When film director Rod Lurie ran into some fellow Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members last month at a deli in Studio City — Hollywood veterans who, like him, would help decide the Oscar nominees for “Best Picture” — talk turned to “Straight Outta Compton,” the highest-grossing movie from a black director in history.
Lurie thought it was one of the year’s best movies. But the other members — all white men, aged 70 and up — hadn’t voted for it; in fact, they hadn’t even seen it. Only one man had tried watching it, but stopped partway through, waving off the critically acclaimed rap biopic as “too loud.”
Those men selected American film’s highest honor alongside a group that looks almost exactly like themselves — the academy’s directors branch. Composed of Lurie and many of the nation’s most celebrated filmmakers, the group is 89 percent male and 84 percent white, and roughly half are 60 or older, a Washington Post analysis found.
“The truth is, those academy members will watch movies that deal with the heroism of the African-American community or the history of blacks, like ‘12 Years a Slave,’ because that interests them,” said Lurie, an Israeli-American director whose work includes “The Contender” and AMC’s “Hell on Wheels.” “What doesn’t interest them is the current black experience or black culture. A movie like ‘Straight Outta Compton’ doesn’t stand a chance.”
The anger that has again enveloped the Oscars, known through the social-media movement #OscarsSoWhite, has largely focused on the award show’s startling on-screen sameness of age, gender and race: All 20 Oscar acting nominations, for instance, have gone to white actors for two years in a row.
But academy members say the movie industry’s toughest, most important challenge starts not with the academy, but with Hollywood itself, in the director’s chairs and corner offices of a risk-averse business that rewards old relationships, thrives on replication — and often blocks diverse talent out.
The full roster of the roughly 6,200 members in the academy’s 17 branches — for writers, casting directors, visual-effects artists and other specialties — is a guarded secret, and the academy has shared no data on the diversity of its membership, even as it calls for sweeping reforms.
But by crunching data on academy notices, crowd-sourced databases, private archives and other sources, The Post analyzed the two branches that wield the strongest influence on the nation’s cinema: the directors, whose members preside over America’s most prominent film stories, casts and crews; and the executives, whose studio chiefs, executive producers, investors and movie moguls make the financial decisions that keep Hollywood alive.
The data reveals a staggering lack of diversity among Hollywood’s top ranks: About 96 percent of the more than 450 members in the executives branch are white and 87 percent are men, The Post found. The average member is retirement age, just over 65.
While people of color compose 37 percent of the United States and bought 46 percent of the movie tickets sold here in 2014, they are a small fraction of America’s most rewarded directors: Of the branch’s roughly 400 members, 6 percent are Hispanic, 5 percent are black and 4 percent are Asian, The Post found.
Few if any of these white, male academy members will walk onstage at the glitzy Feb. 28 awards show in Los Angeles. But they wield unmistakable power behind the scenes, by deciding which projects get funded, which actors get cast — and which stories get ignored.
If the American film industry truly hopes to be more inclusive, members said, this is where it’d need to start: By encouraging movie and business leaders to film or fund a more diverse range of stars, storytellers and ideas. But the branches’ overwhelming homogeneity shows how slow the industry has been to evolve — and how much work still needs to be done.
“The heart of the problem isn’t who gets nominated. The heart of the problem is how the industry works,” said academy member Jennifer Warren, a director, actress and founding member of the Alliance of Women Directors. “The academy is a microcosm of the industry, and it (shows) benign neglect more than outright prejudice. It’s not that the industry is prejudiced. It’s that they’re disinterested in anything but themselves.”
The Post shared its findings with the academy, but a spokesperson would not address them, saying only that “the Academy is privileged to lead the conversation on diversity, and help move it forward within our organization and the industry.” The spokesperson, Teni Melidonian, added in a statement, “During the last five years we’ve added a record number of women and minorities to our membership, and are confident that the historic changes outlined by the Academy’s Board will only continue to add momentum to this very important effort.”
The directors branch, which decides the Oscar for best director, has been championed in recent years as a win for racial progress: Its last three awards have gone to Asian or Hispanic filmmakers, including Ang Lee, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu, who is also nominated this year for “The Revenant.”
Those three wins are a clear exception from the 88 years of Oscar history. Since 1927, 423 of the 435 nominations — about 97 percent — have gone to white directors. Only four — less than 1 percent — have gone to women, including Kathryn Bigelow, the only woman to ever win.
Michael Mann, the four-time Oscar-nominated director of “Heat,” “The Insider,” “Ali” and “Collateral,” a board member of the Directors Guild of America and one of three governors of the academy’s directors branch, said The Post’s analysis appeared correct but added that the branch’s recent nominations should show it is not “ossified, conventional, some old boys’ club.”
“To me, diversity isn’t cosmetic. It’s an imperative. It’s also extremely American,” said Mann, who added he was not speaking officially on the academy’s behalf. “It is less an academy problem than it is an employer problem. The employers have to have diverse hiring, to hire writers and directors and craftspeople who can begin working in the industry … achieve excellence and become something that an academy member can nominate.”
He blamed that lack of diversity on a “self-perpetuating … persistence of institutional racism” in the industry, adding that “it feels like people are preserving privileges, or it’s habit or laziness or indifference.” But he also worried about “socially engineering” the academy on the belief that new members would solely vote alongside gender or racial lines.
“There’s an unconscious implied racism in … thinking that if there are more women or Hispanics or Asians or blacks, that they will vote female, Hispanic, Asian or black. That’s an insult,” he said. “(‘12 Years a Slave’ director) Steve McQueen isn’t going to vote for a film because the director is black. He’s going to vote for an excellent film.”
But the academy is only the “end of the train,” as members said -- it can only reward projects that are already onscreen. About 87 percent of lead actors, 87 percent of directors and 92 percent of writers for the top 163 films of 2014 were white, according to an analysis by UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies to be released later this month. Credits for people of color in those jobs actually slid 4 percent between 2013 and 2014.
Women directed only 3 percent of the major films in 2014, compared to 17 percent of the shows on broadcast TV, University of Southern California researchers said in a study released this week on what they called the entertainment world's "inclusion crisis."
All too often, those films are greenlit by executives who share producers’ skin color. White men lead all of Hollywood’s six biggest studios except Warner Bros. (where Kevin Tsujihara, an Asian American man, is chief executive), and those studios’ senior offices are run by 39 white men, 15 white women and six people of color. Those chiefs, members said, make decisions based less on color lines than fear of taking a chance on someone new
“If you’re a studio head, you’re essentially a freelancer, because if you make two or three bad movies you’re a memory,” said Russell Williams II, one of two black men to win an Oscar for sound mixing, for “Glory” and “Dances with Wolves,” and who is now a distinguished artist-in-residence at American University. “So they say, ‘We’re going to go with people we know. We’re not going to cast the net for total strangers.’ Nothing is more frightening than the unknown quantity.”
Invites to the executives branch have gone to a number of industry veterans famous for diverse film- and dealmaking, including Dreamworks Animation chair Mellody Hobson, Tsujihara and Universal Pictures chair Donna Langley, who ran the company last year when it set the record for highest-grossing studio in history.
But those members remain the exception: In the executives branch, The Post found more white male billionaires over the age of 60 than black or Hispanic members of either gender.
That preference for the same faces can leave deep scars in which stories get told or ignored, said Stephanie Allain, an academy member, film producer and former executive at Columbia Pictures. A champion of black filmmakers in the '90s, Allain advocated at the studio level for “Boyz n the Hood,” the 1991 drama that helped make stars of Cuba Gooding Jr., Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, and made director John Singleton the first black filmmaker to be nominated for best director, and the youngest, at age 24.
High-quality films with diverse ideas and characters are out there, Allain said. But in today’s monochromatic Hollywood, executives tend to overlook such movies — or undercut them altogether. Of films like “Compton,” she said, “If it’s a hit, it’s an anomaly. It’s not a trend, it’s a one-off.”
That attitude is all the harder to change, Allain said, because of how subtle it can be, particularly on film sets and in studio offices where most everyone looks the same.
“It’s not overt. It’s not like you’re in Alabama and they’re shutting down the DMV. It’s people you love, people you work with or grew up with, who aren’t aware of the way they’re biased about the material, about other cultures,” Allain said. “And yet we set the tone for what the whole world sees.”
The academy last month launched what it called an “ambitious, global campaign” to broaden its member base, saying it wants to double its count of “women and diverse members” by 2020. The board has also discussed other inclusion measures, such as allowing more academy hopefuls to apply for membership and expanding the number of Best Picture and acting nominees.
“The academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” said Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the academy president and a black woman, in a statement. Isaacs was not made available for comment for this story, but at an Oscar nominees luncheon this month, she said, “This year, there’s an elephant in the room. I have asked the elephant to leave.”
The academy’s diversity problem starts right at the top: Boone Isaacs and cinematographer Daryn Okada are the only non-white members of the academy’s 51-person ruling body, the Board of Governors.
Those nominated for an Oscar are automatically asked to join the academy. Other film professionals need to be invited and the only way to receive an invitation is by having extensive Hollywood connections and proven experience. Members can join the executives branch if they’ve spent at least five years as “a driving force” in moviemaking as a chief operating officer, creative head or other senior rank.
To meet its goal, the academy will have to do far more than slowly add new faces into the fold. In the directors branch, the academy would have to add about 16 non-white members annually for the next four years; a tall order, given that the branch added an estimated 17 total members between 2013 and 2015. To meet its gender goal by 2020, about 10 of those invites would need to go to women.
Along the way, the academy will likely meet stiff resistance from members, who have fought back against what they call the damaging overreactions of academy reforms. Stephen Verona, a member of the academy’s directors branch since 1972, wrote last month in the Hollywood Reporter, “Try telling the NBA to hire more white, Latino, Chinese or Eskimo basketball players and see the backlash.” He added, “If people make better movies, they will be rewarded. That’s as simple as it can be.”
The calls for Oscar boycotts from stars such as Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee have become damaging distractions for the academy in the weeks before the awards. Some called on host Chris Rock to drop out.
The #OscarsSoWhite anger also threatens to undermine the academy’s core moneymaker: The more than $100 million it reaps every year from commercial airtime and other revenue tied to its signature event. The show’s viewership last year plunged 14 percent from 2014 to 37 million viewers, its thinnest audience since 2009. Black viewership fell 20 percent, Nielsen data show, to 9 percent of the total audience, down from 13 percent when Rock lasted hosted the awards in 2005.
“Straight Outta Compton” ultimately wasn’t nominated for “Best Picture”: Its only Academy Award nod went to the film’s all-white screenplay team. But it earned $200 million at the box office and won praise from film critics — Richard Roeper called it "one of the better musical biopics of the last 20 years" — both of which members said would likely convince executives to give more movies like it a chance.
“Racism is a big problem in this country, but a lot of this can not be attributed to simply race: That’s a very lazy analysis,” said Gil Robertson, co-founder of the African American Film Critics Association. “This is a town of serial copycats. It’s a business: This town is open to do business. And now that they’ve seen these films can make money, can make a good return on investment, they’re going to jump on that boat.”