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This has not been a good year for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Tom Sherak.
Less than a year ago the Academy put on one of the most critically lambasted Oscar shows in memory. That was followed by the controversial decision to change the best picture rules after only two years of a 10 nominees system. Next came the eyebrow raising decision to hire industry infant terrible Brett Ratner as the co-executive producer of the this year's 84th Academy Awards along with the bizarre return of previous producer Don Misher. Things actually got worse after Ratner's resignation following insensitive comments at a public screening. At that point, having initially agreed to host way to quickly (at least in his own mind), Eddie Murphy saw the out he'd been looking for and ran out of Dodge. Things seemed to have calmed down once Brian Grazer replaced Ratner and old favorite Billy Crystal agreed to host the big show for the ninth time. Unfortunately, rumblings started about AMPAS opting out of their Kodak Theater contract which would find them leaving Hollywood for the more generic confines of the Nokia Theater at LA Live (shudder). Today Sherak and the Academy found themselves the subject of a major investigative article from the Los Angeles Times breaking down the organization's usually private membership details. Sherak and the Academy spoke to the paper about the findings, but this isn't the sort of story they'd like spreading through the media the week before the big show. Yep, it's been one of those years.
The subject matter is especially timely as the Oscars follow a year of zero nominations for minorities in the major categories with just three in 2012 (Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Demián Bichir). It's always about the work, but is the make up of the Academy hindering the right work from being honored? (Well, we all know the answer to that question).
The results of the Times findings aren't shocking, but they are incredibly discouraging for an organization that has publicly been trying to diversify since 2003. The Times researchers were able to quantify 5,100 of the Academy's 5,782 members (89%). The key take aways:
94% of the Academy is white.
77% of the Academy is male.
19% of the Academy is comprised of former nominees.
14% of the Academy is comprised of former winners.
54% of the Academy is over the age of 60.
2% of the Academy is under the age of 40 (8% of the membership was undefined in this category).
Additionally, 20% of the Academy is in the Actor's branch. 8% are in the Producers and Executives branch. Every other branch constitutes 7% or less of the membership.
The most glaring part of the findings is that the Academy is still too white (approximately 12.6% of the U.S. population is African-American, 16.3% is Hispanic), too male and way too old. While the Academy has tried to change course since 2004 with new rules for membership and by making their new invitees public (AMPAS does not reveal if they accepted the invite), it has kept the number of new inductees to only 30 a year along with vacancies by death or resignation. With almost 6,000 members this means it will be decades until the membership will be significantly younger (let alone middle aged) as well as gender and racially diverse.
Sherak has a telling quote to the Times about the situation. He says,"I'm hoping your story runs and 7,000 phone calls break the lines here. We've been trying to reach out to the constituency and we're looking for help. You want to be on a committee? Tell us what committee. If you are sitting waiting for us to find your name in our make-believe book and we are going to call you, we are not going to do that. Come to us, we'll get you in. We want you in. That would help us a lot."
The idea that the president of a major organization such as AMPAS doesn't know how to engage the community to even search for help or won't begin its own search to truly to diversify itself is ridiculous. Moreover, if your rules limit what changes can be made you need to go to the board of governors (the true power in the Academy) and find ways to increase the ranks without diminishing the prestige of membership. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which awards the Emmys, has 15,000 members. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has, which hands out the Grammy Awards, has approximately 18,000 members. Is it really unfathomable for AMPAS to have 8-10,000 members overall? Would adding 3-400 new members for a set number of years to create a more diverse group truly disrupt the prestige of being a member? You and I may have a quick answer to that question, but we'd advise the board of governors to do some serious soul searching regarding this issue.
Beyond the statistics, what's most disheartening about the report are the quotes from notable members within the organization. Former Academy President, Oscar winner and Board of Governors member Frank Pierson shows how out of touch he is by noting, "We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn't reflect the general population, so be it." The problem is the Academy doesn't even reflect the working members of the industry. A majority of publicists, marketers and industry administrative staff are women and they are significantly more ethnically diverse than the membership. These people, like PA's and production office staff (also more gender diverse than the Academy) are the lifeblood of the industry. Contrary to Pierson's view, the Academy represents the movie industry, not just the filmmakers. You don't let publicists, marketing mavens and studio executives in if you just represent filmmakers. Take a step back Frank.
And of course, it's even more painful to hear frommembers who know how the Academy's demo hurts the quality of the Oscars overall. Alfre Woodard, an active member since 1985 notes, "Maybe if the median age was 45 to 50, a film like 'Shame' might show up, which I thought was a brilliantly rendered piece but a subject matter that you don't expect a certain older demographic would flock to see."
Embattled Academy CEO Dawn Hudson has publicly remarked that the Academy needs to get younger. Sherak clearly knows its a big deal, but has had a hell year dealing with other fires. After a year of dramatic change - and more change coming with the planned electronic voting system - isn't now the time to take a step forward in making the Academy more representative of the industry overall? Perhaps 7,000 or so phone calls will make it more of a priority the Monday after this year's big show.