Movie Academy Membership Quotas Dissolved, But Does It Mean Anything?

By Pete Hammond,

Media reports swirled this afternoon that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is dissolving a rule in place since 2004 that created quotas to keep membership to minimum numbers and the eligible voting body to 5800-6000 members. Sources within the Academy have confirmed this to Deadline, but noted it really is old news since this change was voted by the Board Of Governors in October. The source also called it "non-news" because any changes that might come about because of it are still a work in progress. Conceivably, without the limit on new members in each of the 15 branches affected, these branches could open the floodgates and admit more members than ever before. But that is not likely to happen based on conversations I have had today with Acad insiders, including those most affected by the relaxation of rules.

An Academy source told me the change was enacted in October in order to be more "inclusive" and pave a path for admittance to industry members who have an impressive body of work but for whatever reason have not been granted membership. It's a way to "open the ranks", I am told, but it was also emphasized that it in no way will lessen the existing professional criteria that has always applied in bringing in new members. This rule change is just the first part of a process that will accelerate in May, when each branch meets to determine which new members of those who have applied will be granted entry into this most exclusive club; the application process closed several weeks ago, and there can be no more new applications for 2013 beyond those already processed. The recommendations will then go to the general membership committee and then to the Board for final approval. The Academy expects to release a list of those accepted for membership by mid-June, I am told. Last year, 176 members were admitted, and that number is fairly close to the norm for the past decade.

Sometimes branches took the quota rule a little too far and then-CEO Bruce Davis actually took them to task for being too picky. I remember the actors branch initially turning down clearly deserving people like Amy Ryan, even after she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Gone Baby Gone. Michelle Williams was also turned down in another shocking exclusion at one point. Mega-producer/writer/director Judd Apatow was famously turned down initially (he wasn't shy in letting people know about it), and other high-profile, obviously deserving people have been as well.

One thing relaxing the quotas could do is encourage more minority members. In fact members of the National Latino Media Council recently met with Academy CEO Dawn Hudson and Academy President Hawk Koch and brought up concerns they have about the level of Latinos admitted to Academy membership. This meeting was prompted in part over the exclusion of veteran Latino star Lupe Ontiveros in this year's Oscars In Memoriam reel. Latinos comprise less than 2% of the Acad's full membership. Hudson has been known to be a big proponent of diversity at the Academy and previously in her role running Film Independent.

One member who is very involved in their branch and the selection committee for new members is not impressed with these measures, and in fact was supportive of the caps when they were implemented 10 years ago. "If it's not broken why fix it?", the member told me today. "It doesn't solve any problems or create solutions. It is not done in the right spirit of what the Academy really needs to be. It is not about more people, it is about who is the most qualified. In our branch if, say, you can bring in up to 15 people for instance, I often choose only five". The member added that many people apply in the first year who are "technically" eligible according to branch requirements but in fact are not qualified in the real standards of the branch. "Just because they can get in, doesn't mean they should. I remember one African-American applicant was really being pushed on us by Academy leadership a few years ago but wasn't truly qualified and it was the other African-Americans in the branch who most vehemently objected to letting in someone who doesn't meet our qualifications," the member said.

The other point someone brought up today is that lifting the embargo is probably really a bid to bring in more above-the-line members from the actors, directors, executive and producers branches and not something designed to swell the member rolls from the other less-visible branches. Of course that is speculation on this person's part, but getting more high-profile members does sound like something the Academy would want to encourage.

It will be interesting to see where this all leads in June and whether last October's decision really does make a difference.