Who makes up the academy? A breakdown of the exclusive Oscars club

In the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has shifted, but the voting record hasn't.
Image: Who makes up the Academy membership, and how does it work?
Who makes up the academy membership, and how does it work?Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

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By Ethan Sacks

At this time of year, the film industry's most important audience could fit in the two multiplexes in Times Square.

That's because the 8,469 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences wield the power to bestow the most prestigious and coveted awards in Hollywood. It's not a coincidence that the first thank-you in most acceptance speeches — before even God, a loved one or an agent — is reserved for the academy.

But whom exactly are those stars thanking?

An exclusive club

The purpose of the academy since it was formed in 1927 has been to keep the business of theatrically released movies ready for its closeup in pop culture. And the Oscars have been cast in the lead role.

The organization is an umbrella group for 17 branches that represent actors, casting directors, cinematographers, costume designers, directors, documentary filmmakers, executives, film editors, makeup artists and hairstylists, marketing and public relations, music, producers, production design, short films and feature animation, sound, visual effects and writers, as well as members at large.

Not just anyone, however, can join.

Prospective members have to be sponsored by two academy members from the branch to which the candidate would belong. (Oscar nominees who are not yet members are considered automatically.) Nominations are then reviewed by the appropriate branch and, if approved, sent to the academy's Board of Governors for a final verdict.

Maybe too exclusive?

Traditionally, those barriers to entry have kept the academy dominated by older white men — the dominant demographic in the film business.

The lack of diversity came to a head in 2016 with the #OscarsSoWhite controversy after two straight years in which no actors of color were nominated. The backlash prompted a major push by Cheryl Boone Isaacs, then the academy's president, to diversify the pool of voters.

Four years later, there has been some progress: The proportion of female members climbed from 25 percent in 2015 to 32 percent last year, while the proportion of people of color inched up from a paltry 8 percent to a slightly less paltry 16 percent over the same period.

The jury, however, is still out on the jurors.

This year, only one actor of color was nominated — Cynthia Erivo ("Harriet") for best actress. (Antonio Banderas, a Spanish actor, is not of Latino descent, despite popular misconceptions.) And many critics consider Greta Gerwig's not getting a best director nomination for "Little Women" to be the biggest snub of the season.

"They addressed the gender balance issue by bringing in more women and people of color, but we're not seeing it on the nomination side," said Tom O'Neil, editor of Gold Derby, an awards season news site.

"The fact that acting nominees were more white and less diverse than usual is an indictment of the reforms that the academy has made, as is the fact that we don't have a woman nominated for director," O'Neil said.

Reading the tea leaves

Still, the shifting demographics, when combined with the earliest Academy Awards in history — the voting period ended about two weeks earlier than usual — have provided extra drama for prognosticators. It's likely that many voters just didn't have time to see all of the nominated movies and shorts in every category.

So the late run that "1917" has made, with wins from the Producers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America and the Golden Globes, put it on radars at the exact right time.

"It also notches a few academy boxes," said Anne Thompson, editor-at-large of Indiewire. "It's a war movie they really loves war movies. It appeals to the prominent demographic of the academy, which is still older white men. And it's a movie of extraordinary technological achievement."

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But actors still make up the largest segment of the academy, with 1,324 members, nearly double the next biggest branch. And "Parasite" won for best ensemble, the biggest prize at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

In addition, a sharp increase in international members, currently estimated at 20 percent of total membership, could lead to a different result when the envelope for best picture is opened.

"What that favors is a movie that has been widely seen all over the world, of which 'Parasite' qualifies," Thompson said. The South Korean film had made $161.3 million at the box office worldwide by Jan. 30.

So the real question still is: Who exactly will be thanking the academy on Sunday?