Even as AMPAS reaches the benchmarks set in 2016, the organziation is making dramatic changes to Oscar eligibility to fight bias
On one level, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Tuesday announcement of the 819 film professionals who will be invited to join the organization is a reason to celebrate.
But on another level, it’s a stark reminder of how much work still needs to be done — and some of that work may entail the Academy examining more closely than ever the way films are made.
This year’s class is the successful realization of the goal that AMPAS set in early 2016, in the midst of the #OscarsSoWhite protests, to double the number of women and people of color in the Academy by 2020. Even before the new names were announced, the organization had easily surpassed the goal of doubling the number of nonwhite members — and with new invitations to more than 350 women, it has now achieved the gender goal as well.
When the benchmarks were set in 2016, the Academy had 6,436 active members, of which it said 1,446 were women and slightly more than 500 were nonwhite. Four years later, after the RSVPs come in from this year’s invitations, the organization will pass the 10,000 mark in total members, including more than 3,000 women and nearly 1,800 nonwhite members.
But rather than feeling as if it’s time to hoist a “mission accomplished” banner, the new statistics come at a time when the 2016 goal almost seems beside the point — and a time when the real battle is just beginning to address systemic bias in the Academy and the film industry at large.
Academy President David Rubin admitted as much on a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Cannes Film Festival’s Marche du Film last week.
“In the last five years, we’ve taken a major step through the members we invite to join and the films we celebrate,” he said. “But it’s clear there is more work to be done. We are determined to continue making big moves to reflect that commitment more than ever.”
To get here, the Academy had to make a fundamental change in its mindset. Whereas in the past, AMPAS membership was considered a reward for a long and successful career in the movie business — with individual branch requirements often asking for five or even 10 years of experience — it has changed since 2016 to seek out promising artists who might not have been given the opportunity to acquire all the credits they would have needed to qualify.
It has extended invitations to thousands of filmmakers from around the world who ordinarily wouldn’t have been part of the Oscar conversation unless they had a film competing in what used to be the Best Foreign Language Film category. The prize is now called Best International Feature Film, because the Academy can no longer presume it’s operating from an English-speaking point of view.
That influx of international members, who make up nearly half of this year’s class, no doubt made it easier for the South Korean film “Parasite” to become the toast of this year’s ceremony, and the first film not in English to win the award for Best Picture.
And yet diversity and inclusion in Hollywood are as problematic now as they were in 2016. Cynthia Erivo was the only nonwhite acting nominee at the last Oscars, and the public protests that have rocked the country since the killing of George Floyd have cast a light on systemic racism that definitely includes Hollywood.
Among the targets in recent weeks: “Gone With the Wind,” which won 10 Academy Awards in 1939, including Best Picture for its sympathetic and glamorized portrait of the antebellum South; Disney’s stereotype-laden 1946 film “Song of the South,” which won an Oscar for its music and another special award for James Baskett for portraying Uncle Remus; and Hollywood legend John Wayne, who won an Oscar for “True Grit” in 1969 and made his final public appearance on the Oscar show a decade later.
Bias in Hollywood, as well as the lack of opportunity for diverse voices to tell their stories, is not a problem the Academy can solve by inviting more people of color to vote for its annual awards. But AMPAS understands the power of symbolism — and the platform its golden statuettes provide — which is why a task force is currently at work on another fundamental change in the way the organization does business.
This effort was mentioned in a June 12 press release about new inclusion initiatives: “To ensure more diverse representation, and in collaboration with the Producers Guild of America (PGA), the Academy will create a task force of industry leaders, appointed by David Rubin and that will include governor and A2020 Committee chair DeVon Franklin, to develop and implement new representation and inclusion standards for Oscars eligibility by July 31, 2020.” (Boldface by AMPAS.)
The boldfaced phrase is a surprising one because it moves the Academy into an arena where it has rarely operated, using factors unrelated to the onscreen product to determine Oscar eligibility. On the Marche du Film panel, Loretta Muñoz, the Academy’s managing director of member relations and awards, said the committee was consulting with studios, production companies and international film organizations like the British Film Institute (BFI) and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) to come up with “collaborative, not onerous and not prescriptive” requirements for Oscar eligibility.
She added that beginning with the 94th Oscars, which will take place in 2022, films will be required to submit “demographic data” as part of their application for Oscar eligibility.
What could the representation and inclusion standards look like? Could they involve quotas for members of underrepresented groups in a project’s off-camera crew, or even for characters depicted on screen? At this point, not even the AMPAS Board of Governors, which voted for the change, knows for sure. One board member called the inclusion standards “the million dollar question,” and told TheWrap, “I have a lot of faith in DeVon Franklin. Hopefully he and his committee will land in a balanced, positive place.”
BAFTA, which Muñoz said the Academy was working with, has not announced any of its own inclusion standards at this point. BFI did publish an extensive list of diversity standards last year that films must meet to qualify for funding (rather than for awards consideration). Those standards require films to meet a number of different benchmarks involving characters and casting from underrepresented groups, department heads and key jobs given to LGBTQ or underrepresented groups, hiring and mentorship opportunities and marketing strategies.
The BFI standards are likely far more extensive than any awards body would institute, but the fact that they were mentioned as Academy collaborators suggests that Oscar eligibility may soon involve more than just release dates.
We should know more about the requirements by the end of July — but we already know that they represent a new world for the Academy, and for the Oscars.
And we know, as does the Academy, that you can achieve your goals and still feel as if you’ve only just begun.