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Inner sanctum

Voter makeup adds to Acad's mystique

One might see them as Hollywood’s counterparts to the College of Cardinals, the body of high clerics who convene to choose a new pope. They are the select 5,557 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences entrusted with the task of judging who will be anointed winners of the Oscar.

A shroud of secrecy veils both bodies. In some ways, Hollywood’s version has the edge in mystery. Unlike the cardinals, most of the identities of the voting members of the Academy are unknown. So, too, are their ages and whether or not they are actively working or retired.

The Academy’s membership totals 6,301, but 744 have nonvoting status because either they chose to retire as active members in the organization or they are associates, a designation given to people involved in the industry but not in the making of movies. In and of itself, confidentiality serves a very real purpose. “Releasing names would come to no good,” says Ric Robertson, the Academy’s executive administrator. “It would lead to campaigning.” As a result, most of us will have to make due with the 39 names listed on the Academy letterhead.

But what about issues of age and activity in the industry? “Age is as irrelevant as any other demographic attribute,” says Robertson. “Membership is based on artistic achievements.” In his expose “Behind the Oscar: The Secret History of the Academy Awards,” Anthony Holden says the average age of Academy members “has been computed at 60.” To Robertson the statement is groundless because ages can’t be computed if they haven’t been collected. Patrick Stockstill, Academy historian and awards coordinator, isn’t quite as legalistic. “OK, so some people (in the Academy) worked in the industry 40 years ago and may not be up on the latest technology,” he says, “but they have experience. Age doesn’t mean they aren’t knowledgeable.”

Some critics have drawn a connection between the average age of Academy members and a tendency toward conservative tastes. “That might have been a criticism in the past, but I don’t see it anymore,” asserts Robertson. “We’re seeing a wide range of films being nominated — from so-called independents to major studio releases.”

One statistic made available by the Academy that is disputed is the percentage of ballots returned by voting members: a yearly average of about 75%. Some sources have put the figure at less than half. However, if that percentage should drop significantly, Price Waterhouse Coopers, the official ballot counter, is instructed to inform the Academy. Of the 25% who do not vote, Robertson estimates that “a fair part” are those who opt out because they are unfamiliar with the current crop of movies.

The Academy has to rely on the honor system in categories where films are in general release. With foreign-language and feature docus, it uses a kind of half-way honor system: Members are given cards that are punched after each viewing; when all the holes are punched, they can vote. Also, if someone sends in a fax saying they’ve seen all five entries in each category, they are allowed to vote. Short documentaries, and live and animated shorts, however, are shown together and voted on immediately after.

On average, the number of voting and nonvoting members increases by 100 to 200 a year, says Robinson. The Academy doesn’t try to maintain any kind of parity among its 13 branches (see accompanying chart) since there are built-in disparities in the number of people employed on a film from each branch. “What we do watch carefully is if one branch is growing or shrinking out of proportion than the others,” he says. “If that happens, the board will let the branch executive committee know and ask them to tighten their criteria a little.”