Scott Feinberg: Why This Year's Academy Invitations Give Me Hope (Analysis)

8 REP Oscar Statues (Extra photo)
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The Academy has been harshly criticized in recent years for being predominately composed of white male senior citizens. (A 2012 Los Angeles Times investigation found the average age of an Oscar voter was 62 -- and that the Academy was 94 percent white, and 77 percent male.) But the only ways for the Academy to quickly change that makeup would be for it to eliminate from its roster some of its older members who are no longer active in the industry, or add a considerable number of newer and more demographically diverse members to the rolls.

Last October, the Academy's Board of Governors met and seemed to endorse the latter idea by eliminating a 2004 rule capping the number of new members that each of the Academy's 16 branches could add each year. The rule had kept the number of overall Academy membership around 6,000. Today the Academy announced its invitation of 276 new members, 100 more than last year. (178 were invited in 2011; 135 in 2010; 134 in 2009; and 105 in 2008.) The selections clearly indicate that the Academy of the future will not look anything like the Academy of the past.

As has always been the case, a chunk of the newly invited members are probably on the list this year largely because they were nominated for -- and in some cases won -- Oscars last year. They include best actress nominee Emmanuelle Riva (Amour), the oldest woman ever nominated in that category, who probably should have been invited decades ago; best director and best adapted screenplay nominee Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild); the directors of three best foreign language film nominees, Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair), Pablo Larrain (No), and Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki); Chris Terrio (Argo), scribe of best adapted screenplay winner Argo; John Gatins, scribe of best original screenplay nominee Flight; and Rich Moore, director of best animated feature nominee Wreck-It Ralph, among others.

And -- again -- as has always been the case, this year's invitation list includes a number of veterans who clearly should have been invited in years past, but were overlooked. This year, many of those names come from the documentary branch, which invited 42 new members  -- more than any other. That represents about a quarter of its current membership. Last year the branch invited only 10, presumably due to the Academy's since-abolished quotas. This year's newcomers include 87-year-old Claude Lanzmann, best known for the epic Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985), which the Academy famously overlooked; 85-year-old Marcel Ophuls, director of the classic best documentary feature nominee The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) and best documentary feature winner Hotel Terminus (1988); and 85-year-old Agnes Varda, who has been making narrative and documentary features since 1955, was a staple of the French New Wave and continues to work to this day. (Granted, the Academy was far less international when those filmmakers were in their primes, and the same goes for Riva.)

But this year's list is also younger, and much more diverse -- not just in terms of ethnicity, but also in terms of their work in genres that the Academy has not historically embraced: comedy, action and sci-fi. Consider the following, who will be familiar to most moviegoers: actors Jason Bateman (Juno), Rosario Dawson, Lucy Liu (the Kill Bill films), Paula Patton (Precious), Michael Pena (End of Watch), Jason Schwartzman (Moonrise Kingdom), Chris Tucker (Silver Linings Playbook); directors Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and Todd Phillips (the Hangover films); and writers Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture), Ava Duvernay (Middle of Nowhere) and Rian Johnson (Looper).

Some will look at these choices and claim that the Academy is pandering to the masses -- who don't watch the Oscars anyway, and who would, if they had their way, turn Hollywood's most iconic night into the MTV Movie Awards, and elevate films like Twilight instead of films like Argo. I think that's hyperbolic nonsense. The Academy doesn't have to, shouldn't, and, I believe, won't abandon its demand for greatness in order to reconnect more with the public. It just needs to expand its notion of what greatness means.

Yes, a comic book adaptation (The Dark Knight) actually can, in the right hands, be more worthy of a nomination than a Holocaust drama (The Reader), to cite the famous 2009 example of Academy close-mindedness, which provoked the rule changes and category contractions and expansions of the past few years. Members need to be open to all sorts of films and evaluate them based on how well they achieved what they set out to achieve. A more diverse membership makes that more likely.

Sure, one can quibble with the merits of a few of this year's invitees -- to be perfectly candid, I'm not sure about Milla Jovovich (the Resident Evil films) or Jennifer Lopez, who stopped pushing herself as an actress sometime back in the 20th century -- but that's true of any year. And I, for one, am far happier with an Academy that embraces excellence and diversity of all sorts, like this one did today by inviting the other aforementioned folks -- plus Julie Delpy (the Before films), Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame and Twelve Years a Slave), Emily Mortimer (an indie queen), Sarah Polley (Away from Her and Stories We Tell) and so many others -- than I was with the old white man's club that used to reign supreme.