The Conversation: Is it Surprising that the Academy is Mostly Old, White and Male?

The Conversation: Is it Surprising that the Academy is Mostly Old, White and Male?

Feb 20, 2012

I'm genuinely surprised regarding this weekend's LA Times report on the demographics of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. No, I'm not surprised that it turns out the organization and its 5,765 voting members consist primarily of old white men. I'm surprised that we didn't already know this to be a concrete fact. I assumed this was already public knowledge. Maybe it's the years reading James Rocchi's Oscar preditions based on "The Ernest Borgnine Factor." Maybe it's putting two and two together based on how the Academy Awards have played out since ... well, almost ever. 

One quote in the article that would only seem a fair point if the industry as a whole wasn't also too skewed in favor of old white men:

"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," said Pierson, who still serves on the board of governors. "We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn't reflect the general population, so be it."

In spite of obvious findings, though, the Times piece has some interesting bits, such as the confirmation that membership is til death. That means there are a number of voters who aren't in the business anymore, such as 73-year-old Dolores Hart, best known for starring in Where the Boys Are. She's the nun mentioned in the article that everyone is citing in reaction pieces, and she's actually kind of up for an Oscar this year since she's the subject of the nominated documentary short God is the Bigger Elvis. And while it's not my least favorite in the category, many consider it just okay. If it wins, it's possibly because Hart has some old friends with influence. Emphasis on old.  


What are people saying about the demographical details of the Academy? Here's The Conversation heard around the Internet:

Not surprisingly, the voting membership was found to be overwhelmingly old and white. Like, REALLY old and white, old and white enough to be excited about Billy Crystal hosting this year, almost. Which is weird, because I always assumed the core fanbase for movies like The King’s Speech and The Iron Lady was inner-city teenagers. “Talk to the face, Homespigot, let’s go peep that iFlick about the rizzoyal fam! I’ll hit you back on the flippity flop,” I imagine them saying (note: I am unfamiliar with inner-city teen slang). - Vince Mancini, Film Drunk

The Academy's voting body looks pretty much like every other major decision-making party in the U.S.: a bunch of old white guys making largely-stupid choices that pretty much only other old white guys agree with. [...] That's a pretty huge discrepancy from the Academy Awards enrollment brochures, which always depict a crowd of hoodie-wearing mixed-race youths hangin' in the Academy quad. [...] Basically, the higher the likelihood of a filmgoer drifting off in the middle of a film, the greater the chance they will later be voting that film as Best Sound Mixing for rousing them awake. - Mark, I Watch Stuff

Considering old white guys determine everything that happens in American from contraception laws to Vanity Fair covers, why shouldn't they pick Best Sound Editing winners?[...] It's no wonder why War Horse and Extremely Loud and Something Something Close got nominated. There is nothing old white guys like more than crying horses and Sandra Bullock. Nothing at all. Except maybe Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, George Clooney, and, you know, all the other people who are exactly like them. - Brian Moylan, Gawker

These stats help to explain who was and wasn't included in this year's list of nominees. Noticeable snubs this year include Drive and Shame, two films which would certainly be seen as rather graphic to a group of people in their 60s. While there are two black actresses nominated this year (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for The Help), they're both safely playing maids. - Short List

While I'm sure this is not news to people who work in the business, it will be news to people who only pay attention to this stuff around Oscar time.  Us regular people, you know the ones in the American population who like the People's Choice Awards and actually buy tickets to your movies... we are going to have some questions about this. Wake the f**k up Academy.  Come out from behind the veil and publish your membership.  What have you got to hide? - Melissa Silverstein, Women and Hollywood

Leave it to the Los Angeles Times to give us yet more ‘Like Duh!’ film coverage. [...] the paper fails to hit hard on how that’s because the powers-that-be running the movie industry — from the moguls to the agents to the guilds – are the least diverse on earth. That would have taken balls. - Nikki Finke, Deadline Hollywood

To be fair to the Academy, their demographics are pretty similar to the industry's as a whole-- 19% of the Academy's screenwriting branch is female, for example, while 17% of employed screenwriters are. And occasionally they do seem to be trying to branch out and at least go younger, as evidenced by Academy members Beyonce and Seth Rogen. There's not an easy fix for this kind of problem of diversity, and in a lot of ways the solutions have to start at the bottom, with more directors, producers and actors of color making their impact on the industry first, and the Academy second. - Katey Rich, Cinema Blend

The problem is the Academy doesn't even reflect the working members of the industry. A majority of publicists, marketers and industry administrative staff are women and they are significantly more ethnically diverse than the membership.  These people, like PA's and production office staff (also more gender diverse than the Academy) are the lifeblood of the industry. Contrary to Pierson's view, the Academy represents the movie industry, not just the filmmakers. You don't let publicists, marketing mavens and studio executives in if you just represent filmmakers. - Gregory Ellwood, HitFix

The Academy does have high hopes that it will continue to see its minority numbers rise — Sherak told the L.A. Times that he was hoping the study itself encourages more diverse members of the industry to apply for membership. (“Come to us, we’ll get you in. We want you in. That would help us a lot.”) For the time being, though, it might not be surprising that The Artist is the heavy favorite to win this Sunday. After all, your parents love it. - Kate Ward, PopWatch (Entertainment Weekly)

As for the Academy efforts to reach out to under-represented groups (women and minorities, mostly), the academy's more or less lifetime memberships mean any real change will either take decades or require the pool of voters to expand considerably. - Andre Tartar, Vulture

Least surprising news ever - @johnserba

In other news, the Earth is round - @scottVnelson

Yet another reason why the Oscars are irrelevant. - @clubsilencio

Hollywood as an industry is an old world embarrassment. - @jillstewart



Conversation Twitter Poll: Does it matter to you that the Academy voters are primarily old, white and male?

No - @vjmfilms

No, I've never seen them as the absolute authority on films, anyway, so learning their demographics just reaffirms that. - @PeterSHall

Yes, because it's an accurate yet damning reflection of how Hollywood's not nearly as diverse an industry as it should be. - @mousterpiece

Yup. That's why The King's Speech won over The Social Network. - @CreedsDelight

Hell yes it matters. Singular perspective for what's supposed to be accurate recognition of achievement. - @IVanguard

Only as much as it worries me that most elected officials and CEOs are also primarily old, white and male. - @BartramClass

Who really holds the vote tho...does anybody really have faith in that system anymore? Can't remember the last 'surprise' win. - @CharlesingtonS

@Belbey: they've earned the right. We all get old in the end :)





Follow Christopher Campbell on Twitter (@thefilmcynic) to join The Conversation.



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