Academy Unveils Dramatic Changes to Promote Diversity

Cheryl Boone Isaacs - H 2016
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Cheryl Boone Isaacs - H 2016

Three seats, appointed by the president, are being added to the board of governors, and individual members' voting rights will be reviewed every 10 years.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences unveiled on Friday several dramatic changes in its structure and voting regulations in an effort to promote diversity. Its goal, the Academy said, is to double the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020 so that women comprise 48 percent of the organization and diverse groups make up 14 percent of total membership.

The moves come as the Academy has faced mounting controversy over the lack of diversity in this year's Oscar nominations and its membership at large. That, in turn, had led to some to call for a boycott of the upcoming Oscars on Feb. 28. 

For an organization where change comes slowly and incrementally, Friday's announcement represents an unusually quick response and a sweeping development. While Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the group's CEO Dawn Hudson have been working to improve diversity representation within the Academy for the past several years, Boone Isaacs admitted in a previous statement on Jan. 18, "the change is not coming as fast as we would like" and vowed, "it's time for big changes."

The Academy is adding three new seats to its 51-person board of governors. Rather than represent existing branches, the members chosen to fill those seats will be nominated by the president for three-year terms and then confirmed by the board. Boone Isaacs is expected to name the new board members as soon as early February. The Academy also said it will take immediate action to increase diversity by adding new members who are not on the board of governors to its executive and board committees, where decisions about membership and governance are made in the hopes of allowing new members to have a more active role in Academy decision-making.

The organization is also instituting new rules affecting voting status: Each new member's voting status will last 10 years; renewal is dependent on that new member being active in motion pictures during that decade. In addition, members will receive lifetime voting rights after three 10-year terms or if they have won or been nominated for an Academy Award. The same standards will be applied retroactively to current members. Those who do not qualify for active status will be moved to emeritus status and, while they will enjoy other membership privileges, will not be able to vote. None of those changes yet will affect the voting for this year's Oscars.

In an effort to recruit new members, the Academy will continue with its traditional process in which current members sponsor new members but will also launch what it is calling "an ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity."

“The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” said Boone Isaacs in a statement. “These new measures regarding governance and voting will have an immediate impact and begin the process of significantly changing our membership composition.”

The moves were hailed by Kevin Tsujihara, chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. and an Academy member himself, who said in a statement, "The changes being made by AMPAS are a great step toward broadening the diversity and inclusivity of the Academy, and, by extension, the industry." 

While the Academy is promising to double the number of women and minorities in the organization by 2020, to date, it has not revealed exactly how many women and minorities currently are in its membership ranks. In fact, in the past, when asked to provide those statistics, the Academy has said it doesn't keep track of its membership's demographic makeup.

On the board of governors itself, there are currently 17 women among the 51 members, making up 33 percent of the board, which has the ultimate authority in determine Academy policies. Boone Isaacs is the only African-American on the board. 

The changes were approved unanimously by the board of governors on Thursday night, the Academy said in announcing the changes. They were developed by Boone Isaacs and the board's membership and administration committee, chaired by Phil Robertson, who represents the writers branch on the board of governors.

In an email sent by Boone Isaacs to the Academy's membership, she described the changes as "a series of courageous steps." In explaining to the members the new rules regarding voting rights, she added, "We have no reason to believe this will affect you receiving screeners" and underlined, "This will not affect voting for this year's Oscars." 

It was not immediately clear how many of the organization's 6,261 voting members would lose eligibility to vote under the old rules. 

The announcement also raised the question of how the Academy will define being "active in motion pictures" and what process it will use to review members' eligibility for voting rights. Ultimately, the board of governors will rule on the status of individual members with input from the branch executive committees.

Despite widespread speculation that the Academy could also make changes in some of the rules regarding the voting for best picture and other Oscar categories, the Academy did not today announce any changes in how it goes about choosing winner of its annual awards.

Jan. 22, 8:45 p.m.: Updated to include additional detail and Kevin Tsujihara's statement.