Why are the Academy’s Oscar nominees and winners criticized so frequently for being traditionally staid and “safe”? Why has the general Academy mentality proven so averse or oblivious to the contours and leanings of the present? We all know the answer. It’s because the Academy is made up of mostly older white guys who aren’t paying close attention, largely because they don’t choose to because they’re looking to maintain their relationships with other older white guys, and who are always looking for a job so why shake things up or otherwise rock the boat?
But all along I’ve been buying the line that the Academy is expanding its roster and getting younger and more inclusive. More members in their 30s and 40s, right? Jonah Hill, Tina Fey, David Gordon Green, Kristen Wiig, Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, etc.? Well, that’s mostly Academy spin, it turns out.
Because a just-published L.A.Times survey (2.19) led by John Horn, Nicole Sperling and Doug Smith reports that Oscar voters are nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male, have a median age of 62.
And — here’s the kicker — “people younger than 50 constitute just 14% of the membership.”
“The Times found that some of the academy’s 15 branches are almost exclusively white and male. Caucasians currently make up 90% or more of every academy branch except actors, whose roster is 88% white. The academy’s executive branch is 98% white, as is its writers branch. Blacks are about 2% of the academy, and Latinos are less than 2%.”
Your typical Academy member, in short — the person whose whims are constantly being studied and divined by Sasha Stone, Scott Feinberg, “Safe Dave” Karger, Tom O’Neil, Kris Tapley, Stu Van Airsdale and Pete Hammond — is a graying (or dyed-haired) guy with a paunch and a neck waddle and liver spots on his hands who doesn’t work out as much as he used to, and who listened to Frankie Avalon and the Turtles and Paul Revere and the Raiders in high school, and who tends to watch comfort movies when he’s home instead of Academy screeners, and who sometimes nods out at screenings.
“Men compose more than 90% of five branches, including cinematography and visual effects,” the report says. “Of the academy’s 43-member board of governors, six are women; public relations executive Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the sole person of color.
“The full roster of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has never been published. Times reporters confirmed the identities of more than 5,100 Oscar voters — more than 89% of all active voting members.
“‘We absolutely recognize that we need to do a better job,’ said writer-director Phil Alden Robinson, a longtime academy governor. But “we start off with one hand tied behind our back…if the industry as a whole is not doing a great job in opening up its ranks, it’s very hard for us to diversify our membership.”
Frank Pierson, a former academy president who won an Oscar for original screenplay for Dog Day Afternoon in 1976, said merit is the primary criterion for membership.
“I don’t see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population. That’s what the People’s Choice Awards are for. We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”
“Some academy members, though, believe the organization should do more to reflect the demographics of the nation. Denzel Washington, who won the lead actor award for 2001’s Training Day,” said the academy needs to ‘open it up’ and ‘balance’ its membership.
“‘If the country is 12% black, make the academy 12% black,’ Washington said. ‘If the nation is 15% Hispanic, make the academy 15% Hispanic. Why not?'”
I don’t quite buy Washington’s calculus. I think you have to demographically survey the ranks of filmmakers in the indie community and all over and determine what percentage in this group — people who are actually trying to get features or shorts made by hook or crook — are black and Latino and whatnot, and then you need to adjust the Academy’s membership accordingly.
You can’t go by the general population. There are millions upon millions of lazy, fast-food-eating couch potatoes of every ethnic stripe out there, and you can’t expect their ranks to be reflected in an organization made up of determined achievers.