Movie academy’s 1st black chief sees films building diversity

BEVERLEY HILLS, California (Reuters) – When Cheryl Boone Isaacs presides over the Oscars on March 2, her mere presence will convey a statement on diversity in Hollywood as the first African-American president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and its third woman in its 86 years.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs
Cheryl Boone Isaacs

But as the head of a body that takes knocks every year at Oscar voting time for a 6,000-plus membership that is overwhelmingly white, mostly male and older, Boone Isaacs offers no quick fixes for diversifying the academy or the industry.

Experience tells her it’s a long haul and it comes down ultimately to proving excellence in the motion picture industry. She herself put in 21 years on the academy’s Board of Governors, held every office, and worked three decades in film marketing before she was elected president last summer.

“I believe very strongly that the entertainment and motion picture business is going to be more open and aware of different voices,” Boone Isaacs told Reuters in an interview at the academy’s headquarters, a large golden Oscar statuette looming in the background.

She prefers to talk about voices in storytelling, rather than gender or race, and steers the conversation on diversity back to the films competing this year for Hollywood’s highest honors.

Boone Isaacs calls it the best year for performances and films “in the last decade or so,” and said there are “quite a few films that give us a different voice, a more diverse voice.

“The themes for the nine films nominated for Best Picture are really a wide range. And that is what makes it very special.”

There is the possibility that one historic racial barrier might be broken on her watch on Oscars night. If 12 Years a Slave, the slavery drama from British director Steve McQueen, wins Best Picture, it would be the first time that a black director’s film has taken the top Oscar.

While Boone Isaacs takes a cautious line when talking about diversity, she doesn’t hold back on what that particular milestone would mean to the industry.

“I would say that means a major door will have been kicked down.” she said.

The academy is not a reflection of society, but its membership is meant to be a reflection of Hollywood’s film industry. Applicants are asked for their name, their work history and sponsorship from two academy members.

“That is what is important for us. We don’t break it down in any other way,” Boone Isaacs said, when asked if the academy would publish information about the demographic make-up of its membership.

What the public knows is what the Los Angeles Times published two years ago after a lengthy investigation: estimated academy membership was 94 per cent white, 77 per cent male, and the median age was 62.

The report reignited a debate over diversity at the academy, and Boone Isaacs said that perhaps the timing of the conversation had “a little bit to do” with her election as president.

“Certainly, physically, I am an African-American woman, so if you look at me it is not like you are seeing something else. It is what it is,” she said. “And I believe that this honour that they have entrusted in me is because they feel for the moment I was the best person for the job.”

She was elected to a one-year term as president and can run again next summer.

Her view on her own success jibes with her belief that talent, given the opportunity, will rise to the top, no matter what the color or gender. But she also believes that the academy has a big role to play in developing younger generations for the industry and convincing women and minorities and people in other countries that film is in the realm of their possibilities.

Last week’s Scientific and Technical Awards, the academy showcase for behind-the-scenes innovation and visual effects, were a reminder of how much work needs to be done.

All 52 recipients of this year’s awards were men and many of them thanked their wives for putting up with their long work days.

“We are actively looking to students and in particular young women and having them realize that maybe the geeky world that they might think of in high school like science and math isn’t really geeky at all,” Boone Isaacs said. “There is a lot of opportunity in the entertainment business for a mind that works that way.”

Boone Isaacs has broken through some barriers herself. She was the first African-American woman to head a publicity department of a Hollywood studio. At Paramount Pictures, she orchestrated campaigns for Best Picture winners Forrest Gump and Braveheart, and she later became president of theatrical marketing at New Line Cinema.

She says African-Americans’ representation in the Hollywood studios’ executive suites is “slowly increasing,” drawing out the world “slowly” to emphasize the pace.

“We would like to see that much more and faster,” she said.

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