Oscars: Academy Board Under Pressure to Rewrite Voting, Membership Rules to Improve Diversity

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Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs

At its upcoming board of governors meeting, the beleaguered organization is expected to discuss the current controversy.

Amid the growing controversy about the lack of diversity in this year's Oscar nominations and facing a growing boycott of the Feb. 28 Oscar ceremonies, the Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts and Sciences' board of governors will be under pressure to address the crisis when it meets on Jan. 26.

Earlier this week, on Jan. 18, in a rare public statement, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs acknowledged that the Academy's efforts to diversify its membership over the last few years, bringing its number of voting members to 6,261, were not reflected in this year's nominations, saying "The change is not coming as fast as we would like. We need to do more, and better and more quickly."

But while various proposals are currently being floated about ways to revise the Academy's voting procedures and open up its membership ranks, it's unclear how quickly the 51-member board will react and what proposals are likely to develop real traction.

A definite sense of crisis is threatening to cloud this year's Academy Awards — especially if a genuine boycott develops that damages the ratings of the ABC broadcast. But the meeting, which will be held this coming Tuesday night, was not specifically called to address the issues that have been thrust into the spotlight as a result of this year's nominations, but rather is one of the board's regularly scheduled gatherings. However, Boone Isaacs is expected to move current concerns to the top of the agenda.

In its usual course of business, the tradition-bound Academy does not move quickly to make rule changes. Typically, the board reviews possible rule changes after each year's Academy Awards show in the spring; each of the Academy's 17 branches then separately considers any changes and sends them on to a rules committee, comprised of one governor from each of the branches, and the rules committee, in turn, makes its recommendations; finally, all proposed rule changes are considered by the entire board at a meeting in June.

But even if the board doesn't vote for new rule changes next week, it may well feel the need to endorse some sort of resolution, promising future change, to demonstrate it is listening to its critics.

One suggestion that has been raised is that the Academy settle on 10 best picture nominees each year. In 2009, the Academy moved from five to 10 best picture nominees in hopes that a few more popular hits would be thrown the mix. It then revised that rule in 2011 to the present system which can produce from five to 10 nominations, depending on how the votes play out.

The current thinking is that with a larger field of 10 nominees, a movie like Straight Outta Compton would have had a better chance of scoring a nomination. There's no guarantee, though, that a larger field would have necessarily resulted in a more diverse lineup of films this year. The Producers Guild of America, which nominates 10 movies for its PGA producing award, did include Compton. (The PGA list included all the Oscar nominees with the exception of Room as well as the sci-fi tale Ex Machina and the border thriller Sicario.) But the Broadcast Film Critics Association, whose noms for its Critics' Choice Awards often closely match up with the Academy's picks, did not include Compton among its 10 nominees. (In addition to the Academy's choices, the BFCA noms included Carol and Sicario and later were amended to pull in an 11th nominee, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.)

Even before the current crisis, there were some in the Academy urging a 10-picture field in order to better ensure a larger range of movies and to end the uncertainty of the current five-to-10 formula. But at the same time, there has been a group of traditionalists who are still advocating a return to the five-picture practice, arguing that the field of 10 dilutes the importance of a nomination.

Another proposal that is being advanced, according to a report in The New York Times, is that the Academy could also increase the number of nominees in the acting category from five to eight or 10 per category. The calculation is that with a larger field of nominees, there would be a greater likelihood that minority candidates would be included, although, again, that's not guaranteed. In the case of the Critics' Choice Awards, for example, there are six nominees per category, but this year, all 24 of the Critics' Choice top acting nominees were as white as the Academy's. And there are those within the Academy who fear that raising the number of nominees in one set of categories would open the door to demands for more nominees in other categories. There are already some within the writers branch who've been asking to expand the screenwriting categories ever since best picture moved beyond five nominations.

Another idea being pushed forward is that the Academy look at the complicated preferential voting system, which requires members rank their best picture choices from one to five. There's some anecdotal evidence that a good number of members voted for Compton, but they ranked it fourth or fifth on their ballots. But since first- and second-place votes carry more weight, and by themselves can determine the eventual nominees depending on how votes are distributed, those fourth- or fifth-place votes may never have come into play. But since the Academy's accountants, PricewaterhouseCoopers, don't reveal the specific rankings of the votes, not even to Academy officials, there's no way of knowing what movies may have narrowly lost out on a nomination this year under the current voting method.

Other members have begun to suggest that the Academy take another look at how each branch nominates within their respective categories. Currently, all the members of each branch vote for the nominations from that branch, but some are suggesting that smaller nominating committees from each branch, charged with considering a wider range of films, make the initial nominations, with all members then taking part in the final nomination vote as currently occurs. The Motion Picture Academy already uses a two-step method in its foreign-language film category. Reacting to outrage when highly regarded foreign films were overlooked, the Academy adopted a new process in 2008 under which an executive committee adds three films to the foreign-language shortlist after the foreign-language viewing committee nominates six others — it's designed to help ensure that important titles aren't missing from the shortlist, from which five nominees are then chosen.

But if changes to voting rules proves difficult, the Academy may find it can move more quickly in opening up its membership process. Currently, individuals don't apply for membership. Instead, the Academy invites existing members to sponsor new members once a year. The deadline for the current cycle is March 24. The executive committee of each branch than reviews the submissions and makes recommendations, and new members are voted in once a year in midsummer. Oscar nominees are automatically considered for membership, though neither a nomination nor a win guarantees admission.

Each branch has its own criteria: Potential members of the directors branch must have at least two credits on theatrical features "that reflect the high standards of the Academy" or a credit on one film that's been nominated for best picture, best director or best foreign film; actors must have three feature film credits or an Oscar nom; members of the VFX community must, typically, have spent at least eight years in the field in a key role or have earned an Oscar nom. The branches can make exceptions, however, if, in the judgment of the branch's executive committee, a potential member has exhibited what's described as unique distinction, special merit or outstanding contributions.

Over the past few years, Boone Isaacs and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson and their staffs have worked to identify potential members and bring them to the attention of the various branches.  But while that has begun to slowly change the complexion of the Academy, there's now likely to be a push to make the admission requirements more flexible. Even then, though, the Academy's own efforts are limited by the opportunities that the industry itself offers newer filmmaking talent to demonstrate their abilities.

At the same time, there's also been talk about removing older or retired members from the ranks of active voters. Suggestions have been made that if a member is not involved in the film business after say five, ten, or some other period of years, he or she should lose voting privileges. Another specific suggestion is that if a member fails to cast a ballot in a given year then he or she also forfeits the right to vote. But others point out those proposals raise thorny questions: What about the older writer who continues to write but can't successfully sell his work? What about a senior craftsperson, respected in her field, who retires but remains actively involved in watching and debating movies?

Proponents of overhauling the current membership point to the purge of the membership roles that then-Academy president Gregory Peck conducted in 1970 in order to bring the Academy more in tune with the times. But others contend that he had a freer hand back then and didn't have to contend with the level of media scrutiny that surrounds today's Academy. He certainly didn't have to fend off public accusations of ageism, which could become the next Academy flash point, even as the currently beleaguered organization tried to make amends for its perceived sins of omission.  

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