Academy President on Diversity Push: "We Will Keep the Pedal to the Metal"

Aaron Fallon
Cheryl Boone Isaacs

As the organization unveiled an unprecedented list of 683 new members, Cheryl Boone Isaacs said, "The board and the membership are very proud of this day."

“The board and the membership are very proud of this day,” Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said Wednesday as the Academy unveiled a list of 683 new members who have been invited to join the elite Oscar-granting club.

Once each year, the Academy issues an invitation to new members, and, coming in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy which has haunted the Academy for the past two awards seasons, this year’s list is the largest in the modern-day history of the Academy — more than double the 322 invitations that were sent out last year and nearly four times the 175-plus members-per-year that were invited as recently as 2011 and 2012.

The Academy also trumpeted the diversity of the class of 2016. Back in 2012, 30 percent of that year’s invitees were women and 10 percent were non-white. This year, 46 percent were women and 41 percent were people of color.

While the Academy has made a concerted effort to increase the diversity of its membership in recent years, and Boone Isaacs made a commitment that the number of women and minorities within the organization’s ranks would double by 2012, she attributed the surge this year to the results of the Academy’s engagement with its own members, who, under Academy rules, sponsor new members. “This is the result,” she said, “of having everyone be part of this conversation about inclusion and the diversity of talent making motion pictures in the year 2016.”

Rather than viewing this year’s effort to reach out to a more diverse group of prospective members as a break with the Academy’s past — as well as its old, white guy reputation — she insisted, “Change is happening all the time within our industry, the process of making motion pictures is constantly changing, so it’s something the Academy has done forever and ever — look at our practices and review them and bring them up to the moment. And, one of them, of course, is membership. The fact that this organization in the 21st century has not been inclusive has driven us for a number of years [to address the issue]. And as we learned how to engage our members more, we are now seeing the results.”

While the Academy and its annual Oscar show have been a lightning rod for discussions about the lack of opportunities for women and non-whites in the film business, Boone Isaacs said that conversation, rather than just being the subject of awards season controversy, has become an ongoing discussion. “And it’s not just the Academy,” she said. “Our members represent all aspects of filmmaking and so the conversation is everywhere. You read about it every day, and it’s a really, really good thing for the business.”

Although critics are likely to question some of the names on the list, Boone Isaacs said, “What we look at is the work they have done in film, and everybody on this list has met the criteria of their branch.” While the general rule is that a candidate must have “demonstrated exceptional achievement in the field of theatrical motion pictures,” each of the Academy’s 17 branches has a slightly different set of requirements. For example, actors must have a minimum of three theatrical features that meet the bar, while directors must have a minimum of two directorial credits.

While the Academy cast an unprecedented and wide net — which included 283 international filmmakers, representing 59 countries — this year, Boone Isaacs said she is confident that it will be able to continue the same effort over the next few years. “It might be a challenge,” she said, “but we are continuing to keep that pedal to the metal.”

Although the Academy can only invite members who have succeeded within the film business, Boone Isaacs said the current industry-wide focus on diversity will result in more opportunity and that in turn will result in more prospective candidates for membership within the Academy. “The industry is evolving,” she said, “and the more inclusion the better. Storylines are changing and expanding as there is more interest in stories about people who may be different than you. We absolutely want to change the demographics of the Academy, but what is of the utmost importance is recognizing the challenge that is there. Production companies, studios, different organizations can create more opportunities, and I think we’ll see more diversity as the years go on.”