginning with the 2017 awards (which reward movies made in 2016). They will become emeritus members and enjoy all the other benefits of Academy membership.

The new rules also come with a promise to admit more new members, in hopes of doubling the number of people of color and of women by the year 2020.

(The Academy, which does not release its demographics, did not indicate a hard number of what that might be.) It says it will undertake a "massive, global" search for more diverse members.

Normally, members are added after being sponsored by current ones. They are added to a particular "branch" dedicated to their specialty. Actors get added to the acting branch, costume designers to the costume design branch, and so on.

The Academy's new initiative will apparently supersede much of this, in hopes of finding an end-around for Hollywood's entrenched "old boys' club" system. It did something very similar to increase the numbers of young members in 1970.

Why the Academy's board thought the move was necessary

This change comes after a week of turmoil surrounding the Oscars. Director Spike Lee said he would sit out the awards and was quickly joined by Will Smith (one of the biggest stars in the world) and Jada Pinkett Smith.

Nominees themselves were asked for comment, with some expressing solidarity with those behind the Oscars boycott and others being less than charitable.

Though the week has been filled with articles lamenting how #OscarsSoWhite is merely a reflection of wider systemic problems within show business, Academy president Boone Isaacs has indicated that she sees this as a huge problem within the Academy and that she wants the Oscars to lead by example. "The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up," she said in the statement.

Apparently still on the table are several other ideas that have been floated for increasing the diversity of nominees, including returning the number of Best Picture nominees to a solid 10 (where it was in the years 2010 and 2011) from its current number of five to 10 nominees, and increasing the number of acting nominees.

Those ideas, however, will have to wait for future Academy board meetings, possibly after the Oscars have been held next month.

Selma director Ava DuVernay, whose film was at the center of 2015's version of the Oscar diversity argument, weighed in on the issue on Twitter.

Watch: How the Oscars' voting process rewards bland movies

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