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After #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy Struggles With Diversity, Age and “Relevance”

Intending to promote diversity within its ranks, the Academy ignited a second controversy over which members should be eligible to vote — and even though it now has backed away from its initial proposal, the furor hasn't died down.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is currently reviewing the work history of its roughly 7,000 voting members. On April 25, it asked members in two of its 17 branches to provide their résumés, and by the end of July each of its branches’ executive committees will notify their members whether or not they are eligible to vote for the 89th Oscars, which will take place next Feb. 26.

The Academy’s decision to reassess its voting rolls, which grew out of its immediate response to the controversy that greeted the absence of non-white acting nominees for the 87th and 88th Oscars, has resulted in one of the most contentious and bitter episodes in the Academy’s long history. It was originally proposed in January as part of a series of initiatives designed to ensure increased diversity among both the Academy’s membership and the kinds of work the Academy honors. But it has threatened to overshadow that effort, as many older Academy members vehemently complained that they were being implicitly accused of racism and subjected to a different kind of ‘ism’ — ageism.

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Since then, the Academy, attempting to quell that firestorm, has adopted more generous rules to determine voting eligibility, and it has attempted to disentangle the question of voting eligibility from its diversity push. When the Academy first announced a review of its voting rolls on Jan. 22, it introduced it as part of what it called “historic action to increase diversity,” but on April 18 the Academy’s board of governors offered the membership a new explanation of how voting rights would be determined and said the move “is actually not about diversity. We have other proposals to advance the growth of diversity. This initiative, required by our bylaws, has to do with relevance.”

As first proposed, the voting review promised the most dramatic makeover of the Academy’s rank and file since 1970, when Gregory Peck, then serving as Academy president, purged the organization of many “inactive” members in an effort to make the Academy more “relevant” amid a rapidly changing culture. But under the most recent proposal, it appears that far fewer members will lose their voting rights and be moved to “emeritus status” than many originally feared. (The Academy declined to provide THR with an estimate.) “We ended up back where we started, with nothing really changed or gained,” says Bruce Feldman, a member of the publicity branch who has been openly critical of the board’s moves.

But even if most members’ voting rights now are safe, the upheaval at the Academy isn’t over. The annual election for the Academy’s board of governors is set to take place in May — a third of the board’s seats are voted on each year — and in what it has described as an attempt to be “more democratic, more transparent,” the Academy has changed its procedures to allow any member of the organization to throw his or her hat into the ring. This in effect has granted a megaphone to the dissidents among its ranks, a number of whom are running aggressive campaigns against the organization’s current leadership.

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To understand how the Academy ended up in its current position, it’s necessary to return to Jan. 14, when the nominations for the most recent Academy Awards were announced.

That morning at the Academy’s Beverly Hills headquarters, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African-American and third female president in the Academy’s history, was joined by Guillermo del Toro, John Krasinski and Ang Lee to announce, on national television, her organization’s picks. By the time they left the stage, the room — and social media — was abuzz. For the second year in a row, not a single person of color was among the 20 acting nominees. Additionally, the drama Straight Outta Compton, a film with black protagonists that had made the top 10 lists of the American Film Institute and the Producers Guild of America, and was therefore considered a strong contender for a best picture nom, was recognized only for its original screenplay, written by two white screenwriters; and Creed, the acclaimed new Rocky sequel that starred and was written and directed by black people, was represented only by supporting actor Sylvester Stallone, who four days earlier had forgotten to thank any of them in his Golden Globe acceptance speech.

#OscarsSoWhite, the Twitter hashtag coined in 2015 by black attorney-turned-activist April Reign after the 2015 Oscars “blackout,” was back. And it was only a matter of hours before Jada Pinkett Smith, the wife of Will Smith, who had not been nominated for his performance in Concussion, posted a video online suggesting that a boycott of the Oscars — while regrettable in a year in which two blacks, Chris Rock and Reginald Hudlin, were set to host and co-produce the show — was the only way to send a clear message to the Academy that racism by omission would not be tolerated. Spike Lee, whose film Chi-Raq also was shut out, Instagrammed that he would be skipping the ceremony, too. And other prominent blacks in the business, such as Lupita Nyong’o, issued statements expressing their displeasure.

Mr. Smith had been nominated twice before for an Oscar and lost on both occasions to other black actors. Lee had been given an honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards less than two months earlier. And Nyong’o was famous largely because the Academy had presented her with an Oscar less than two years earlier for 12 Years a Slave, which also was awarded the best picture Oscar.

But the optics surrounding the 2016 nominations were terrible, and the prospect of a boycott of the Oscars was untenable for ABC, which has a long-term contract to broadcast the show, so the Academy felt compelled to offer a swift and strong response of its own. On Jan. 18, just four days after the announcement, Boone Isaacs — the sole black person on the Academy’s then-51-member board of governors, and a longtime champion of increased diversity within the Academy — issued a lengthy statement congratulating the films and individuals that were nominated, but also expressing that she was “heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion,” and that it was “time for big changes.”

Four days after that, she sent all Academy members an email — and simultaneously issued a press release — revealing that the previous evening the board unanimously had authorized “a series of courageous steps.” Among them: members who had not remained “active” in the business during a 10-year period since being invited to join the Academy — except for those who had been nominated for an Oscar or who had demonstrated activity in three consecutive decades since joining the Academy — would lose their voting privileges beginning in the 2016 awards cycle.

She also announced that three new seats were being added to the board for “diversity governors,” to be appointed by the president and approved by the board for three-year terms, to advance the interests of diversity within the organization. And she communicated the Academy’s vow to double the number of women and non-white-male members of the Academy by 2020, so that women would then comprise 48 percent of the organization and minority groups 14 percent of the total membership.

A few people quickly voiced their support for the new steps. #OscarsSoWhite creator Reign tweeted, “I’m floored… Thank you so much for the support.” Warner Bros. chief Kevin Tsujihara said, “The changes being made by AMPAS are a great step toward broadening the diversity and inclusivity of the Academy, and, by extension, the industry.” And Ava DuVernay, a black member of the directors branch who somewhat controversially did not receive a directing nomination for Selma the year before, tweeted: “One good step in a long, complicated journey for people of color + women artists. Shame is a helluva motivator.”

But simultaneously, a huge backlash was brewing among panicked and outraged rank-and-file members, with calls and emails flying left and right: What does “active” mean when you’re, say, a producer who has been working for years on a project that hasn’t yet made it to the big screen, or a director who had stepped away from the industry to teach aspiring filmmakers, they wanted to know. Why would the Academy begin counting decades of qualifying work only when someone joined the Academy, as opposed to when their career began? Why were all members being blamed for the choices of the acting branch, the only one that determined the acting nominees? Wasn’t this just a veiled method of ridding the Academy of old people? Why had any changes been made by the Academy’s leaders without consulting the members themselves? And didn’t the Academy’s response lend credence to the notion that prejudice had played a role in the nominations?

“It’s trying to clear the decks so the show can go on in February without people screaming,” vented Sam Weisman, 68, of the directors branch. 84-year-old Tab Hunter of the actors branch called it “bullshit.” And documentary branch member Arnold Schwartzman said, “I just resent being characterized by some people as a racist. We judge films on the merits. There were some great films with white people that didn’t get in that I was upset about. Race had nothing to do with any of it.”

With Peck’s actions nearly a half-century earlier, the Academy did have precedent on its side. But neither Boone Isaacs nor the chair of the Academy’s membership and administration committee, Field of Dreams director Phil Alden Robinson, who has spent years pushing for more diversity within the organization, had Peck’s gravitas within the community. And unlike Peck, they weren’t suggesting that their members were failing to appreciate edgy filmmaking; instead, many members felt, they were implying that some of them were racist.

“Everybody was offended that we were being portrayed as a bunch of racists,” reflects longtime music branch member William Goldstein, who began his career working for Berry Gordy at Motown Records. “They were wrong. We’re not racists. That’s nonsense and they should have said that.” The PR branch’s Feldman comments, “They just tried to get rid of a lot of altacockers who worked for a long time and earned the distinction. They just handed down these changes as if they were on two tablets and as if they were the final authority. My first thought was I was offended. My second thought was, this will never fly and they will end up having to backpedal.”

But initially Boone Isaacs and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson showed no signs of backing down. They appeared on the cover of the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter, in which they both suggested they were being supported by their members. “They’ve been pretty positive,” Boone Isaacs said in the interview. “Some people I haven’t heard from before are saying, ‘Bravo, this is a great step forward, we’re proud of our Academy, we’re proud of our board.'” Hudson added, “And a lot of the same people who were writing before, like, ‘What the heck is going on over there?’ They now wrote emails of support and made phone calls of support.”

But some other indications suggested the measure was massively unpopular with many members. That same week, THR began inviting guest columns from members who wished to express their view on the measures, favorable or not, and eventually published 15 from members representing a wide cross-section of branches, genders and races. Only four of them supported the Academy’s moves.

Some even questioned whether the Academy’s goals of doubling the numbers of women and minorities within its ranks in just five years was feasible. The New York Times ran a story in which it said, “To attain gender parity among actors in five years, the Academy could more than triple the number of annual admissions, to 80 [within that branch], while adding three women for every man. Assuming a typical annual attrition rate of about 26 people (largely because of death), the branch membership would be about 51 percent women by 2020, but women would then far outnumber men among the younger members.”

The Academy insists, however, that goal is achievable. According to an Academy spokesperson, “We have an unprecedented global outreach campaign in place, and our goal is to recruit candidates that may not know they’re eligible or haven’t yet considered membership. The branch executive committees are meeting through May to review potential new members. We’ll announce our new member class this summer.”

Meanwhile, though, it wasn’t just the rank and file who were complaining. Several industry heavyweights also went on record. Steven Spielberg expressed “surprise” that the Academy had not nominated Straight Outta Compton for best picture or Beasts of No Nation‘s Idris Elba for best supporting actor — though he rejected the notion that racism was to blame. “I don’t believe that there is inherent or dormant racism because of the amount of white Academy members,” he said. “I’m also not 100 percent sure that taking votes away from Academy members who have paid their dues and maybe are retired now and have done great service — maybe they’ve not won a nomination, which would have given them immunity to the new rules, but they have served proudly and this is their industry, too — to strip their votes? I’m not 100 percent behind that.” Added Harvey Weinstein, “I believe that Cheryl and Dawn and the people who are currently on the Academy [board] have their hearts in the right places.” But he opposed the revocation of voting privileges from “people who’ve worked so hard all their lives and prize that Academy card and have reached that zenith and then go on to retirement.”

In any event, despite the outcry, an Oscars boycott was averted. A group of presenters of considerable racial diversity handed out the awards. (Morgan Freeman handled best picture honors.) An unprecedented number of non-Americans were among the winners. (None were black, though.) And Rock “annihilated” the industry for its alleged racism, as Weinstein predicted he would, spending most of his time onstage discussing the controversy.

* * *

But, after the red carpet was rolled up, Academy members’ anger did not dissipate. Some discussed a class-action lawsuit for age discrimination. Others vowed to run for the board themselves to overturn the controversial new rules. And with one-third of the board’s seats up for grabs in June and members well aware that the incumbent board unanimously had supported those changes, the Academy began to consider a different sort of damage-control.

On the evening of March 15, the Academy released a summary of decisions made that night at the board’s first meeting since the Oscars, many of which pertained to the Academy’s response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. And it looked as if the Academy was tiptoeing away from the most controversial aspects of its earlier actions.

How? Instead of requiring three consecutive decades of activity after becoming a member of the Academy to earn lifetime voting rights, the rule was restated to require activity “anytime during three 10-year periods whether consecutive or not,” meaning that members who were invited to join later in life, after most of their career was already behind them, now appeared to be safe, as were members who stepped away from the business — say, to raise a family — and then returned. In other words, significantly fewer members will lose their voting privileges, and fewer members would rally to the defense of those who still would. (Feldman, for instance, says he would have supported the current policy if it had been the one promoted at the outset. “People who, say, were brought in from big ad agencies, ran a studio PR department for a couple of years and then went back to the ad world? They shouldn’t be there. And [actress] Dolores Hart, after working for only a few years, left to become a nun, so that to me is a legitimate issue.”)

Additionally, the board turned over the final decision about whether or not a member retains voting privileges to each branch’s executive committee, which the board also empowered to “determine specific criteria” to consider when they meet “every two years — starting this spring — to review their members and determine any potential reclassifications. The committees also will adopt an appeals process for members who may lose their voting privileges.” Under the new formulation, it appeared only the most egregious cases would result in a revocation of voting privileges.

The Academy also revealed the names of the three diversity governors appointed by the president — Hudlin, Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Gregory Nava — as well as a handful of nonwhite members who had been added to the six committees that advise the board (including producers branch member Effie Brown, who is perhaps best known for calling out Matt Damon for being racially insensitive on Project Greenlight).

But if the announcement was intended to calm the waters, it didn’t really have that effect, since not everyone could immediately decipher what it actually meant. And, at the same time, a number of members also began questioning how board of governors members were chosen in the first place. The Academy’s long-standing practice called for each branch’s members to elect one-half of a nominating committee that, in turn, prepared a slate of candidates for the board. Not infrequently, that led to incumbents running against members who were challengers in name only. And none of the candidates ever provided platform statements before elections took place.

Given how politicized all the board’s decisions were becoming, the Academy decided it was time to change that system. In an email to the membership on April 7, Hudson announced that the board had voted to democratize the process. “Now, you will choose your candidates directly,” she said before going on to encourage interested members to throw their hats into the ring. Many did, right away, and several expressed frustration that there was no forum in which they could provide their platform — so THR provided one, and challengers from several different branches used it to vent their anger at the current Academy leadership and declare their intentions to implement change. After a few days, Hudson sent members a follow-up email, instructing them not to publicly criticize fellow members and notifying them that the Academy had set up its own private forum to accommodate platform statements.

Finally, on April 18, in a further attempt to get everything back on track, the board emailed all members, admitting that it “failed” in its original attempt in January to devise a “one size fits all rule” regarding voting rights, and formally turning over the task of determining members’ voting statuses to each branch’s executive committee. It stated, “If you have spent a lifetime in motion pictures, you will not lose your vote,” and further emphasized, “You will not lose your voting privileges simply because you’re retired or haven’t been active for a while. There is nothing ageist about this. In fact, these new guidelines advantage those with longer careers over shorter careers.”

According to the letter, the Academy’s bylaws have not guaranteed lifetime voting rights since the Peck-administered overhaul in 1970 — but the new rules guarantee lifetime voting for those who meet a certain set of standards. To secure lifetime voting rights, a current member still must demonstrate activity in three 10-year terms. But the tally of those terms now begins not when the member was admitted to the Academy, but retroactively, starting whenever that individual completed his or her “first qualifying work” in the business, as determined by the executive committee of that member’s branch, which “will come up with their own definitions, based on employment and not screen credit.” And now, those terms need not have come consecutively. Since the vast majority of current members joined the business decades ago, most of them, whether or not they are currently active, should receive confirmations of lifetime voting rights in the near future.

New members will be given an automatic right to vote for 10 years — but many will not even need that courtesy, since their term-count also begins retroactively, meaning some will qualify for lifetime voting privileges upon admission.

* * *

But the questioning of the Academy isn’t over.

While its latest clarification has reassured many members that they will not be downgraded to second-class status, the Academy is also left with the task of reassuring those who question whether it still remains committed to increasing diversity within its ranks. “What it appears they’re saying now is, ‘We didn’t think those things through,’ and I find that hard to believe” says Reign. “I thought that some of the incremental decisions that the Academy had announced were smart ones, because if nothing else hopefully they would spur some of the more seasoned members to become more active in the film community again — and hopefully with up-and-coming filmmakers. Instead, what we see is that many members are looking to be grandfathered in, and I think that’s unfortunate. I would hope that the timing of these announcements is merely coincidental and has nothing to do with the upcoming board of governors elections.” She adds, “We’ll continue fighting.”

The Academy insists it has not backed away from its commitment to diversity as it has revised its rules for voting eligibility. “The initiatives are designed to work independently of each other,” the Acadamy spokesperson says. “We have measures in place to help advance diversity within the Academy, including a global drive to recruit new members, adding three diverse governors, and giving members the opportunity to be active in the board’s decision-making process.” She adds, “The voting measures are independent of diversity, and intended to ensure the Academy remains relevant, and our voters reflect the filmmaking professionals who are — or were — the most active in motion pictures.”

Feldman, who has declared himself a candidate for the board, is pleased that the board has reversed its initial course, but is still far from satisfied. “It’s just stupefying that the board of governors couldn’t have foreseen what the impact of what they did would be and didn’t understand why it was the wrong thing to do. You don’t achieve inclusion by disenfranchising older members, each of whom has achieved distinction in his or her field and was vetted and voted into the Academy. It was a huge error in judgment on the part of the governors to not stand up for the members who elected them.” He adds, “What do we learn from all this? That we can’t count on the governors to use good judgment and to represent their members. They are running the Academy as if it’s an oligarchy, not on behalf of members but in spite of members. And the incumbents should all be displaced.”

The music branch’s Goldstein, who is also running for the board, says he supports efforts to increase diversity, but that they are needed at an industry-wide level, not within the Academy, which can only pick its members and nominees from the options offered by the industry. “For four years the Academy has been actively trying to bring in new members, and I suspect there aren’t presently as many people qualified to come in and make up an Academy as diverse as the one they want,” he says. “The solution isn’t to change our standards of who can and cannot be a member. It has always been and should always be about excellence.”

He pauses for a moment before continuing: “But I think something really important has happened. I do not think the board of governors will ever do something like this again without consulting with the executive committees, at least, and maybe with all members. How could I not be pleased?”