Behind The Oscars, An Academy Lacking Variety Membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are largely white, male and older than 60 years old. NPR's Arun Rath speaks with Darnell Hunt of UCLA about how the lack of diversity affects their decisions.

Behind The Oscars, An Academy Lacking Variety

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The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has been roundly criticized for the striking lack of diversity in this year's Oscar nominees. So it may not be much of a surprise that the roughly 6,000 members of the Academy aren't that diverse themselves.

DARNELL HUNT: Roughly 90-something percent white, 70-something percent male, average age about 62.

RATH: That's Darnell Hunt. He's the director of the Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, and he oversees UCLA's Hollywood diversity report. To become a member of the Academy, you can't just apply. First, you must be sponsored by two current members. Hunt says that's a real impediment to change.

HUNT: I mean, you have a system that has built into it the likelihood that you're going to reproduce a membership that's not very diverse. So unless something changes in that process, we're talking decades and decades before we're going to see anything that looks like America.

RATH: The president of the Academy is Cheryl Boone Isaacs. She is African-American, and she's spoken out on the need for Hollywood to diversify. What is she actually doing about it?

HUNT: Well, my understanding is when Cheryl Boone Isaacs took over a year-and-a-half or so ago, there was a push. The problem is they kind of inherited a huge ocean liner that's in the middle of the ocean that's hard to turn around. I mean, you know, you're going to have to make some major changes in the way things operate to see any, you know, sea change. And that's what we need is a sea change because these numbers are completely out of whack with where we are in America. So I don't know if she's in the position to do that unilaterally. I know that there's the intention to make some changes and I think there's been, like, a 1 percent increase in minority members or something like that. Well, you know, that's - you know, at that rate it's going to take us some time before we get to anything that looks anything like America.

RATH: So what is going to trigger that sea change? What is going to finally force the Academy to change?

HUNT: Well, that's a great question. You know, I'd like to think that the industry itself may change a little sooner because the bottom line is pretty clear. I mean, diversity sells. I mean, our reports show that movies that roughly reflect the diversity of American society, in terms of race and ethnicity, on average do the best at the box office. We saw the same thing in television. So I think people in the industry who are supporting our report, who are reading our report, are beginning to realize that, look, we have to do business a little bit differently. We need to kind of open up opportunity for writers, producers, directors, people behind the scenes who actually make creative decisions - not just actors in front of the camera. Although, that's important, too. They realize they're going to have to do that if they're going to remain competitive.

RATH: Why does it matter that the Academy is so white? Why should we care?

HUNT: One of the problems with having an Academy that doesn't reflect America - and we've written about this in our reports - is that because it sets the standards for what constitutes quality, it essentially anoints the top directors, the top talent - those who everyone in the industry is clamoring to sign - the agents, the agencies who package a lot of deals. And to the extent that people of color and women are left out of that discussion. They aren't deemed quite ready for prime time. They probably aren't given the same opportunities. Or as we found in some of the hacked - some of the emails, they aren't paid the same amount for their labor. So there's this standard that's set essentially by white males, who are older, that tends to lead to a definition of all other work as not being of the same caliber. And that's very destructive, I think, for an industry that's trying to keep up with and give America what it really wants.

RATH: Darnell Hunt is the director of the Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. Dr. Hunt, thanks very much.

HUNT: Thank you.

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