Oscar diversity
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The leadership of the Academy is under the gun, and next week’s board meeting could see a revamp of the best-pic race and an overhaul of membership requirements in the midst of worldwide criticism over this year’s list of nominees.

In Hollywood, image is all-important, and board members at the Jan. 26 meeting will work to fight the perception that the Academy is racist or elitist. The lack of diversity in nominations for the 88th Academy Award has led to plenty of screwball suggestions of what should happen, but the general consensus is that the industry itself needs to make big changes, and that the Academy itself needs some major fine-tuning.

Several insiders predict a return to 10 best-picture contenders, following the widely held opinion that “Straight Outta Compton” would have made the cut if there were more than this year’s eight. Another theory is that the preferential voting system for nominations will be overhauled, since a widely admired film could still fail to score a nom, thanks to the complicated system.

There are also members who want to expand the acting categories to more than five noms. Performances like Will Smith in “Concussion” and Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation” failed to gain a nom; many Acad members on Wednesday agreed that there were far too many worthy contenders for the five slots.

The strongest possibility is a rethink of membership rules. As one exec sighed, the lack of “SOC” nomination — like the shutout of “Wall-E” and “The Dark Knight” a few years ago — proved that “the old guard” is still in power.

Each of the Academy’s 17 branches has its own requirements for new members, but several Academy members said those rules are too strict and unrealistic in the current atmosphere, in which studios emphasize tentpoles or sex comedies, leading many thoughtful creatives to embrace TV work.

For example, in the editors branch, applicants must have “a minimum of four theatrical feature film credits of a caliber which, in the opinion of the executive committee, reflect the high standards of the Academy. These credits must be principal position screen credits as film editor with at least two being single card credits.” When impressive feature films are made on iPhones, it’s hard to determine what “caliber” is desired.

On Jan. 18, AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs said in a statement that the Academy “is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership.” She added that there will be “a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity…”

Next week’s board meeting is part of the org’s regularly-scheduled calendar, but this one could be a marathon. There are 51 individuals on the board. Since AMPAS is an honor society that puts a premium on experience, a lot of its 6,261 voting members want to stick to the status quo. That’s also true of many governors. However, other governors realize that they are in the spotlight, and they need to take dramatic action now so that the Academy doesn’t lose credibility.

Some suggestions are radical, including the idea of yanking voting rights from anyone who has not worked in 10 years or so. Since Academy membership is for life, there are voters who haven’t been part of the industry for decades; but this idea is problematic since many industry members face sporadic employment and numerous retired members have rosters of impressive credits.

This wouldn’t be the first time the Acad has had an overhaul. The April 13, 1970, edition of Variety reported that Academy president Gregory Peck had led a movement for the “modernization of membership regulations.” In a letter to members, Peck said changes were needed to counter criticism that the Academy has become a “closed shop and young professionals have found it difficult to join.”

Much of the current blame for diversity problems goes to the film industry itself, where executives are mostly Caucasian and male. However, Academy execs like president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson are in a tricky position: They can’t publicly finger-point, since many of Hollywood’s key decision-makers are members. So they are trying to effect changes in subtler ways, out of the public spotlight.

At the Nov. 14 Governors Awards, the Academy announced a program called A2020 to work with studios for diversity, but so far, no details have been given.

The New York Times first reported on the Academy’s discussions about possible changes.

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