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Cheryl Boone Isaacs arrives at the 22nd Screen Actors Guild Awards. (REUTERS/Mike Blake)

Mystery no more

Cheryl Boone Isaacs opens up about how the Academy selects members — and Oscar winners

February 10, 2016

For decades, the process of becoming a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been kept relatively under wraps. Few people outside of Hollywood’s inner circles know how the venerated institution selects its members, or nominates — and votes on — Oscar winners.

But at Tuesday’s Women in the World salon in Los Angeles, on the heels of the firestorm about the lack of diversity among this year’s Oscar nominees — Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs opened up about the organization’s secretive procedures.

Most outsiders, said moderator and host Tina Brown, are under the impression that filmmakers have to be invited into the Academy by existing members — a process that has resulted, thus far, in an Academy that is seemingly full of friends of friends, and one which is 94 percent white and 77 percent male. Isaacs said that — while those numbers are correct — the process is slightly more nuanced.

Actor John Krasinski (L) Cheryl Boone Isaacs announce the nominees for the Best Actress in a Supporting Role during the nominations announcements for the 88th Academy Awards. (REUTERS/Phil McCarten)
Actor John Krasinski and Cheryl Boone Isaacs announce the nominees for the Best Actress in a Supporting Role during the nominations announcements for the 88th Academy Awards. (REUTERS/Phil McCarten)

“Let’s discuss the concept of ‘invited’… that is a technical term,” she said. “What happens is, there are 17 branches of the Academy, and each branch sets its rules for recognition of talent as well as membership.”

Each of those 17 branches is comprised of people who do similar work in the film industry; i.e., editors, directors, or cinematographers. Each branch determines its own criteria for Academy membership. “Editors set a standard for themselves as editors, and cinematographers as cinematographers, directors, and on and on,” said Isaacs. “It isn’t a small group of people sitting in a room and determining, across the board, who can become Academy members.”

To become a member, an interested person must request a formal application, either online or by calling the Academy. He or she must then find “two people who are members, that are in the branch that you are applying to be in to sponsor you,” said Isaacs. The branches then meets to go through applications and decide who will be invited to join.

Brown noted that the practice of nominating individuals for Academy awards is “shrouded in mystery.” Issacs explained that the nominating committee, called an “executive committee” inside the Academy, is comprised of three elected representatives from each branch, called governors.

Governors are tasked with “select[ing] a wide range of individuals” for nominations, said Isaacs.

Brown noted the possibility those governors may not be inclined “to hire or pick outside their own circles or comfort zones.”

“That’s part of it,” said Isaacs. She said the Academy is actively looking for new talent. She also said it’s easy for executive committee members to overlook new talent: “You can progress along, and be a member for a while, and not actually know a lot of new folk coming up.”

That stumbling block is made more prominent thanks to the fact that Academy membership is good for a lifetime. That means that people who may not even be working in film anymore are still allowed to vote for Oscar winners once nominees have been chosen.

“I do know of people who have gone off into another business, and because we have lifetime membership, they get to vote for [a] lifetime. I’ve had people say to me, ‘I can’t believe I get to vote every year, I hardly ever go see any movies,'” said Isaacs.

Even among members who are still in the industry, said Isaacs, it’s “not uncommon” for them to work on long, intense projects, resulting in a sort of exhaustion in between projects, which dissuades them from actively looking around for new talent. This cycle produces the current status quo.

Turning a blind eye to upcoming talent is “not for a reason of exclusion,” said Isaacs, but she added that the Academy is hopeful that more awareness and action will mean that existing members are “opening their vision a little further than normal” when it comes to diversity.

Of her own experience, she says it was intimidating that “there were very, very few people of color in the film business” when she started, but given that was true of many places in America she figured she should target the industry she wanted to learn in. Her brother, the late Ashley A. Boone Jr. was among her mentors, she recalled, as well as the highest-ranking black executive in Hollywood in the 1980s and ’90s. In spite of his status, he was often received with undisguised shock when he met someone for the first time, she said, who he’d only dealt with on the phone. “Understand that your life is the life of the job you’re taking,” he told her, encouraging her to pursue her ambitions. “That’s it. Period. And if you can’t do that, then you shouldn’t be in this business.”

Watch the full interview with Cheryl Boone Isaacs here.


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