Why the Academy’s Diversity Push Is Tougher Than It Thinks


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More male than female, and mostly white, the members of the actors branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are a varied lot when it comes to professional experience. They include Sonny Skyhawk, left, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Richard Roundtree, Charlie Sheen, Gabourey Sidibe and Russell Brand.

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From left, John M. Heller/Getty Images; Rob Kim/Getty Images; Noel West for The New York Times; Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images; Jason Merritt/Getty Images; Bennett Raglin/Getty Images; and Theo Wargo/NBC, via Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Roughly 87 percent are white. About 58 percent are male. As many as two-thirds are at least 60 years old.

As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences scrambles to address an outcry over a lack of diversity among its membership, a close look of its largest group, the actors branch, shows that ending the imbalance within its ranks might be more difficult than, say, predicting the annual Oscar winners.

The academy is typically reluctant to disclose the identities of its members and does not regularly provide demographic information about them. There is no set standard for membership and no consistency when it comes to how many people from the film industry are invited to join each year.

But an examination by The New York Times of the actors branch — whose more than 1,100 members control acting nominations for the Academy Awards — revealed the basic racial outlines of the group. Using public and private databases, The Times compiled data on nearly 1,100 acting branch members. Along with the white members, about 6 percent are black, under 4 percent are Hispanic and less than 2 percent are Asian. Women make up about 42 percent of the branch. A spokeswoman for the academy confirmed all of those percentages.

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ largest group, the actors branch, has more than 1,100 members.

The academy has stated that its aim is to double the number of minorities in its overall membership by 2020. Yet, as it tries to remake itself by recruiting younger and more diverse members and jettisoning those no longer active in the business, it is confronting new challenges. There are protests that it is being unfair to older actors, worries that it could simply be creating different diversity issues in the future and criticism from those within its ranks who do not want to use categories like race, age or gender as any kind of organizing principle.

Over the next five years, the academy would have to annually add about 14 black actors and at least nine actors who were either Asian or Hispanic to double the number of acting branch members in those ethnic groups. That would account for almost all of the slots if it invited 25 actors, which is how many were offered membership last year.

To attain gender parity among actors in five years, the academy could more than triple the number of annual admissions, to 80, 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.

There were 6,261 academy members throughout its various branches according to an annual tabulation it released on Dec. 14. Its official actors count — 1,138 voters, plus 126 academy retirees, who do not vote — may have been trimmed by recent deaths like that of Abe Vigoda.

Speaking by telephone this week, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the academy’s president, said the more granular decisions about carrying out new diversity goals can be made only as various internal committees meet after the Feb. 28 Oscar ceremony.

“There will be a much more actionable process this year,” Ms. Isaacs said of an annual self-assessment that in recent years has increasingly focused on broadening the membership.

The academy is trimming its rolls, largely to limit voting rights to those who are active in the business. Last month, the academy said it would begin a year-round membership recruiting effort aimed at diversity, while also culling members who have not worked on a film for 10 years, or have not been active during three separate decades. Anyone who has won or been nominated for an Oscar is excluded from those requirements.

The overall goal, said Ms. Isaacs, is not to change voting patterns — those, she said, remain personal. Rather, it is to “represent more of the working community, and also to become closer to the audience in general.”

Already, however, there has been negative reaction.

“This is not the way to go about things,” Angie Dickinson, an actress who may be losing her vote under the new rules, said in an email. Ms. Dickinson, 84, whose career includes movies like the original “Ocean’s 11” in 1960, added that she had sent an angry missive to the academy.

“My message to the academy was just this: I, Angie, voter, wrote them: I VOTE FOR PERFORMANCE . . . . NOT RACE.”

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Academy members have long prided themselves on a membership process and voting choices based on excellence, a point that Ms. Isaacs stressed in her interview. Also, the group’s acting branch, whatever its ethnic makeup, is highly varied, including Oscar winners as famous as Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks; actors like Richard Roundtree, perhaps best known for his role as the titular character in 1971’s “Shaft”; and the comedian Russell Brand, who has appeared in movies like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”

While the percentage of black actors among last year’s invitees — three were invited, or roughly 12 percent — approached their share of the United States population, the percentage of women invited was much lower. Seven were invited, or 28 percent of the total, while women make up 51 percent of the population. The year before, six women were among the 20 actors invited, or 30 percent of the total. In some recent years, none of the invitees were Asian or Hispanic.

“Constant efforts have been and will continue to be made to seek out all qualified candidates,” the academy spokeswoman said when asked about the number of actresses invited to join.

It also appears that a reduction in the current voting members could result in more women losing their voting privileges than men, at least in the actors branch.

Based on credits on the IMDbpro.com database, which tracks both previous work and films in process — but is not fully complete or without error — more women, about 150, than men, about 135, on the academy membership list examined by The Times appeared to be in a position where their active status might be examined by the academy. The spokeswoman for the academy disputed those numbers, saying they were “substantially higher” than the group’s own preliminary assessment of members in jeopardy of losing their privileges. But even if the same number of men lost their active status as women, the female membership would be more affected because they already represent a smaller percentage of the academy.

There has also been public support for the academy’s stated changes. “I believe these new membership guidelines are taking us in the right direction,” Margaret Avery, a black academy member and an Oscar nominee for her role in “The Color Purple,” wrote in The Hollywood Reporter.

However, the academy’s new diversity program has been criticized for unfairly penalizing veteran actors. More than 65 percent of the acting members appear to have been born in 1955 or earlier, meaning they are at least 60 years old. Almost all of those who could potentially lose their voting status because of “inactivity” are in that group.

“I know they will affect my voting status,” said Robert Hooks, 78, who is black and has acted in films like “Passenger 57” and “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” though he is now effectively retired from acting. “You spend a life looking to work, then you get older, and it’s not there.”

Older actresses have long had a difficult time finding meaningful roles in the youth-focused entertainment industry. The number of studio releases has also dropped by about a third since 2006, further limiting opportunities. “What’s important is to find more employment,” Ms. Dickinson wrote. “If Mr. Spielberg should call, I’m ready to roll.”

Some older members have suggested that the academy give credit for service, including judging academy contests and sitting on academy panels. But the official guidelines disclosed by the academy last month made no mention of anything similar to that.

Ms. Isaacs declined to discuss the status of any individual member.

In the meantime, actors like Mr. Hooks are hoping further action will protect their academy status.

“I’ve been a voter,” Mr. Hooks said, “and I don’t plan to be anything but.”



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