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Oscar voters less diverse than cinema audiences

LOS ANGELES ― When the names of winners are revealed on Oscar night, months of suspense give way to tears, smiles and speeches. Yet when the curtain falls, one question remains: Who cast the votes?

About 37 million people tuned in to the Academy Awards last year, and a great deal rides on the show’s outcome. Winning a golden statuette can vault an actor to stardom, add millions to a movie’s box office and boost a studio’s prestige. Yet the roster of all 5,765 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a closely guarded secret.

Even inside the movie industry, intense speculation surrounds the academy’s composition and how that influences who gets nominated for and wins Oscars. The organization does not publish a membership list.

“I have to tell you,” said academy member Viola Davis, nominated for lead actress this year for “The Help.” “I don’t even know who is a member of the academy.”

A Los Angeles Times study found that academy voters are markedly less diverse than the public, and even more monolithic than many in the film industry may suspect. Oscar voters are nearly 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male, the Times found. Blacks are about 2 percent of the academy, and Latinos are less than 2 percent.

Oscar voters have a median age of 62, the study showed. People younger than 50 constitute just 14 percent of the membership.

The academy calls itself “the world’s preeminent movie-related organization” of “the most accomplished men and women working in cinema,” and its membership includes some of the brightest lights in the film business ― Tom Hanks, Sidney Poitier, Meryl Streep and Steven Spielberg, among others. The roster also features actors far better known for their television acting, such as Erik Estrada from “CHiPs,” Jaclyn Smith of “Charlie’s Angels” and “The Love Boat’s” Gavin MacLeod.

The academy is primarily a group of working professionals, and nearly 50 percent of the academy’s actors have appeared on screen in the last two years. But membership is generally for life, and hundreds of academy voters haven’t worked on a movie in decades.

Some are people who have left the movie business entirely but continue to vote on the Oscars ― including a nun, a bookstore owner and a retired Peace Corps recruiter. Their votes count the same as ballots cast by the likes of Julia Roberts, George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio.

To conduct the study, Times reporters spoke with thousands of academy members and their representatives ― and reviewed academy publications, resumes and biographies ― to confirm the identities of 5,112 voters ― more than 89 percent of the voting members. Those interviews revealed varying opinions about the academy’s race, sex and age breakdown: Some members see it simply as a mirror of hiring patterns in Hollywood, while others say it reflects the group’s mission to recognize achievement rather than promote diversity. Many said the academy should be much more representative.

The Times found that some of the academy’s 15 branches are almost exclusively white and male. Caucasians make up 90 percent or more of every academy branch except actors, whose roster is 88 percent white.

The academy’s executive branch is 98 percent white, as is its writers branch.

(MCT Information Services)
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