I had a jolt the other day. When I joined Vox in 2016, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — the governing body that hands out the Oscars — had 6,261 members, 92 percent of whom were white and 75 percent of whom were male. But in the short stretch of time since then, that number has ballooned to 9,362 (the Academy’s diversity statistics have shifted, too, albeit less dramatically).
The Academy’s growth is due to a vigorous program of inviting new members to join, with many of those new members coming from groups that were wildly underrepresented within the Academy in the past. And it has real-world implications for who gets nominated for Oscars — and by extension, for who wins. In a world where an Oscar win can help a filmmaker or actor get more work, this sort of shift can truly influence whose stories get told and who gets a chance to tell them.
Yet what this impressive change in the organization means is knotty to untangle, especially if you aren’t in the habit of closely tracking Oscar data. So I turned to Walt Hickey, who writes a fantastic newsletter called Numlock News, which unpacks interesting statistics and their meaning in plain language. Every year, Hickey also co-writes the Numlock Award Supplement, applying his penchant for winsome and easy-to-understand analysis to Hollywood’s awards season.
Right after the 2021 Oscar nominations were announced on Monday, I called Hickey to talk about the Academy’s swelling ranks, how its expansion stands to affect the Oscars in the future, and the “soft power” implications of that expansion that most headlines miss. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
One key detail to remember: While members of each branch vote to select their nominees — the directors branch selects the directors, the actors branch selects the actors — the full Academy membership votes on the winners in each category. Best Picture nominees are selected by the full membership, and they use a complicated ranked-choice voting system for that, as Emily VanDerWerff explained for Vox in 2015.
Okay, Walt. Tell me: Who is in the Academy, and why has the membership been changing so much?
That is the big question: Who is the Academy? The reality is that for a while, they didn’t want to be covered. They wanted to just be the faceless organization that voted on the Oscars, because the more that you remember it’s an election, the less prestigious or magical it seems. I think that they realized that they needed to dispel some of the magic in order to claim their legitimacy moving forward.
As a result, you’ve seen them change the face of the organization, change who’s represented, and all that kind of stuff.
How have they been doing that? Where are those changes happening? People may be vaguely aware that the Academy has been adding more members, but what does that really mean?
The Academy has undergone a very significant transformation over the past five to 10 years, and it basically changed the entire outlook of the organization.
For years, in the 1990s through the early 2010s, there were approximately 6,000 members. Then Cheryl Boone Isaacs took charge of the organization [in 2013], and early in her term, she announced plans to expand the organization a bit. Then, in 2015, #OscarsSoWhite happened, which really motivated them.
But this is the first year in which there are more post-2012 invitees in the Academy than there are people who were in the Academy in 2012 or earlier. And folks have also retired from the organization, or passed away. The change within the organization is a bit more significant than people realize. As of this year, there are 9,362 voting members. At the end of 2011, there were 5,783 members.
The biggest thing that folks who want to understand the Oscars can do is look at which branches’ numbers are rising and which ones are expanding, and which ones are not. I wrote recently about the members-at-large branch [which comprises an assortment of different types of film professionals, including approximately 150 agents]. A big change happened last year: The Academy bumped agents from associate members, who can’t vote for the Oscars, into full members, who do have the vote. Fundamentally, overnight, in the course of a year, they added a branch within a branch of the Academy.
We don’t know what effect 150-odd people will have on the overall vote. I don’t think that they’re going to flip it year after year. But the way that the Academy votes on Best Picture means that small changes in the composition of the organization can have broader dramatic effects, because of the algorithm that they use for ranked choice.
Have there been similar changes in other branches of the Academy?
We’ve seen certain branches really swell in the past decade or so. Since 2014, the short films and feature animation branch has more than doubled. The members-at-Large branch has more than doubled. The documentary branch has more than doubled.
Other branches have only expanded slightly. The actors branch only has about 20 percent more folks since 2014. And so not only are you seeing the organization recruit and grow a huge amount, you’re also seeing that the balance within the organization, which branches steer the group, is substantially changing.
In 2011, 41 percent of the vote came from actors, writers, producers, and the sound branch. However, in the intervening period, if you look at who was invited into the organization, only 18 percent of folks were from those four branches. So today, their voting weight within the Academy is 32 percent. So they’ve actually lost about 9 percent of their vote share, just across those four branches.
At the same time, another four branches — documentary, visual effects, shorts and animation, and members-at-large (and casting, which spun out of at-large) — were 18 percent of the Academy in 2011. In the period since, they’ve been 46 percent of the people added to the Academy. And today, they’re 29 percent of the Academy. So they’ve added about 11 percentage points of the vote. The other branches have basically stayed the same.
What I’m trying to get at here is that there’s a whole lot going on within this organization that isn’t necessarily encapsulated by the headlines that we see when they announce new members, which are invariably about the acting branches. They feature a photo of an actor. They’ll highlight people of color welcomed into the organization. But there’s actually a lot more going on underneath the hood here.
Like what? What else is the Academy doing that goes beyond the headlines?
Mainly, the Academy has been broadening outward. They’ve been expanding into other film markets that are not just Los Angeles. When you see the Academy pursuing diversity goals, it’s not necessarily adding more African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans. They phrase it as people “underrepresented” within the broader group — and that can entail inviting folks from other film markets from around the world.
This is genuinely wild: In 2020, when the Academy announced the 819 members that they invited, they bragged that 13 branches invited a majority of candidates from international regions. This year’s class of invitees was 49 percent international. But I found a press release from February 2001 that says how many Californians were in the Academy in that year. That year, 5,722 Academy members were sent a ballot. Of those, 4,253 were California based. That means 74 percent of the Academy lived in California.
That tells you exactly how rough it was in this organization at the time. Their problem was that they capped the number of members; they wouldn’t go north of 6,000. As a result, they were dating themselves.
So they have made some very significant strides. They have a lot of progress to make, but really this year’s [nominations] results, if they happened just a few years ago, would have been spellbinding.
What kind of effect has that had on who actually wins? Do we know yet?
It’s really hard to say, “This film won because these folks were added.” But you can look to nominations and see the impact. Mark Harris tweeted that of all the actors nominated this year, only four are white Americans. Five years ago, that’d be ridiculous. That would be wild. This organization has genuinely made progress. Has it gone as fast as it needs to? I don’t think so. Does it make up for the fact that for decades, it was not an accurate reflection of what Hollywood was and could be? I don’t think it does. It’s a shame that it took 90 years for a woman to get nominated for cinematography. I think that it’s wild that it took this long to get two women nominated for direction at once.
But the organization has actually made some very significant strides. I was extremely skeptical that they were actually going to put their money where their mouth is, but they really have expanded substantially. You can see that this year.
What are some of the implications in the actual vote of the changes that they’ve made? Two films come to mind: Roma in 2019 and Parasite in 2020. They were both international films. Both had really good Oscar runs. Parasite obviously won, Roma got very close — it was the frontrunner for most of the season. I don’t know if that would have been the case before the organization really began expanding internationally.
It’s even more interesting because Parasite won, but none of the Parasite actors got a nomination. This gets back to what I said earlier: The actors branch has not grown the same way that the Academy has grown. A lot of the Academy has grown outward, branches doubling, in some cases nearly tripling in size. The actors branch has gained 20 percent. You can kind of see some of the existing tensions within the Academy within the branches themselves, and what they recognize as excellence.
So why is the Academy is trying to expand internationally? Are they sensing that Hollywood’s dominance in the global film market may be at stake?
I’m very interested in the soft power implications of the Oscars. There’s a world in which the Academy sees a significant investment in film and television exports in markets like China, and realizes that they’ve sat on their laurels for a very long time when it comes to honoring filmmakers from around the world.
The immediate issue that a lot of folks think the Academy’s expansion is trying to solve is the diversity issues in Hollywood. But the long game that the organization is playing, and wisely so, is that they realize that there’s a chance that they lose their status as preeminent arbiters of global cinema. Whether or not they actually are, that is up to your personal view. But nevertheless, they view that as the big threat to the organization’s legitimacy and power moving forward. As a result, while a lot of the domestic headlines have been about African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans being included in the organization, I think that a lot of the actual ambition of the group is to be a global group.
It’s important to remember that institutions are just people, attempting to hide behind an institution. The Academy is just a group of people. And if you look at who that group of people is and how it’s changed and how it’s grown, you get a sense for where the cinema establishment would like to move their industry moving forward.