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Academy unveils 'sweeping' effort to make the Oscars more diverse

Term limits on voting, and a global initiative to recruit diverse new members

Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images
Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Amid a weeklong furor over a second consecutive year of Academy Award nominations in which all of the actors were white, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced today a "sweeping series of substantive changes" that are designed to increase diversity across the organization.

Starting later this year, the Academy will place a 10-year limit on voting status for all newly admitted members — a significant change to the organization's bylaws that pundits described to Vanity Fair as an unlikely "nuclear option." That decadelong term will only be renewed if the individual has been "active in motion pictures during that decade," the Academy said. A member will receive lifetime voting rights after three 10-year terms, or if they have won or been nominated for an Oscar.

The Academy said it will apply those standards retroactively to existing members, and anyone who doesn't qualify under the new rules will be relegated to "emeritus" status. Emeritus members of the Academy won't have to pay dues and will still "enjoy all the privileges of membership" except one: They won't be able to vote on the Oscars. It's likely that many of the Academy's 7,000-plus current voters will become emeritus members, like people who have left the filmmaking industry or retired. Under the old rules, people retained voting rights for life once they became members of the Academy.

In addition to changing its membership criteria, the Academy is undertaking an effort to find new members across the globe "who represent greater diversity." That initiative will "supplement the traditional process," in which candidates must be sponsored by two existing members and approved by the Academy's board of governors — a setup that tended to maintain the status quo, in terms of the Academy's relative lack of gender and racial diversity.

The goal of these efforts, the Academy said, is to double the number of women and "diverse members" of the Academy by 2020.

The Academy is also taking steps to make its board of governors more diverse. The organization is immediately adding three seats to the board, and presumably plans to fill those seats with minority individuals. The Academy said it will also add new non-governors to its executive and board committees as a way to give those new members "an opportunity to become more active in Academy decision-making and help the organization identify and nurture future leaders." Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who has served as the president of the Academy since 2013, is the only nonwhite person out of the board of governors' eight officers and 51 governors.

An investigation by the Los Angeles Times in 2012 found that the 5,765 Oscar voters at the time were nearly 94 percent white and 77 percent male, with a median age of 62. Since then, the Academy has been working to increase diversity by inducting groups of new members that are larger and feature more racial, gender and national diversity. The class of 2015, for instance, numbered 322 new members — the largest ever — and more than 23 percent of them were people of color, according to the Los Angeles Times.

That effort has not had an impact yet. The nominees for the 88th Academy Awards were revealed last Thursday, and since then the Academy has been the target of widespread criticism regarding a lack of diversity — both among this year's selections and the Academy itself. Following the announcement, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag trended on Twitter, just like it did last year. Stars such as director Spike Lee, actress Jada Pinkett Smith and her husband, actor Will Smith, announced that they will not be attending this year's ceremony. Boone Isaacs released a statement Jan. 19 in which she said she was "heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion" in the field of nominees.

The 88th Academy Awards will be hosted by comedian Chris Rock. The event will be broadcast live from the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles starting at 7 p.m. ET on Feb. 28.

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