After the lack of diversity in Oscar nominations sparked a furor for the second year in a row, including decisions by Spike Lee ("Chi-Raq"), Michael Moore ("Where to Invade Next"), Will Smith ("Concussion"), and Jada Pinkett Smith ("Magic Mike XXL") to skip next month's ceremony amid the #OscarSoWhite social media conversation, the Academy's 51-member board unanimously endorsed major changes to its membership Thursday night. Three board members represent the members of each of the Academy's branches.
It's not only the anger at the lily-white nominations in major categories this year. It's also the way the Academy will be represented on the Oscar show all over the world. Even though the largely white male, older membership has rewarded movies from "12 Years a Slave" to "Selma," the board wants to increase diversity in its voting ranks and try to weed out members who are inactive. They want a younger, hipper voting body to put "Straight Outta Compton" and "Creed" —or "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"—on the ABC live telecast. The preferential ballot was partly responsible for creating a list of consensus Best Picture nominees, but changes in the Best Picture voting process—which keeps being tinkered with— have not yet been mentioned.
If you have been active for three ten year spans as a member, or won a nomination or an Oscar, you are able to vote for life, which protects many of the older members. But many, many Academy voters no longer work and are being summarily kicked out of an organization that prized them for their expertise.
"You work your ass off for 40 years to get enough credits to get into this organization," said costume designer Jane Ruhm, "and then they kick you out. It's a sad state of affairs. I'm done."
A ten-year-member, Ruhm was active in the screening committee that books the films the members see throughout the year, as well as voting for foreign film, a group of voters from across the branches who tended to have the time to view multiple films a week. "The Academy is the whipping boy for the industry, which is fucked up and doesn't hire women and minorities," said Ruhm. "And I am paying for it, which is unfair. It kills me. It makes me feel so bad."
Other Academy members are upset by this unilateral action that was taken in haste without their input. Publicist Bruce Feldman, who is protected by the 30-year rule, wrote emails to his governors begging them to listen to the members before taking a vote, he said: "This is not about the reforms, these are serious issues. They didn't communicate with the membership about what they were thinking about or solicit feedback. We are a membership organization. It's a failure of governance as far as addressing issues in the right way. Engage fully with the members and then act."
The Academy will be taking on a process to establish the status of their membership, which may be challenging for consultants, writers and producers —how will they be judged? On developing projects, income, or credits? Many people like Ruhm also accumulate many credits in television, not film.
As far as I can figure it, these rule changes are most likely to impact middle-aged boomers who are nearing retirement but haven't been members that long—who would have had years of voting ahead of them—while protecting their elders who have safely fulfilled their three active decades.
Read the president's letter to Academy members below.
I realize the last few days have been tough for all of us, with so many voices in the mix.
Last night, the Board of Governors made a series of courageous steps.
Beginning later this year, each new member’s voting status will last ten years, and will be renewed if that new member has been active in motion pictures during that decade. In addition, members will receive lifetime voting rights after three ten-year terms; or if they have won or been nominated for an Academy Award. We will apply these same standards retroactively to current members. In other words, if a current member has not been active in the last 10 years they can still qualify by meeting the other criteria. Those who do not qualify for active status will be moved to emeritus status. Emeritus members do not pay dues but enjoy all the privileges of membership, except voting. We have no reason to believe this will affect you receiving screeners. This will not affect voting for this year’s Oscars.
We are confident this is a necessary step in the right direction and we appreciate your support with this endeavor as we work out the details in the coming weeks and months. We will be in touch with you regularly to update you on specific changes.
Here's more from the announcement today:
At the same time, the Academy will supplement the traditional process in which current members sponsor new members by launching an ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity.
In order to immediately increase diversity on the Board of Governors, the Academy will establish three new governor seats that will be nominated by the President for three-year terms and confirmed by the Board.
The Academy will also take immediate action to increase diversity by adding new members who are not Governors to its executive and board committees where key decisions about membership and governance are made. This will allow new members an opportunity to become more active in Academy decision-making and help the organization identify and nurture future leaders.
Along with Boone Isaacs, the Board’s Membership and Administration Committee, chaired by Academy Governor Phil Robinson, led the efforts to enact these initiatives.