The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences which is responsible for the Oscars, has invited a record 683 new members into its voting ranks. And the Academy says this year’s class is its most diverse ever — 46% female, and 41% people of color.
After two straight years when the 20 acting nominees at the Academy Awards were white performers, and the talk surrounding the event was dominated by the hashtag #oscarssowhite, the Academy pledged to diversify its membership. The goal is to double the number of women and minorities by the year 2020. And the nearly 700 people invited to join this year will take the institution a long way towards that goal. But, unlike in past years, some of those asked to join the Academy have only a handful of film credits.
To discuss all of this, we called Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Below are excerpts of that conversation.
We also spoke with visual effects supervisor and producer Ellen Poon. She's worked in the business for 30 years and counts "Zootopia," "Frozen" and "Inception" among her credits. She became a member of the Academy in 2015 and tells The Frame's John Horn what it has meant to be included, and why her field is dominated by men.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs: president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
What was the Academy’s process for choosing this group? Was this at all different from the way new members were chosen in years past?
Not necessarily. What it means is that is this business has expanded. There is a lot more diversity of product, actually. And a wider participation of filmmakers and skills that go into actually making motion pictures has grown. Different areas have increased substantially, whether it's in animation or visual effects. There is an explosion throughout the art form. We wanted to make sure that with this explosion and all of this talent, they become a part of the conversation. Because our organization is made up now of a little over 7,000 people, they represent all of the major facets of producing, marketing and distributing motion pictures.
What has historically been true about the Academy is that you've invited people with a body of outstanding work in film, and how you can define it varies from person to person. But some of the new invitees in this year's crop don't have a lot of credits or, in some cases, might not have worked on movies that are typically Oscar-worthy. So is the Academy changing its membership criteria?
No, the Academy has not changed its criteria. But I do want to point out that the Academy, every single year, looks at our rules and regulations in all of our areas just to make sure that we are staying current. The criteria is set by each branch. It isn't just a group of people in a room who are deciding across the board. It is by our 17 different branches. I stated before that there are many different changes in aspects of the art form and the skills that it takes to put together a motion picture. So it's an evolving situation year-in and year-out. It is impossible actually to compare, let's say the year of 2016 to the year of 1964. You can't do that because the art form has changed.
In what way does this new list of members reflect a new purpose of the Academy? Do new members still need to have two current members endorsing?
The way that we use is to be sponsored by members in your branch. The last few years, because we recognize that there are folks out there that were not really savvy about the process, we asked our members [to] look around, pay attention. [They] are our ambassadors out there on a day-to-day basis. Who's out there that's not part of this conversation that's not an Academy member? We'd like to hear from you in recommending these young — or any age, actually — men and women that are not part of our ranks that we would like to have. That is also part of why this class is the size that it is, because our members got very much involved.
You and the Academy leadership said you want to double the number of women and minorities — currently about 1,500 and 535, respectively — in your ranks by 2020. Is that still the goal?
Yes, that is our goal and we are sticking to our goal. That is for sure. And [to] keep going. It's not like we're going to get to 2020 and say, Okay, we've done this, we're done. It's just going to keep going. But you have to set goals. And the word is goal. The word is not quota. So at the end of 2020 — this new goal that we have set — we can look at and be proud of the advancements that we have made.
Ellen Poon: visual effects supervisor/producer
When you are invited to join the Academy, do you get a phone call in the middle of the night? Does someone tap you on the shoulder and say you're in? How do you actually find out that you've joined the club?
They release all the names together to the press. So you go through the Variety news article and then you find out your name is on it. It's kind of like winning the lottery.
That's the whole point, right? It's an exclusive club. You have been working in the visual effects field for many decades, but you were just invited to the Academy last year. Why do you think it took so long?
In the past what happened was there was a quota, and only when a member passed away or if that person decided to leave the Academy, then they would accept new members. So it was a very small community. Then when Cheryl Boone Isaacs came in as president, she decided to expand that community by increasing that quota. Also, I think she had that awareness a few years ago that we needed to diversify the Academy. It used to tend to be white male and slightly older as well. She realized that does not reflect the community at this point in time. So she increased the quota. You have to be sponsored by two members and they both have worked with me for a long time and they [said], We need people just like you to be in the Academy — female, from a diverse background, worked in international productions and have a lot of experience in this field. And not afraid to voice your opinion as well. So they proposed my name. The Academy does not pick out names from a hat. You have two members sponsoring you and then they have a list of people and potential candidates and they go through many meetings to narrow down who they think should be invited into the Academy.
Your branch of visual effects, according to the Los Angeles Times in the study that was released a couple of years ago, it's 97% male and 95% white. Why does visual effects — and there are certainly other branches within the Academy that are very similar — look like that in today's world?
That's a very interesting question. I asked the same question myself. Most of the departments that I work in only have a few non-white workers. I have to say, it did start off having more white males being the managers or being the supervisors, and they tend to like a crew that look the same or have the makeup that they identify with. When I was a visual effects supervisor on certain projects, I felt like the director — which was most of the time a male, especially in these big effects movies — tended to want a more male-dominated crew. Especially when they think about visual effects, they always see that as more of a technical exercise instead of a design-plus-technical exercise. So they want to surround themselves with more of a male crew. But that's something I think, if we work harder we can change that. You just have to be very, very vocal. You have to be very, very strong, both technically and artistically, in order to fight that fight.
I want to ask more about that. You have a company, Lancet Films, and you're a member of the Academy. As you're thinking about the kinds of people that you want to hire for your company, are you mindful that it's a field which historically has been dominated by white men? Also, now as a member of the Academy, are you going to be active in sponsoring and reaching out and recruiting other people who are not white men to join the Academy?
Yes, yes. I'm always looking out for the best people. As a supervisor/producer, I would reach out to many different people to make sure that I'm hiring people for the right job. I have no problems promoting females from a non-white background. Anyone who is capable in doing his or her job, I would definitely suggest that as a potential member to the Academy.
2016 Academy invitees who have previously appeared on The Frame: