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Academy to Weigh Oscar Best-Picture Race, Vote in Members From More Diverse Pool

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences board could make a significant decision at its June 23 board meeting — not headline-worthy changes in the best-picture race, but a subtler, long-ranging vote on membership that could affect upcoming Oscar results.

Traditionally, the late-June board meeting weighs issues like Oscar rules. A very vocal group has been campaigning for a return to five best-picture contenders, to replace the current plan (five-to-10 films). That change seems unlikely and counterproductive, but the bigger piece of news will undoubtedly be the list of new members.

After very loud criticism of the Academy for the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations, the membership committee seems likely to again recommend a high number of invitations to a diverse crowd. There were 271 invitations sent last year, and 276 in 2013 — more than double the 133 average between 2004 and 2012.

CEO Dawn Hudson and president Cheryl Boone Isaacs have been pushing for a bigger mix. Last year, Boone Isaacs told Variety that the 2014 new-member list “is a continuation of an initiative to bring in new voices. … The membership is becoming more and more a reflection of the world at large.”

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The Academy never tracks demographics, but this year’s list of new members is likely to include a healthy serving of women, foreign-born artists and people of various races, ethnic backgrounds and ages, as did the past two years.

And while the new members will represent only a fraction of the Academy’s 6,124 total, a few votes can make a big difference in Oscar voting. It may be no coincidence that Oscar nominations recently have included some “new voice”-style films (“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Her”) while short-changing traditional Oscar fodder like “Unbroken,” “Rush” and “Saving Mr. Banks.”

Hudson and Boone Isaacs always stress that the outreach does not means a change in standards. Each branch has strict requirements on eligibility based on industry tenure and credits. This means the film biz must do a lot of catching up. If hiring reflected the world population, there would have been 160 eligible films from women directors for 2014, instead of just a handful.

As for the best-picture race, the Academy board always hears recommendations from various committees. While some AMPAS members think that having only five best-pic contenders helps the prestige of nominations, that argument probably won’t get much traction this year. For one thing, the group has consistently raised the issue since the category expanded in 2009, but every year it’s been voted down.

More significant, the crop of 2014 contenders provided reasons to stick with the current plan. This year’s roster of eight films included “American Sniper,” “Selma” and “Whiplash” — none of which saw their director nominated, meaning the films might not have made the cut if there were only five best-pic contenders.

And their inclusion was a good thing for the Academy; the films are worthy of nominations and, if they’d been absent, the Acad would have received more criticism on its voting, while ABC ratings could have seen even more than the 16% drop.

Another argument for sticking with the status quo: In the six years with an expanded category, some may quibble with a few choices, but overall there have been plenty of plusses in the inclusions, with hopes for even more expansions in the future — including comedies and even two animated features in the same year.

Academy reps never divulge the board agenda in advance. But the group on Tuesday will undoubtedly hear reports on the museum which, if all goes well, will get the official greenlight by the L.A. City Council on June 30. That approval will set in motion the OK for building permits, meaning ground can be broken and the site will be on track for a late-2017 bow.

There will also be a report from the Oscar regulations committee, which looks at the most recent campaign season to see if the Acad needs new rules or clarifications. There were no campaign scandals this year, so a shakeup seems unlikely. And while these decisions seem like inside-baseball to the general public, they can be crucial to nominees. For example, at the June 27, 2014, gathering, the board made stricter rules about feature-documentary eligibility, and rules governing the production-design and short-film categories.

In April, the Acad announced its next three Oscar ceremonies. The dates for the ABC telecasts are Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016; Feb. 26, 2017; and March 4, 2018.

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