6:30am PT by Scott Feinberg
"Discovery Committees" and a Diversity Deadline: How the Film Academy Chose Its Record New Class
Who are they all? While there were plenty of familiar names when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences invited a record 928 people to join on June 25 — especially among the actors, who ranged from relatively new stars like Timothee Chalamet and Daisy Ridley to long-established players like Kyra Sedgwick and Wendell Pierce — there also were a lot who aren't well-known at all, even to Academy members.
Still, says composer Laura Karpman (The Beguiled), who represents the music branch on the 54-person board of governors: "If you don't know them, that doesn't mean they haven't done significant and devastatingly fantastic work. Right there is the key to everything that's going on."
The Academy, which a decade ago invited just about 100 new members annually, has, during the past three years, been racing to meet goals that it set as part of the A2020 initiative that was announced just after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of 2015. The organization's goal was to double the numbers of its female and diverse members by 2020. Assuming all of this year's invitees accept (the vast majority do, though Roman Polanski's wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, said no in protest of her husband's recent expulsion), the proportion of female members will grow to 31 percent (from 25 percent four years ago), and the percentage of nonwhite members will rise to 16 percent (from 8 percent). Total active members could rise as high as 8,366, compared to a membership of 6,022 just four years ago.
In the past, the Academy largely relied on existing members to nominate new ones. Identifying new members has now become a much more aggressive process. Eligibility requirements vary from branch to branch — directors demand at least two credits, while actors insist on at least three. Anyone who's nominated for an Oscar also automatically merits consideration, and, though most are then invited, there are no guarantees. Five of this year's winners, including Bryan Fogel, director of best documentary feature Icarus, were omitted.
At the same time, to allow for greater flexibility, most of the branches also have language that allows for new members who may not have any credits at all. For example, the documentary branch stipulates a prospective member must have a minimum of two directing or producing credits or an Oscar nom or "otherwise achieved unique distinction, earned special merit and made an outstanding contribution to theatrical documentary filmmaking." That clause explains how African Film Festival chief Mahen Bonetti, Film Quarterly editor B. Ruby Rich and film festival curator turned Ford Foundation grant maker Chi-hui Yang made the cut without credits.
And, as a result of the A2020 initiative, every branch now has a new subcommittee specifically charged with seeking out potential members who are female, nonwhite and international. Since the branches can sometimes be insular, some special committees were themselves inclusive. The music branch, for instance, sought input from several members of the members-at-large branch who work in music-related professions that do not currently qualify them for admission to the music branch itself (which welcomes only music creators like composers, songwriters and music editors, not music supervisors or executives).
Karpman, who chaired her branch's subcommittee, says its mission was "casting a wider net, looking to people who live in other places and who might have a broader knowledge of who's working." One member, working in India, identified several prospects from that country. The search yielded names ranging from 2007 Oscar winner Melissa Etheridge, who somehow hadn't been invited after her 2007 best song Oscar win for An Inconvenient Truth's "I Need to Wake Up," to Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina, who, at 86, is this year's oldest invitee.
Similarly, Mandy Walker, a governor of the cinematographers branch, explains, "We set up a discovery committee for our branch to find talented and qualified people from many different countries and cultures that have done great work that we may not be aware of or may not have been seen by us all." They discovered such French cinematographers as Celine Bozon (Felicite) and Claire Mathon (A Violent Life), who were then issued invites.
While finding diverse invitees may have been challenging for some of the crafts branches, the Academy's numbers got a big boost from the actors division. Already the organization's largest branch at 1,377 members, it extended more invitations than any other, 168 — including many to people who've worked primarily in TV (Alison Brie and Lena Headey), theater (Eileen Atkins and Audra McDonald) or stand-up comedy (Hannibal Buress and George Lopez).
Still, the whole process has left some questioning whether the Academy's standards have become entirely too flexible. And some are now asking for more uniform membership requirements across the organization — such as a minimum number of credits or an agreement that an Oscar nomination or victory should automatically ensure admission. "I do advocate for consistency," says Karpman, "and that's something that we're really working on."
—Additional reporting by Carolyn Giardina
This story first appeared in the July 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.