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3:59 pm
Thu February 27, 2014

New Academy President Pushes For More Diverse Voting Members

Originally published on Thu February 27, 2014 5:57 pm

For the first time, this year's best director Oscar could go to a Mexican (Alfonso Cuaron, for Gravity) or a black Brit (Steve McQueen, for 12 Years a Slave). That film's lead actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, is also in the running for an award; so is his Kenyan co-star Lupita Nyong'o, who was born in Mexico. This year's nominees are diverse, but the people who vote for the Oscars are not.

In fact, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences continues to be an exclusive club that is 93 percent white, 76 percent male, with an average age of 63, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"I think people assumed the Academy was pretty homogeneous, and it turned out it was even more so than the worst assumptions," says journalist John Horn. He and a team of L.A. Times reporters tracked down and spoke with most of the roughly 6,000 members of the Academy.

"When we told the Academy that we had independently confirmed the identities of more than 5,100 voters, there was a gasp in the room," says Horn. "I think they were really embarrassed by the findings of the demographics. They knew they had a problem; they were aware that the image of the Academy was that it was a bunch of old white men. But when they were confronted with the hard data of how old, how white and how male the Academy was, they really had no place to hide."

Membership to the Academy is select; Oscars nominees and people working in the film industry are invited to apply. They might be accepted in, if they have a significant body of film work, or if they make a big splash, or if they know the right voting members. That includes not just actors, directors and cinematographers, but also writers, editors, grips, makeup artists, even publicists. Membership is for life. Even if they no longer work in the industry, they can still vote for the Oscars every year.

"The Academy obviously has, you know, some of the most distinguished people in motion pictures," Horn says. "But we found somebody who is a nun, a bookstore owner, a retired Peace Corps recruiter; all of them were in the Academy."

The study even unearthed the owner of a cinema distribution company who was in prison in Canada — who's still a voting member. Horn and the L.A. Times team conducted their first survey two years ago, updated it two months ago, and found there had been little change.

But last summer, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, one of the few female African American executives in Hollywood, was named president.

"It's a signal that Hollywood in general is being much more inclusive, much more aware of different voices," says Boone Isaacs. She's sitting in a room filled with classic film stills, in a historic Beverly Hills building the Academy is transforming into a Hollywood museum.

"This is a great medium, and we really want to keep it fresh and be more inclusive," she says. "The Academy has really pushed forward, and I know my election is part of this ... a recognition of the diversity that's out there that has been able to rise."

Boone Isaacs's own ascension began in Western Massachusetts, where she was the youngest of four children. Her brother, Ashley, was an ad and publicity executive at United Artists in New York. She remembers going to film premieres with him in New York.

"Ashley was the hippest, coolest, smartest, just wonderful guy," she recalls. "He was, I guess, my idol."

After studying political science in college, Boone Isaacs travelled around the world as a flight attendant for Pan Am Airways.

"I remember one time we had to fly through a typhoon going into Saigon!" she says.

Boone Isaacs ended up following Ashley to Hollywood, where she landed a job with Columbia Pictures to help promote Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In 1984, she became the worldwide publicity director at Paramount Pictures, running publicity campaigns for best picture winners Forrest Gump and Braveheart. Later, she worked at New Line Cinema, then started her own company, where she marketed such award winners as The King's Speech and The Artist.

She became a member of the Academy 27 years ago, after a colleague invited her in.

"When I was accepted to membership, I cried," she says. "And when the same colleague of mine said, 'You know, I think you'd make a great governor.' I thought, 'Now we've gone too far!' "

Boone Isaacs was a governor for 21 years, representing the public-relations branch. Along with 51 other governors, the board manages and oversees the Academy. Now, she follows just two other women who ever served as president — actress Bette Davis and screenwriter Fay Kanin.

Boone Isaacs says her goal is diversity, realizing that the Academy's membership reflects the monochromatic film industry.

"It is still primarily white male, which will make sense for all the years that the Academy has been in existence," she says. "And there is not a cut-off. It's not like you get to be a certain age and you're no longer a member. We don't toss people out."

To open the ranks, Boone Isaacs removed a cap on the number of members. And she had the Academy invite more than 400 people to apply — many of them younger and people of color.

"She's so diplomatic, and she's perfect to be the president of the Academy," says director John Singleton. He's been a member since 1992, when he was nominated for two Oscars for his film Boyz In the Hood. He applauds Boone Isaac's initiatives.

"I think there was this big push, like an open-arms thing so that people who ordinarily would not apply for membership would actually apply," says Singleton. "Because for many, many years, the Academy was one of the most exclusive clubs. No matter what your credits were, people didn't feel like applying. And I think that monkey is off the back of the organization now."

The Academy's wider net has yet to completely transform the demographics of its members, much less of Hollywood. But when its new leader takes the stage Sunday at the Academy Awards, the Oscars will at least have a new image.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The 86th Academy Awards are this Sunday. For the first time, the Oscar for best director could go to a Mexican, Alfonso Cuaron, for "Gravity."

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "GRAVITY")

BLOCK: Or, it could be the black English director Steve McQueen for "12 Years A Slave."

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) But I don't want to survive. I want to live.

BLOCK: Still, the topic of diversity at the academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a contentious one. Oscar voters are overwhelmingly white. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports the academy is trying to change starting with a new president, an African-American woman.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The academy continues to be an exclusive club that is 93 percent white, 76 percent male with an average age of 63, according to the Los Angeles Times.

JOHN HORN: I think people assumed the academy was pretty homogeneous, and it turned out it was even more so than the worst assumptions.

BARCO: John Horn and a team of Times reporters tracked down and spoke with most of the academy's roughly 6,000 members.

HORN: When we told the academy that we had independently confirmed the identities of more than 5,100 voters, there was a gasp in the room. And I think they were really embarrassed by the findings of the demographics. They knew they had a problem, but when they were confronted with the hard data of how old, how white and how male the academy was, they really had no place to hide.

BARCO: Membership to the academy is select. Oscar nominees and people working in the film industry are invited to apply. That includes everyone from directors to publicists to makeup artists. Membership is for life. Even if they no longer work in the industry, they can still vote for the Oscars every year, says Horn.

HORN: The academy obviously has, you know, some of the most distinguished people in motion pictures. But we found somebody who is a nun, a bookstore owner, a retired Peace Corps recruiter, all of them were in the academy.

BARCO: Horn and the L.A. Times team conducted their first survey two years ago, updated it two months ago, and found there was little change. But in between, last summer, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, one of the few female African-American executives in Hollywood, was named president.

CHERYL BOONE ISAACS: It's a signal that Hollywood in general is being much more inclusive, much more aware of different voices.

BARCO: Boone Isaacs is sitting in a room filled with classic film stills, in a historic building the academy is transforming into a Hollywood museum. She got her start in the 1970s helping to promote the film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND")

BARCO: Boone Isaacs later became the worldwide publicity director at Paramount Pictures. She moved onto New Line Cinema, and eventually started her own company, where she marketed such award winners as "The King's Speech" and "The Artist." She became a member of the academy 27 years ago, after a colleague invited her in.

ISAACS: When I was accepted in membership, I cried. And then, when - I think it might have been the same colleague of mine who said, you know, you'd make a great governor. And I thought, now we've gone too far.

BARCO: The board of governors manages and oversees the academy. Before she became president, Boone Isaacs was a governor for 21 years, representing the public-relations branch. Now, she follows just two other women to serve as president, actress Bette Davis and screenwriter Fay Kanin. Boone Isaacs says her goal is diversity, realizing that the academy's membership reflects the monochromatic film industry.

ISAACS: Even though the numbers are shifting and changing, it is still primarily white male, which would make sense for all the years that the academy has been in existence. And there is not a cut-off. It's not like you get to be a certain age and you're no longer a member, OK? We don't toss people out.

BARCO: To open the ranks, Boone Isaacs removed a cap on the number of members. And she asked the academy invite more than 400 people to apply, many of them younger and people of color.

JOHN SINGLETON: She's so diplomatic, and she's perfect to be the president of the academy.

BARCO: Director John Singleton has been a member since 1992, when he was nominated for two Oscars for "Boyz n the Hood." He applauds Boone Isaac's initiatives.

SINGLETON: For many, many years, the academy was one of the most exclusive clubs. No matter what your credits were, and what you were, people didn't feel like applying. And I think that monkey is off the back of the organization now.

BARCO: The academy's wider net has yet to significantly transform the demographics of its members, much less Hollywood. But when its new leader takes the stage Sunday at the Academy Awards, as she did last month to announce the nominees, the Oscars will at least have a new face.

ISAACS: I'm Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the academy.

BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.