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Academy Chief Dawn Hudson on How #OscarsSoWhite Lit a Fire Under Academy Brass

Since the time Dawn Hudson joined the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as CEO in 2011, the organization had been engaged in an ongoing internal conversation about how to diversify its ranks. But it wasn’t until this year and the Oscars So White controversy that its board of directors was compelled to take major action on the issue.

Oscars So White “really catapulted the board into saying ‘Wait a minute, this incrementalism is not taking us there fast enough,” Hudson said Tuesday at Variety‘s Inclusion summit at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills. “We had a meeting and we began talking about all of the programs that we had been talking about in committees, and refining, and debating. And suddenly it was like, ‘We’re not debating anymore. We’re not refining anymore. We’re putting these in place tonight.”

The result of that January meeting was a public push by the Academy to diversify its ranks, with a goal of doubling the number of women and the number of people of color in the organization’s membership by 2020.

That effort included a tightening of rules around which Academy members could and could not vote for the Oscars. Those rules changes prompted grousing by older Academy members who worried they were being squeezed out.

Hudson said that element of the diversity push had been largely misunderstood. She pointed out that at the time of the Academy’s January board meeting, there were members who had long since left Hollywood and the film business and were instead working in real estate in Florida or in Off Track Betting in New Jersey, but still held voting privileges.

“There were examples that we thought did not make the Academy Awards legitimate,” Hudson said. Thus the board made adjustments to voting bylaws written in 1972. “I know there was confusion about ‘Wait a minute, are you saying all these people who are not working in the industry are racist voters?’ I understand we gave a confusing message. That’s not what we were saying. We were saying, ‘They’re not in the industry right now.'”

The rules changes and inclusion goals were initiated after a strong backlash on social media to a 2016 roster of acting nominees that included all white performers. The protest coalesced around the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.

Hudson was joined at the summit by Academy member and film producer Effie Brown and moderator Brian Cullinan of PwC. Brown joined the Academy in 2009.

“I didn’t think that I would be welcome at the Academy,” Brown said. “I definitely thought I was qualified and I had something to contribute. But I think a lot of those people of color and women who come from the independent film scene, we were like, ‘They’ll never accept us.'”

Cullinan noted that the Academy’s most recent class of new members was 46% female and 41% people of color. Asked by Cullinan whether those levels of inclusion could be maintained in future classes, Hudson said, “Absolutely.”

Hudson also advocated for the leap-forward change the Academy has attempted to engage in since its January board meeting as opposed to the incrementalism it had been engaged in previously.

“I really think you have to say, ‘I have a slate of films. A third of those films will be by women. A third of those films will be by people of color,'” she said.

Brown echoed the sentiment that decision makers in the film industry need to make big commitments to change.

“Going to the people who can greenlight and who have the hiring power, I would love for them to actually embrace the idea of inclusion,” Brown said. “Inclusion doesn’t mean that you are going to have less than, that you are going to be struggling. What inclusion means is that there’s room at the table for all of us to have meaningful participation and to tell stories.”

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