The Oscar-ocracy: Who Decides the Winners of Academy Awards?

Ever wonder who votes for the Oscars? As it turns out, it is a bunch of old white guys.

As we head toward the announcement of Oscar winners at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, understanding who the 5,765 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are seems like an appropriate pass-time. The Oscars generate $81.3 million in total revenue for the Academy. Something like 37 million people watch the awards each year on television, and make movie-watching decisions based on the winners and losers. Clearly, who makes the choices around who wins the awards, has significance to us all.

Recently, The Los Angeles Times conducted a survey, polling more than 89% of the voting members. They found that Academy voters are nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male. The percentage of Latinos or Blacks who vote?--around 2%. Oscar voters have a median age of 62. People younger than 50 constitute just 14% of the membership.

The numbers are striking when you think about it—they shine a light on an industry with a history of hiring practices which have been molasses-slow to reflect the far more diverse culture of the people who go to the movies.

Yes, the crowd is hardly a mirror to the movie going public, but that’s not the intent of the awards. Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences vote for their peers. It is not a popularity contest, or a poll of the ticket-buying public, even though its decisions influence movie-going choices.

Yes, the academy is primarily a group of working professionals, and nearly 50% of the academy's actors have appeared on screen in the last two years. Interestingly however, since Academy membership can be maintained for life, there are some folks who haven’t seen a movie set in decades. The Times reports that some who vote have left the movie business, “including a nun, a bookstore owner and a retired Peace Corps recruiter. Under academy rules, their votes count the same as ballots cast by the likes of Julia Roberts, George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio.”

The Times study is compelling, not only because it shines the light on who makes up Hollywood, but because the full roster of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has never been published. Times reporters had to search out to confirm the identities of the study participants.

So as we all settle in to watch the Academy Awards being handed out in Hollywood this weekend, if you like what you see, thank the bunch of old white guys at the Academy.

Oh, and you may want to that the guy who originally had the idea for the Academy in the first place--Louis B. Mayer, the legendary head of MGM. And yes, he was an old white guy.

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