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After the Oscars: What Now, Academy?

The show was a good start, but the Academy is now facing much bigger challenges


Well, they got the show out of the way.

Now the real work begins.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in the midst of a furor about diversity, managed to stage the best Oscar show in years on Sunday night – a sharp, pointed but entertaining evening with the perfect host, Chris Rock, to turn the elephant in the room into a running theme, and to make important points with both wit and bite.

Yes, it ran too long, and maybe Rock belabored the point a bit, and it was distressing to see the entire diversity issue turned into black-and-white, and they should have let Antony and Sumi Jo sing instead of nixing two of the five nominated songs because their performers apparently weren’t famous enough.

Still, producers Reginald Hudlin and David Hill put on the best Oscar show since the Bill Condon/Laurence Mark show of 2009, from which they borrowed a few tricks. And on the biggest of stages, at a time when millions of critical eyes were upon them, the Academy came out looking a bit battered and frazzled, but also self-aware and smart.

But that was one night, when Job 1 was mostly public relations. Now comes the long, hard job of figuring out how and how much they want to remake their organization – and that’s going to be a lot harder than putting on a good show.

In January, a week after the outcry caused by the second consecutive year of all-white acting nominees, the Academy announced a number of dramatic changes: Three additional seats on the Board of Governors appointed by the president rather than elected by the members; the addition of minority members to executive committees; an increased outreach and recruitment program with the goal of doubling the number of female and minority members by 2020; and, most controversially, a new rule that members who haven’t been active for the last 10 years will lose voting privileges unless they’ve been nominated for Oscars or have fulfilled other requirements for their length of time in the industry.

With the Oscars over, the first step now is for each branch to determine which of its members will lose the right to vote, and simultaneously to identify a diverse crop of new members to invite in June.

But there are complications. Many longtime members were infuriated at the changes, and at the way they were put in place by the board without consulting the members who elected them.

The speed also turned out to violate an Academy rule, which says the bylaws cannot be changed by the board without a two-thirds vote at which the agenda has been revealed 10 days in advance (or by a majority vote of the membership).

The Board of Governors meeting at which the rules were changed didn’t even provide 10 hours notice: It was called at 10 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 21 and held that evening, with the vast majority of the 51-member board in attendance and voting unanimously in favor of the changes.

Now the board has to re-vote to approve those changes at its regularly scheduled meeting on March 15, a meeting that generally focuses on delivering a postmortem on the Oscars telecast.

It’s inconceivable that the governors won’t re-approve the changes they already approved unanimously, but the business of taking away members’ votes is a delicate one. Disenfranchising voters who are no longer active, even though they’ve done enough in the past to get themselves into the Academy, carries with it a clear implication that the older members are responsible for the scarcity of black nominees – it is, one member said, “an unprovable accusation of bigotry.”

Now, the Academy could get or at least try to get some proof, if they wanted to: PricewaterhouseCoopers keeps details of the voting, and PwC works for the Academy, not vice versa.

For instance, when “Hoop Dreams” failed to get a nomination for Best Documentary in 1995, AMPAS president Arthur Hiller and executive director Bruce Davis asked for the voting records, and found out how it had been blocked by a small cadre of voters. This year, the Academy could check to see how close “Straight Outta Compton” and Idris Elba came to being nominated, if it wished, and presumably it could even find out if removing the voters soon to be targeted for elimination would have changed the results.

While that’s unlikely (and the Academy certainly won’t tell us about it even if they do it), the plan to eliminate voters could well turn out to affect a minimal number, as branches shy away from cutting significant numbers of voters. It’s designed to be a branch-by-branch decision, but the Academy risks alienating a big chunk of its membership (some of whom have even muttered about suing), so they’re likely to err on the side of caution as they move forward.

But the other big step will come when they invite new members, and that’s also going to be tricky. Last year, the Academy invited 322 people to join, by far the largest number in the time they’ve been releasing the annual lists of invitees. But to have any chance of reaching the goal of doubling minority and female members by 2020, a mere 322 new members wouldn’t be nearly enough, particularly if they invite the usual number of this year’s nominees and winners.

(Obviously, they have to invite Brie Larson or Mark Rylance even though they’re white.)

The Academy will have to aggressively seek out non-white candidates and invite a huge class of prospective members; if the size of the class of 2016 is not around 500, they’ll have a hard time reaching their goal. And then they’ll have to hope that for the next four years, they can keep finding new, diverse groups of members every year, all without lowering the established standards for admittance that exist in every branch.

That will be enormously difficult; in fact, plenty of people in and around the Academy think it’ll be impossible. But that’s the goal, and the Academy will be under a microscope as it tries to reach the goal.

The real accomplishment going forward, though, would be getting the movie industry to go along. That’s where significant change has to happen – and as Cheryl Boone Isaacs pointed out on the stage of the Dolby on Sunday, saying “we agree with you” and actually doing something to increase diversity are two dramatically different things.

The Academy has a big job ahead of itself, but Hollywood has a bigger one.