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Oscars 2014: Women, minorities changing the look of the Academy — slowly

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Actress Alma Martinez first tried joining the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — the film industry nonprofit that puts on the Oscars — in the mid-1980s.

She was coming off small roles in films by celebrated directors such as Fred Schepisi and Roger Spottiswoode. Even though the Academy has historically been white, older and male, she thought her application had a shot.

"Well, I got a beautiful rejection letter," Martinez recalled, laughing.  She was informed that her body of work "wasn’t of the caliber that the academy was striving for at that time."

RELATED: KPCC's coverage of the 2014 Oscars

But Martinez — who's also appeared in "Zoot Suit" and "Born in East L.A," cult classic films about the Chicano experience — applied again last year, and this time, she was accepted. 

Her admission to the Academy comes as the Beverly Hills-based organization works to combat a widespread perception that it lacks diversity. (Academy officials declined to comment for this story.)

In the last couple years, the organization has made a concerted effort to offer admission to more women and people of color. (Members can seek out an invitation, or get tapped by people connected with the Academy. Oscar nominees are automatically considered for admission).

The Academy does not publish its membership demographics, but a list of the 276 invitees for 2013 includes dozens of women and minorities, among the most recognizable being actors Jennifer Lopez, Chris Tucker, Rosario Dawson, Danny Trejo and Lucy Liu.

In the past, Academy officials have said membership mirrors the makeup of the industry. But they've been making changes at the top of their own organization. Last year, Cheryl Boone-Isaacs became the Academy’s first African-American president. She joined a female CEO, Dawn Hudson.

From where producer Harvey Weinstein stands, things are looking up.

“Dawn Hudson and Cheryl Boone-Isaacs are doing a superb job of making the academy much younger, much color-blind and much cooler," Weinstein said.

But even with the infusion of new blood, the academy is still more than 90 percent white and three-quarters male, according to a Los Angeles Times investigation:

... Despite recent efforts by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to expand and diversify its ranks, the overall group of 6,028 Academy Award voters remains much more white than the diverse group of filmmakers likely to be shortlisted for the best work in 2013's movies.

Too early to tell

Ana-Christina Ramon, who studies the entertainment industry, is among those who say it’s still too early to celebrate.

"It would take decades in order to change the percentage of minorities in the Academy," said Ramon, assistant director of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.

She says the Academy could modernize faster by increasing the number of  invites from about 270 this year to triple that.

“Right now, they have about 6,000 members, but the TV academy has 18,000 members, and there is an argument to be made there are just as many people involved in the film industry as the TV industry," Ramon said.

Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Renee Tajima-Pena said the Academy has a lot of catching up to do.

"I guess now I say, ‘We have to catch up,’ because in certain ways, I’m a member of the club now,"  said Tajima-Pena, who co-directed the Oscar-nominated "Who Killed Vincent Chin?"

Tajima-Pena is a new addition to the Academy and thinks she and other incoming members will help elevate films made and performed by people of color. And that, she says, could push the industry to keep up with the times. 

“It’s the 21st century, and we’re heading toward a majority-minority population," Tajima-Pena said. "We’ve got audiences in China, Korea, Africa, Latin America. It’s a global audience."

 Members 'til death

Part of the reason why the demographics of the Academy will be slow to change is that members are pretty much in until they die or decide to step down. 

"These things take time," said singer-songwriter and new Academy member Siedah Garrett. "I’m proud to say that I am a shift in the right direction."

Garrett, who was nominated for her work in the films "Dreamgirls" and "Rio," said she’s the only African-American on the executive committee of the academy’s music branch

“It’s my job to try and bring more members of colors and a bit more diversity to the board, and I have every intention of doing that,” Garrett said.

They may be new, but the most recent class of Academy members are already making their presence known.

Christine Choy, who directed "Who Killed Vincent Chin" with Tajima-Pena also joined the Academy last year. One of her first orders of business was asking the Academy why a list of film festivals where documentary short films must have won an award to be eligible for an Oscar omitted festivals in Asia.

"There's a huge hole right there," said Choy who teaches film at New York University.

Martinez expects that all the new members will influence what films get nominated and win.

"I’m approaching it as obviously an actor," said Martinez, who recently played a cartel boss in the acclaimed FX thriller "The Bridge." "But I’m also approaching it as a woman of color for me and what is a good picture for me are films that challenge me, have something completely different to say, important to say, and are dangerous because of that."

Martinez would like to see more fellow performers of color at Academy events, and wonders if geography has something to do with their low turnout.

"A lot of the screenings and events — they’re all in Beverly Hills. Because of economics, I live in Covina," Martinez said. "So there are a lot of barriers still."

But being an Academy member who makes an impact is important to her. So much so that Martinez is now working on moving so she can be closer to the Academy action.

Reporter Brian Watt contributed to this story.

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