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Chiwetel Ejiofor, center, was nominated for a Golden Globe for best actor in a drama for his role in “12 Years a Slave,” which received seven total nominations. Oscar nominations will be announced Jan. 16.

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Forest Whitaker stars as a White House butler in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which is getting award-season buzz.

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Diversity efforts slow to change the face of Oscar voters

  • Article by: John Horn and Doug Smith Los Angeles Times
  • December 27, 2013 - 11:10 PM

The next Academy Awards promise to be one of the most inclusive ever for people of color.

As many as a dozen black filmmakers, actors and actresses are expected to be in the running for Oscars in major categories such as director, actor and supporting actress when nominations are announced Jan. 16.

Yet despite recent efforts by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to expand and diversify its ranks, the overall group of 6,028 Academy Award voters remains much more white than the diverse group of filmmakers likely to be shortlisted for the best work in 2013’s movies.

The academy has invited 452 people to join its ranks over the past two years, an unusually high number even though 20 of them were nonvoting slots. By accepting more members, the academy hoped to bring more women and minorities into the organization.

Although the two new classes are noticeably more diverse than in past years, they failed to change the face of the academy in a material way because new members make up such a small percentage of the entire constituency, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.

Even with the 432 new voting members, the overall academy is still 93 percent white, a decrease of less than 1 percent from what the Times found in a 2012 membership study, and 76 percent male, also a less than 1 percent decrease from what the Times found two years ago.

Big year in Hollywood for blacks

John Ridley, an African-American screenwriter who wrote the “12 Years a Slave” screenplay, took note of the irony: From all outward appearances, this is a banner year for diversity in Hollywood.

His film, directed by black filmmaker Steve McQueen, received seven Golden Globe nominations, and other black-themed films including “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and director Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” are getting award-season buzz. “Gravity,” by Mexican-born director Alfonso Cuaron, is also considered a strong bet for Oscar recognition.

“It’s been a terrific time for people of color,” Ridley said. But “black people especially have a long way to go” in gaining better representation behind the scenes, he added. He said the academy data prove “it will take a long time to change.”

The academy does not release demographic information on its members. To conduct its analysis, the Times, using public records and private databases, was able to confirm the race, gender and age of all but 45 of the 432 new voting members.

Both classes from 2012 and 2013 were about 69 percent male. The 2012 class was about 87 percent white and now has a median age of 50, while the 2013 class was about 82 percent white and has a median age of 49, the Times analysis found.

“It certainly reads better than it has. So we are moving in the right direction,” said Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the academy’s first African-American president, who was selected in July. Improving diversity, she added, is a “constant goal.”

Average age up to 63

The average age of academy members also continued to inch up — from 62 to 63 — despite the organization’s efforts to bring in younger people. That’s a difficult trend to reverse because there are far more existing members than new members, and those existing members are all another year older.

Partly in response to the Times’ 2012 study, the academy in April of this year relaxed its membership quotas, which for the preceding decade had limited the number of new members to roughly the same number of members who had retired, resigned or died.

Earlier this year, the academy invited 276 people to become members, including singer/actress Jennifer Lopez, newly appointed Warner Bros. Chief Executive Kevin Tsujihara and tough-guy actor Danny Trejo. The two classes of invitees before that were much smaller — 2012 had 176 invitees and 2011 had 178.

Even if the academy continues to add classes as diverse as its 2012 and 2013 in the years ahead, changes in its overall membership will be slow.

Assuming a historically high annual attrition rate — those who die or retire from the academy — of 200 of the organization’s oldest members, with those leaving the academy replaced by inductees whose demographics mirror those of the past two classes, the academy still would be 89 percent white and 72 percent male by 2023. Its median age would drop to 61.

Isaacs reiterated what her predecessors have said: The academy will not lower its standards simply to make the membership more diverse. People can become academy members in one of three ways: land an Oscar nomination; get a recommendation from two members; or get an endorsement from a membership committee or the academy staff.

At the same time, Isaacs said, she has no plans to reinstate the quota system that had limited the number of potential new inductees to match the number of people who had died or left the academy.

“We want all of our members to be more proactive in terms of looking at the people they work with, and suggesting that different people apply for membership who haven’t before,” Isaacs said.

“Fruitvale Station” director Coogler said having people of color being recognized for their work can only help encourage the next generation of minority filmmakers. “It’s so important seeing someone like you,” he said, “doing what it is you want to do.”



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