Woody Allen, George Lucas, Meat Loaf, Erik Estrada. If I were to ask you out of these four names which two were members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS aka The Academy), which two would you choose? If you’re like me you might suspect that the obvious answer isn’t right one. And you’d be right. Believe or not the guy that gave us “I’d Do Anything For Love” (Meat Loaf) and one of the most recognizable characters from CHIPs (Erik Estrada) are members of The Academy while two of the biggest directors of the past 30 years are not. Unbelievable right? That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Academy member demographics.
With the Oscars just a week away The Los Angeles Times came out with a great set of articles(here & here) that try to get a handle on just who is in The Academy. Why is this so important? The main reason is because this group determines the top awards in the film industry. When it comes to predicting and understanding the Oscars, throw out your personal preferences about who should win and understand that it’s this set group of people that determines the awards. Knowing who they are can help you understand why they vote the way they do.
Getting an idea of the makeup of Academy members is not an easy task as their membership roster is not made public. However, with some great reporting by the Los Angeles Times, they’ve managed to uncover a number of demographics about Academy membership. Check out these statistics from the Los Angeles Times piece . . .
While the numbers are disheartening, I can’t say that it’s all that surprising. Just like any long standing organization in America, a majority of its members are older caucasian males. Independent research cited in the LATimes piece also lends credence to their reporting as “the academy’s demographics mirror the industry’s” (19% female makeup of the academy’s screenwriting branching matching the Writer’s Guild 17% female makeup; same trend follows in both the academy’s producers and directors branches matching their guild counterparts in female makeup).
At the end of the day just what do all these numbers mean? Well for one thing it definitely seems like the Academy isn’t as diverse as we would like it to be. Areas that are grossly under represented are members of different racial backgrounds, female members, and members under the age of 50. With a deficiency in these areas, it’s clearer to see why the Academy votes the way it does–with similar demographic makeup Academy members may be predisposed to voting in a similar way.
Films that skew to younger audiences or cater to a certain racial demographic may not be as easily understood by an Academy made up of mostly older caucasian males. The same could be said of female driven projects or films with strong female leads (like last year’s Bridesmaids).
Do these types of films have a decided disadvantage since they may not be as accessible, relatable, or plain just don’t appeal to an older male demographic? Sadly I think the answer is yes. I mean lots of examples could be cited. Last year Sony executives cited this fact as why their Best Picture nominee, The Social Network, lost out to eventual winner The King’s Speech–older Academy members just didn’t relate to the Internet story. This year a similar fate might have doomed the film Shame, a film with great storytelling and strong performances by two great actors (Michael Fassbender & Carey Mulligan) based around sex-addiction, sadly a topic that I’m sure not everyone is comfortable with discussing let alone watch explicitly play out on screen.
In the grand scheme of things, I think the Academy is a direct reflection of Hollywood–it’s not all that diverse either . . .
“We absolutely recognize that we need to do a better job,” said writer-director Phil Alden Robinson, a longtime academy governor. But “we start off with one hand tied behind our back…. If the industry as a whole is not doing a great job in opening up its ranks, it’s very hard for us to diversify our membership.”
It’s definitely a difficult position to be in when you’d like to diversify membership, but are hard-pressed to find candidates. Then the question becomes, well do we relax our standards of admittance in order to diversify for the greater good? Not everyone in The Academy thinks that’s a good idea . . .
Frank Pierson, a former academy president who won an Oscar for original screenplay for “Dog Day Afternoon” in 1976, said merit is the primary criterion for membership. “I don’t see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population. That’s what the People’s Choice Awards are for,” said Pierson, who still serves on the board of governors. “We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”
At the end of the day The Academy is what it is and it’s what we’ve got right now. They’re the people that decide the Academy Awards. Do I think The Academy should be more diversified? Of course I do! As to how they should go about determining that . . . I have no idea. Some of the current standards that the Academy has in place for membership I do support, standards that require prospective members to have achieved certain milestones in their respective craft. Academy members should definitely be accomplished. I mean when Woody Allen and George Lucas aren’t members and Meat Loaf and Erik Estrada are, that definitely says something.
It says The Academy isn’t who we think it should be.