AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. The 86th Academy Awards are this Sunday. For the first time, the Oscar for best director could go to a Mexican, Alfonso Cuaron, for "Gravity."
(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "GRAVITY")
BLOCK: Or, it could be the black English director Steve McQueen for "12 Years A Slave."
(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")
CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) But I don't want to survive. I want to live.
BLOCK: Still, the topic of diversity at the academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a contentious one. Oscar voters are overwhelmingly white. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports the academy is trying to change starting with a new president, an African-American woman.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The academy continues to be an exclusive club that is 93 percent white, 76 percent male with an average age of 63, according to the Los Angeles Times.
JOHN HORN: I think people assumed the academy was pretty homogeneous, and it turned out it was even more so than the worst assumptions.
BARCO: John Horn and a team of Times reporters tracked down and spoke with most of the academy's roughly 6,000 members.
HORN: When we told the academy that we had independently confirmed the identities of more than 5,100 voters, there was a gasp in the room. And I think they were really embarrassed by the findings of the demographics. They knew they had a problem, but when they were confronted with the hard data of how old, how white and how male the academy was, they really had no place to hide.
BARCO: Membership to the academy is select. Oscar nominees and people working in the film industry are invited to apply. That includes everyone from directors to publicists to makeup artists. Membership is for life. Even if they no longer work in the industry, they can still vote for the Oscars every year, says Horn.
HORN: The academy obviously has, you know, some of the most distinguished people in motion pictures. But we found somebody who is a nun, a bookstore owner, a retired Peace Corps recruiter, all of them were in the academy.
BARCO: Horn and the L.A. Times team conducted their first survey two years ago, updated it two months ago, and found there was little change. But in between, last summer, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, one of the few female African-American executives in Hollywood, was named president.
CHERYL BOONE ISAACS: It's a signal that Hollywood in general is being much more inclusive, much more aware of different voices.
BARCO: Boone Isaacs is sitting in a room filled with classic film stills, in a historic building the academy is transforming into a Hollywood museum. She got her start in the 1970s helping to promote the film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND")
BARCO: Boone Isaacs later became the worldwide publicity director at Paramount Pictures. She moved onto New Line Cinema, and eventually started her own company, where she marketed such award winners as "The King's Speech" and "The Artist." She became a member of the academy 27 years ago, after a colleague invited her in.
ISAACS: When I was accepted in membership, I cried. And then, when - I think it might have been the same colleague of mine who said, you know, you'd make a great governor. And I thought, now we've gone too far.
BARCO: The board of governors manages and oversees the academy. Before she became president, Boone Isaacs was a governor for 21 years, representing the public-relations branch. Now, she follows just two other women to serve as president, actress Bette Davis and screenwriter Fay Kanin. Boone Isaacs says her goal is diversity, realizing that the academy's membership reflects the monochromatic film industry.
ISAACS: Even though the numbers are shifting and changing, it is still primarily white male, which would make sense for all the years that the academy has been in existence. And there is not a cut-off. It's not like you get to be a certain age and you're no longer a member, OK? We don't toss people out.
BARCO: To open the ranks, Boone Isaacs removed a cap on the number of members. And she asked the academy invite more than 400 people to apply, many of them younger and people of color.
JOHN SINGLETON: She's so diplomatic, and she's perfect to be the president of the academy.
BARCO: Director John Singleton has been a member since 1992, when he was nominated for two Oscars for "Boyz n the Hood." He applauds Boone Isaac's initiatives.
SINGLETON: For many, many years, the academy was one of the most exclusive clubs. No matter what your credits were, and what you were, people didn't feel like applying. And I think that monkey is off the back of the organization now.
BARCO: The academy's wider net has yet to significantly transform the demographics of its members, much less Hollywood. But when its new leader takes the stage Sunday at the Academy Awards, as she did last month to announce the nominees, the Oscars will at least have a new face.
ISAACS: I'm Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the academy.
BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.