Ever wonder why the eventual Oscar winners almost never align with your own picks? It may be because the demographic of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) - the association responsible for voting for the awards - is made up of a membership that bears very little resemblance to the general public. In fact, it's very white, very male, and quite old.
Don't bother doing a Google search to get a member roster of AMPAS, you won't find it. It doesn't exist, and they prefer it that way. While the Academy calls itself "the most preeminent movie-related organization" of "the most accomplished men and women working in cinema, unless "preeminent" means white and "accomplished" means old, the epithet is seriously misleading. The LA Times recently conducted a study to confirm the identities of more than 5,100 of the 5,765 Academy Award voters and discovered that nearly 94% are Caucasian, 77% are male, and the median age of Oscar voters was 62.
Membership is For Life
A quick glance at the known members of the Academy certainly reveals some pretty big hitters in the industry with the likes of Sidney Poitier, Steven Spielberg, and Meryl Streep gracing their ranks. But seeing Erik Estrada and Jaclyn Smith on the list draws a blank face and a gigantic question mark. Membership in AMPAS is for life, which is not only always a very bad idea, but may also explain the continued inclusion of once-ago luminaries, but with one member being outed as a nun and another as a book store owner, it makes me wonder what form I need to fill out to make my voice heard. Wait, never mind. I'm white, male and old, so that wouldn't help matters, but it does go a long way in understanding why I seem to have far fewer issues with the big winners than most.
Diversity Could Bring Benefits, But...
While the Academy as a whole recognizes the benefits that diversity may bring, and agrees that it should be much more representative, some stubborn holdouts counter that the membership breakdown is reflective of the hiring patterns in Hollywood. Well, if that's the case, then the "old white male" problem has longer tentacles than any of us knew. Some members even revealed to the study that the group's mission is "not to promote diversity, but rather to recognize achievement." There are so many things wrong with that statement, I won't even get into it. And one member, Frank Pierson who won an Oscar back in 1976 for his role in Dog Day Afternoon goes one further, "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." By the way, Pierson is white. And with dug-in heels like that, it doesn't sound like many changes are coming in the near future. Pierson adds, "We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn't reflect the general population, so be it."
Hurting the Organization's Image?
With more than $20 million in grants and scholarships dispensed each year, three-quarters of a million dollars donated to film festivals around the country annually, and film industry fellowships and screenwriting competitions, it can't be denied that The Academy does a lot of positive things for the U.S. and world's film industries. But some say the lack of diversity hurts the organization's image, affects the awards given, and is even reflected in the Oscar ceremony itself. In the past 83 years, less than 4% of golden statues handed out have gone to African Americans, and it wasn't until 2010 that a woman was awarded an Oscar for Best Director. Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director for The Hurt Locker. Further, last year's ceremony was staged without a single black male presenter. Aha! That's why the Oscars sucked last year. We need a bit more flava' up in there!
Trying to Make it Better
The Academy began tightening membership growth back in 2004 by slowing the addition of new members, and stiffening requirements. But that has done very little to lessen the racial and ethnic divide. Since there are only three ways to become a candidate for membership: win an Oscar, receive a nomination from existing members; or earn an endorsement from the membership committee, the good 'ol boy network will persist and the Oscar ceremonies will continue to be wracked with anemic creativity, awkward chemistry, and general viewer malaise… the same things plaguing most Hollywood movies released these days.