Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs: New Members Represent a ‘Major Step’ in Oscar Diversity

Cheryl Boone Isaacs Academy Diversity
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AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs on Wednesday said the Academy had been talking about a more inclusive membership for a long time, “and today represents a major step toward that goal of inclusion” with the announcement of a massive new class of Academy invitees.

The Academy has been under fire since Oscar nominations were announced in January; but Isaacs emphasized that the upside is that the membership got involved. “This organization, from the leadership to the rank-and-file — all 6,000 members — got engaged in the conversation. Because of that, we were able to invite a new group of voices who represent film today and are inclusive,” she told Variety.

The 683 new invitations, announced Wednesday, more than doubles the previous high, which was 322 last year. The new class of invitees are 46% female and 41% people of color.

The members this year have been more active in suggesting new names, she said. “Every year, you sit in meetings and names come up and someone says ‘What, they’re not already a member of the Academy? (The public attention) has helped tremendously and I think that will continue.” In addition, she said some industry veterans have applied for membership after not even considering the idea for years. “By having that conversation out there, they became interested and applied.”

Isaacs said the stated goal of doubling the diversity within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences by the year 2020 is attainable.

“In the next four years, it’s important to finalize the goal that we set. The conversation is continuing. I think there is going to be a lot of positive energy that will pollinate and make more.” She also hopes the conversation will encourage the next generation, who had assumed they would never be considered for membership.

Earlier this year, there was a lot of speculation over the Academy’s statement that some members would be moved to emeritus status, i.e., retain their membership but lose voting rights. Isaacs declined to give an estimate of how many people would be affected, because “We’re still working this out. The key word is relevancy.” Decisions will be made by mid-July, but there will be no public announcement of whose status will change.

Since the initial announcement, AMPAS issued several clarifications about the matter, including an emphasis that everyone will have the right to appeal. Insiders have estimated that only a small percentage of the members will be affected; the goal is to weed out people who joined the Academy years ago but then ended their film career, for whatever reason.

As for the accusation that this was an age issue, Isaacs said firmly, “It has never been about age.” She pointed out that the age range of new invitees ranged from 24 to 91.

As the size of membership grows, some veterans have feared that it will water down the power of their vote.

“What does ‘water down’ mean?” asked Isaacs. “We’re talking about people who are very skilled, and who are involved the art form. Our industry is growing and blossoming and we want to make sure we’re including this talent in the discussion.”

When the #OscarsSoWhite controversy erupted in January 2015 and then again this past January, the Academy declined to point fingers. However, most industry people agreed that the problem did not originate with the Academy, but with the film industry, which has failed to develop and greenlight films that reflect the changes in the world — and in audiences.

On Wednesday, Boone Isaacs repeated that the Academy intends to not only reflect the industry as it is, but as it should be. “We were not going to wait for others. We had been looking at this organization for a long time and we recognized changes need to be made; one of them was more inclusion. Today represents a major step toward that goal of inclusion. The major support of the board and the membership has been the key. We were happy that the conversation took off around town and globally; people became engaged. Everybody wanted to be part of that conversation and to see more inclusion in this mass-entertainment media we represent.”