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The old white men behind the Oscars

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Amid the protests over the Academy Awards' lack of diversity, Ian Freer looks at who really calls the shots in Tinseltown... 

At its Oscars party on 28 February, hipster Hollywood hotel Mama Shelter served three cocktails: The Hateful8, The Spotlight and The Boycott.

The latter is a cheeky nod to the row over the lamentable lack of diversity in this year’s Academy Awards nominations, embodied on Twitter by #OscarsSoWhite. The likes of Idris Elba (Beasts Of No Nation), Samuel L Jackson (The Hateful Eight), Will Smith and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Concussion) failed to gain an acting nod. The black casts and filmmakers of Creed, Dope, Tangerine and Straight Outta Compton were also overlooked. What’s more, 2016 is the second year running that no black or Asian actors were nominated. 

With called for a boycott, led by Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, it escalated into a debate about race relations in the US. Even President Obama got involved.

“There’s a position that we hold in this community, and if we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem,” Will Smith explained in a statement. “I have to protect and fight for the ideals that make our country and make our Hollywood community great, and when I look at the series of nominations – it’s not reflecting that beauty.”

“The Academy Awards is the pinnacle,” adds producer Stephanie Allain (Boyz N The Hood). “We’ve all grown up with that. It is the face of the industry. We should be reflected in that.”

But to truly understand the controversy, you have to scrutinise the organisation at the eye of the storm.

Academy Origins

The Academy is the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Scientists, AMPAS for short. Instigated in 1927 by MGM mogul Louis B Mayer, the organisation is made up of film industry workers, designed to celebrate excellence in film.

AMPAS has more than 7,000 members, filtered into 17 ‘chapters’ – each one representing a different filmmaking discipline. Branches have three governors, who make up the Board Of Governors. It is these 51 people, led by President Cheryl Boone Isaacs (who is African-American) and various officers, who shape AMPAS’ direction.

According to Carola Ash, the Academy’s European Director Of Membership And Programming, “you can be invited to become a member by having two members from the same branch sponsor you. You are also automatically considered if you are nominated for, or win, an Oscar. The criteria is about the quality of the work.”

 

Deciding Vote

The Academy held its first awards ceremony in 1929. Nicknamed The Oscars (the origin of the moniker is disputed), there are currently 24 awards. Voters are encouraged to watch the films in private theatres in LA, New York, San Francisco and London. If not, DVDs are made available. Although membership is supposed to be secret, it hasn’t stopped studios sending glossy brochures, baskets and throwing parties to try to sway voters.

The first round of voting is restricted to members of the Academy branch concerned – directors vote for directors etc. After that, members vote on all nominees to determine the winners.

There are 6,261 members who can vote. The actors branch is the biggest at 1,100 members, which is partly why films built on meaty dramatic performances win Best Picture nominations. After Henry Fonda and James Garner once caused uproar by admitting they let their wives fill out their ballots, acts of verification, such as online IDs and codes sent to cellphones, keep it honest. The voting is presided over by independent accountants Pricewaterhouse Coopers, tabulation taking 1,700 man hours.

“The voting is private, so there is no way to know who people vote for,” explains Ash. “Members take their voting very seriously, and will only vote for films they have seen.”

Time for change

It is the constitution of the membership – largely white, male and ageing (average age: 62) – that has become the focus of attention. In The Hollywood Reporter, director Rod Lurie wrote about overhearing a seventysomething member dismiss Straight Outta Compton as “too loud”. He was the only one of his peers who had watched it.

The current membership is 93 per cent white and 76 per cent male, and Boone Isaacs has pledged to double the numbers of diverse members by 2020. Initiatives include adding three governors who reflect diversity, a broader recruiting campaign, and “re-framing” automatic voting-for-life rights to challenge the age bias.

Changing membership policy is not unprecedented – the Sixties and Seventies saw younger voters fast-tracked – but the speed and boldness of these changes is startling. “This is not just an Academy issue,” says Ash, “but an industry-wide issue. It is important for the whole industry to act quickly. The world is diverse and film should demonstrate that.”

Things have already started to shift. Ryan Murphy, creator of Glee and American Horror Story, has launched a foundation that guarantees 50 per cent of director slots on his shows will be filled by filmmakers of colour, women or LGBT talent. But for Allain, quality over tokenism is paramount.

“The challenge to all film execs is: if you want diversity, make it an agenda. They should say, ‘Who out there is great?’ I’m not talking about quotas. I’m saying find the best filmmakers of colour, the best women filmmakers. If you bring those diverse voices and give them the mainstream treatment, you can watch the green fall.” 

With any luck, starting in 2017, the gold-plated elephant will have left the room.

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