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Originally published Sunday, February 19, 2012 at 8:26 PM

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Oscar voters' demographics less diverse than the moviegoing public

A Los Angeles Times study found that academy voters are nearly 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male. Blacks are about 2 percent of the academy, and Latinos are less than 2 percent.

Los Angeles Times

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The Oscar's don't mean anything. Whether I think any given movie is good or not will... MORE
Why does this matter and who really cares? Isn't the academy a private organization... MORE
so that's why my grandma is the only one i know who cares about this crap! MORE

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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 half 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, résumés 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.

Men compose more than 90 percent of five branches, including cinematography and visual effects. Of the academy's 43-member board of governors, six are women; public-relations executive Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the sole person of color.

"You would think that in this day and age, there would be a little bit more equality across the board, but that's not the case," said Nancy Schreiber, one of a handful of women in the cinematography branch. "Being a cinematographer should not be gender-based, and it's ridiculous that it is."

Academy leaders including President Tom Sherak and Chief Executive Dawn Hudson said that they have been trying to diversify the membership but that change is difficult because the film industry is not very diverse, and slow because the academy has limited membership growth since 2004.

"We absolutely recognize that we need to do a better job," said academy governor Phil Alden Robinson. But "we start off with one hand tied behind our back. ... If the industry as a whole is not doing a great job in opening up its ranks, it's very hard for us to diversify our membership."

Independent studies of some film crafts show that the academy's demographics mirror the industry's. Women make up 19 percent of the academy's screenwriting branch, and a 2011 analysis by the Writers Guild of America West found that women accounted for 17 percent of film writers. The academy's producers branch is about 18 percent female, and the directors branch is 9 percent female, figures close to those in a study by San Diego State University's Martha Lauzen. She examined the 250 top-grossing movies of 2011 and found that women accounted for 25 percent of all of the producers, and 5 percent of all the directors.

"Is most of commercial narrative filmmaking the product of mostly white men? Sadly, the answer is yes," said Alexander Payne, the director of best picture nominee "The Descendants" who belongs to the director branch.

Frank Pierson, a former academy president who won an Oscar for original screenplay for "Dog Day Afternoon" in 1976, said merit is the primary criterion for membership.

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

Some academy members, though, believe the organization should do more to reflect the demographics of the nation. Denzel Washington, who won the lead actor award for 2001's "Training Day," said the academy needs to "open it up" and "balance" its membership.

"If the country is 12 percent black, make the academy 12 percent black," Washington said. "If the nation is 15 percent Hispanic, make the academy 15 percent Hispanic. Why not"

Questions about the academy's diversity, or lack thereof, have persisted for years. In 1996, the Rev. Jesse Jackson organized nationwide protests over the absence of black and minority Oscar nominees, claiming it was evidence of "race exclusion" in Hollywood. The question arose again last year, when not a single minority was among the 45 nominees for actor, actress, supporting actor and actress, director and original and adapted screenplay.

In 83 years of Oscars, less than 4 percent of the acting awards have been won by African Americans. Only one woman — Kathryn Bigelow — has received an Oscar for directing.

After the 2011 ceremony was staged without a single black male presenter, actor Samuel L. Jackson complained in an email to the Times: "It's obvious there's not ONE Black male actor in Hollywood that's able to read a teleprompter, or that's 'hip enuf,' for the new academy demographic!"

Asked about the diversity of Oscar presenters, Sherak said he did not instruct this year's show producers to include more minorities. "Producers produce the show, end of subject," he said. Past hosts have included African Americans Chris Rock and Whoopi Goldberg, and Eddie Murphy was initially slated to host this year's broadcast.

Age and gender have also prompted questions. Sony Pictures executives said last year that they believed their film "The Social Network" lost the best picture race to "The King's Speech" because older Oscar voters didn't relate to the Facebook story. This year, some believe the 9/11 drama "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" made the best picture list because it appealed to middle-aged men.

"The film is about men trying to be good fathers, sons trying to be good sons," said Terry Press, a public-relations branch member who has helped mount many Oscar campaigns. "It's about unfulfilled conversations with your father and that's an extremely middle-aged man thing. It's like 'Field of Dreams."

Black actress and academy member Alfre Woodard, 59, cited the sexually explicit "Shame," which got no nominations, as a film whose Oscar hopes may have been doomed by the academy's demographics. "Maybe if the median age was 45 to 50, a film like 'Shame' might show up, which I thought was a brilliantly rendered piece but a subject matter that you don't expect a certain older demographic would flock to see," she said.

Woodard, who joined the academy in 1985 and has been active on committees, said she often encourages women to apply for membership, believing the best way to effect change is from within. "It's like sitting out an election," she said. "The country is only going toward its ideals when people participate."

But others have lost patience. Academy member Bill Duke, a black director, said: "The black community sees the academy as an entity that ignores the needs, wants, desires and representation of black directors, producers, actors and writers. Whether it is true or not, that is how it's perceived — as an elitist group with no concern or regard for the minority community and industry. And there doesn't seem to be any desire to change that perception."

Some academy critics believe the organization, through its membership and Oscar picks, reinforces a lack of diversity on screen and in studio decision-making.

"People of color are always peripheral," said black character actor Bernie Casey, who said he recently quit the academy because he was disenchanted with its racial makeup. "Asians, Latinos, black people — you never see them. We are 320 million people in America and about 48 million black people and the same of Latin descent — but you would not believe that based on what you see in films."

This year, several minorities landed nominations in the acting categories: Davis and her fellow cast member from "The Help," Octavia Spencer, and Demian Bichir, a Mexican-born performer who starred in "A Better Life." All of the year's five nominated directors are white men, and none of the 21 producers of the nine best picture nominees is a person of color.

Were there more Latino academy members, Bichir said, opportunities for Latinos would improve. "That would mean there would be a lot more roles for Latin actors," the actor said, "and a lot more movies for (Latin) cinematographers."

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