Motion Picture Academy Makes It Clear: The Doors Are Wide Open

The message from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to film professionals used to feel something like, “Not yet. You’ll get here some day.” Lately it’s shifted to a welcoming chorus of, “Come on in!”

Hollywood’s esteemed collective unveiled its annual list of new member invites Monday. It was, once again, a record: 928 individuals, yet another giant leap from the previous year and a far cry from the days when 200 was considered a swell.

In particular, the data provided on this year’s class touted the Academy’s accelerated efforts toward gender parity. Of the 928 invitations, 49% were extended to women. Last year the number was 39%. In 2016 it was 46%, but this year, nine of the Academy’s 17 branches invited more women than men, including actors, film editors, and producers.

According to the Academy, these numbers will bring the overall female makeup of its membership to 31%.

Following the explosion of the #MeToo movement and the industry-born Time’s Up initiative last year, it was fully expected that the Academy would highlight its own push to include more female voices. Notably, however, those engines started revving two years ago throughout the various crafts branches, perhaps because that’s where action was most needed after years of neglect.

This escalation follows the well-covered recent uptick in invitations to people of color, who comprise 38% of this year’s class, bringing the overall number to 16% — double where the figure was just three years ago.

Elsewhere, branches have gotten creative in their expansion efforts. Take the Designers Branch, which has a clause in its bylaws that removes any restrictions on the type of job a person holds. Multiple branches have that clause, in fact, but the designers are really acting on it. They invited five location scouts or managers to join their ranks this year, all members of the Location Managers Guild International.

“I am so jazzed that we now have eight of us in the Academy,” says LMGI vice president Lori Balton, who became the first location manager to join the Academy five years ago. “The designers are super collaborative and the thing those who sponsored me realized was there are many people who play a very creative role as part of the team.”

Balton also says she’s hopeful that in the future, when applicable, location managers might be considered one of the named winners of the production design Oscar.

“There are plenty of movies where location managers deserved to win an award,” she says.

Meanwhile, the Music Branch does have bylaw strictures on job titles, open only to composers, songwriters and music editors. But to circumvent those strictures, which would likely take some effort to update given those in the branch who have dug their heels in, a coterie of music supervisors and executives have been invited as “members at large” in the past. Two more were granted passage this year, including Mary Ramos, a go-to for director Quentin Tarantino since 1994’s “Pulp Fiction.”

The Music Branch has a long and contentious history concerning music supervision. The position has always been that composers and songwriters do “creative” work, while supervisors have been viewed mostly as people who collect pre-existing songs or advise directors on them. But that perspective is slowly changing.

“We want to reflect the music community at large, and we’re looking at who are making significant contributions to our business,” says Laura Karpman, a Music Branch governor. “That’s something that’s constantly evolving. What contributes to a score has very much changed over the years. There are all kinds of people playing important roles.”

Karpman notes that of late, a number of music supervisors have been invited to serve on Music Branch subcommittees, providing invaluable perspective. “We want to know what they think,” she says.

Whether the Academy is being admirably proactive or rashly reactive will no doubt remain an ongoing debate within the organization. It was certainly on producer Bill Mechanic’s mind when he resigned from the group’s Board of Governors in April, bemoaning that the Academy had “settled on numeric answers to the problem of inclusion.” At last count the overall Academy membership number (including non-voting members) was 8,298. This year’s class will mark an 11% expansion.

Some members, privately and publicly, argue that opening the doors so widely dilutes the measure of merit (a measure that, to be fair, has never exactly been chiseled in stone). And there will certainly be examples plucked from this year’s class to illustrate the point, from actors with credits stretching back a scant three or four years to directors barely out of post-production on their freshman or sophomore efforts.

But the Academy could not be clearer at this point: Aggressively expanding the palette of perspectives within the 90-year-old organization’s ranks is the goal. Nine hundred twenty-eight new members is more than a statement; it’s a declaration. Next year the number will likely be north of 1,000 and the overall membership will tip the scales at 10,000. It was nearly half that just seven or eight years ago.

“It’s no longer about a small group of people in LA,” Karpman says. “We’re looking at ourselves as an international group of filmmakers.”

Jon Burlingame also contributed to this story.

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