Oscars: Why the Academy's Diversity Effort May Take Years to Pay Off

Illustration by Wren McDonald

The full effects of change won’t be felt until more new members replace the old.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Phase one is over. Let phase two begin. With the unveiling of the Academy Award nominations Thursday morning, campaigners will have to jettison their previous strategies and shift from blastoff to landing, as they figure out how to convert an Oscar nom to a win. And that will mean shifting focus from the individual branches that determine the nominees to figuring out how to deal with the Academy's sizable new member­ship and the challenges it presents.

By some estimates, as many as 1,000 members have been added to the Academy's rolls in the past five years, bringing the total voting membership up to 6,261. In June, a whopping 322 people were invited to join, and few who are invited say no. The previous year, invitations went out to 271 members. Before that, there only had been around 100 new members annually.

Now campaigners must ask: Do these freshman members change the nature of the game? The answer is yes, though the full effects of change won’t be felt for a few more years, as even more new members replace the old.

This new class is notably more diverse than its more established brethren, part of a deliberate strategy by Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson to broaden the voter pool and deflect criticism that the organization is just a bunch of old white guys — criticism that appeared to be justified this morning, when not a single non-white actor or actress received a nomination.

The bedrock voting constituency that allowed this to take place has been shifting, however, with new members ranging from Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o to British thesp David Oyelowo to African-American come­dian Kevin Hart. And the more it shifts, the less this all-white group of nominees is likely to be repeated in the future.

Just how diverse the Academy is becoming (or trying to become) was seen when this year alone, membership was extended to foreign directors such as Argentina's Damian Szifron and Poland's Pawel Pawlikowski, African-American musi­cians John Legend and Common, South Korean actor Choi Min-sik, and British actresses Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Felicity Jones, among others.

Some insiders argue that the apparent diversity isn't as widespread as it seems, and that the bulk of new members are entrenched in the Hollywood establishment. They’re right — this is still a relatively small contingent. Diversity is starting to happen, but it’s slow and its effects may not be felt fully for several years to come, or until the industry itself is more diverse.

A significant number of the new mem­bers are based abroad. Should the Oscar campaigns reach out to other countries to reel them in? So far, it appears not, given that no single nation (outside England) has a big enough cohort to merit a tailor-made campaign.

"France has doubled its membership," says one consultant. "But the numbers are still small." Noting that the Academy held a recent mixer for members there, the consultant said she felt no need to attend. "I didn't do anything.”

Still, every campaigner is looking at ways to add a few votes and considering any means to do so. And with Mad Max: Fury Road’s multiple nominations, there may be an incentive to target any Australian members who want to show some unity and get their film business back in the spotlight.

"This year, the affection for films is so spread out, you're going to see more effort to reach those members," says one consultant. "And the new guys aren't jaded. They're not off shooting in Toronto, telling you they'll get around to voting, then not doing it. They want to fill out their ballots."

These eager voters are enthusiastic about watching all the movies. Unlike others who must be cajoled to sift through their screeners, the freshman members have been calling studio publicists to get their DVDs, which means that some nominated pictures that may not have been widely seen, such as Room, will likely be watched by a healthy share of the voters.

This generally younger group of new members is also easier to reach, especially digitally. Because of that, says one consultant, "Academy campaigns have moved into the digital world in a big way. And the great news about digital is, you can invite Academy members to screenings; you can advertise; you can see what's going on on Facebook; you can email members and you can change tactics on a dime.”

Whether you also can predict how the new group will vote is the $64,000 question. Given that members are spread out across the Academy's 17 branches (with actors still the heftiest contin­gent), coming up with an answer may be wishful thinking.

"Of course you want to get their vote," says one campaigner, "but it's a waste of time targeting them as a group. You just have to keep doing things the way you always did.”

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