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Academy Clarifies New Oscar Voting Restrictions After Controversy

The org cites a 1970 rule in its bylaws stipulating ongoing review of voting privileges.

Oscars 2016 Timeline
Mark Boardman for Variety

In a letter to its membership Monday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences reached back to some 46-year-old fine print in its own bylaws to help clarify recent controversial voting restrictions.

The letter, circulated by the org’s board of governors, reminds that per a rule in the Academy’s bylaws passed in 1970, the privilege to vote on the annual Academy Awards is primarily reserved for members who “continue to be active in the field of theatrical motion pictures,” and that bylaws require voting status “be subject to continuous review by the Board of Governors.”

In other words, the letter says, the Academy’s bylaws “have not allowed lifetime voting privileges for anyone since 1970. But they will now.”

Per new regulations announced in January, which were to be applied retroactively to the entire membership, each new Academy member’s voting status would last 10 years, and would be renewed if the member remained active in film during that decade. In addition, members would receive lifetime voting rights after three 10-year terms; or if they have been nominated for an Academy Award.

The letter reiterates those rules, clarifying that the clock on voting privileges “does not begin with time of admission to the Academy,” but rather “with a new member’s ‘first qualifying work.'”

And regarding the lifetime privilege, “if you do the math, you’ll see that the requirement can be met in as little as 21 years from ‘first qualifying work,'” the letter notes.

Nevertheless, the org’s planned designation of non-voting “Emeritus” status to certain dormant industry professionals was met with cries of ageism four months ago. Many felt the strictures were unfair to those who might be actively seeking work in the industry, but cannot find it, or those who have simply retired from the business.

The letter assures that no member will lose voting privileges simply due to retirement or having been inactive in the industry for a while. “In fact, these new guidelines advantage those with longer careers over those with shorter careers,” it reads.

The org “tried, but failed, to come up with a ‘one size fits all’ definition of activity” that could be applied to existing members, and that’s the central clarification the letter aims to make.

“Just as with new members, we will not start the first ’10-year clock’ at the beginning of your membership, which for many, occurred well into your distinguished careers,” the letter reads. “We will start the clock at your ‘first qualifying work.'”

Responsibility for determining ongoing “active” status, meanwhile, will be placed on the individual branches. And members heading for Emeritus status will be those who both have not worked in “a long time,” and those who did not work for “a long time” when they were active. No definition of “a long time” was given.

“The idea here is to specifically design the criteria so they’re fair and inclusive for each branch,” the letter reads, going on to afford the right to appeal any decision regarding voting status directing to a branch’s Executive Committee.

Meanwhile, assuaging any lingering resentment over insinuations of racism, the org swears these new guidelines have nothing to do with diversity.

“We have other proposals to advance the growth of diversity,” the letter reads. “This initiative, required by our bylaws, has to do with relevance. One of the reasons the Oscar is considered the most important award in motion pictures is because of who votes for it. As long as everyone understands that we keep voting privileges for those who are — or were — the most active in motion pictures, we will retain their confidence, and the awards will retain their enormous value. But if people are asking why someone with a short career many years ago is still voting for the Oscar after moving into an entirely different profession, it calls into question the relevance of that vote and the importance of the awards.”

The new regulations were revealed a week after nominations for the 88th Academy Awards were met with another #OscarsSoWhite controversy, with no actors of color nominated yet again.