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After Long-Criticized Diversity Issue, Film Academy Votes To Change

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And on the West Coast, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Oscar people, have announced big changes in how the awards will work. This comes after intense controversy and threatened boycotts over nominees for this year's Oscars. For the second straight year, no people of color were nominated in any acting category, and several high-profile movies featuring African-Americans were shut out of the best picture category. NPR's Neda Ulaby has been following the issue. She joins us from our studios at NPR West.

Hi, Neda.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: This is not just about the Oscar nominations this year. The academy has been struggling with issues around diversity for a long time.

ULABY: Yeah, it's really an institutional issues. There's about 6,000 members of the academy. In 2012, the LA Times did a survey of about 5,000 of them, and what the survey discovered was that the membership is about 93 percent white, about 76 percent male and the average age was 63 years old. So this is not a membership that represents either the country or the entertainment industry. The academy has, since then, tried to diversify a little bit. But it's been - it hasn't made a huge, radical push. And that's what it's talking about doing now.

MARTIN: So what will these changes be?

ULABY: So they had a meeting on Thursday night responding to all of the furor about the most recent nominations. And what happened was the academy decided to double the number of women and people of color who can vote in the Academy Awards - by 2020. The academy president Cheryl Boones Isaac (ph) is African-American, and she says the academy needs to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up. They're making changes over who gets to vote. The lot of people in the academy are just very, very old. A lot of them haven't been active in the industry for decades. They're trying to make room for newer, younger people and people from more diverse backgrounds to take part in the most prestigious award in the business.

MARTIN: How long have people been pushing back against the academy on this issue?

ULABY: Well, for a really long time. In 1996, the Rev. Jesse Jackson organized national protests over the lack of African-American representation. And in 1988, Eddie Murphy arguably put his career a little bit on the line when he talked about this issue at length at the Academy Awards when he was giving the best picture award.

MARTIN: So as you pointed out, this is something they've struggled with for a long time. They're now saying they're really going to make changes to how the voting happens.

Is that likely to satisfy people who've been criticizing the academy for a long time about its record on diversity?

ULABY: You know, who knows? Who knows what exactly is going to happen? But some of the celebrities who've been critical have thanked the academy for taking these issues seriously. And to - the thing is, this is going to help the Oscars in other ways. Ratings have been tanking recently, and it's partly because the membership has been picking movies that, frankly, not a lot of people necessarily have enjoyed or even bothered to care about. Movies like "Creed" and "Straight Outta Compton" were pretty much overlooked, and those were movies that people, even younger people within the industry, thought were really terrific movies that should have gotten more recognition.

MARTIN: NPR's Neda Ulaby.

Thanks so much, Neda.

ULABY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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