By SANDY COHEN
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences isn’t as much of an old-boys’ club as it used to be.
The group named two women to prominent positions this week, including Friday’s announcement that Ellen DeGeneres will host the 2014 Oscar show. Earlier in the week, the academy’s board of governors elected Cheryl Boone Isaacs president, the first African-American to hold the post and the first woman in three decades.
In June, the organization invited 276 new members to join–100 more than the previous year and arguably its most diverse slate ever.
Could this be in response to the 2012 Los Angeles Times study that stung the academy by pointing out what many suspected: Hollywood’s pre-eminent film organization is a mostly white, male group?
“This is all in the shadow of Dawn Hudson’s appointment as C.O.O. last year,” said awards expert Tom O’Neil. “The academy is making an extraordinary effort to embrace women and minorities, and be (more) inclusive.”
Other industry watchers say these visible appointments are part of the academy’s continuing effort to shed its old-boy image–one that may have been reinforced last year by Seth MacFarlane’s sexist humor and the departure of short-lived Oscar producer Brett Ratner after publicly making homophobic remarks.
“If you wanted to pick somebody that would tacitly or implicitly be an absolute rejection of the bad behavior of the last couple years, what could be a better way to distance yourself from that than to pick the most famous and popular lesbian entertainer in the world?” said Scott Feinberg, an industry analyst for The Hollywood Reporter.
Such prominent academy appointments for Hudson, DeGeneres and Boone Isaacs send a message to women interested in making movies.
“This is the kind of leadership and these are the kinds of examples that stand out for those women who will follow,” said Cathy Schulman, president of Women in Film. “This is what gives people hope and encouragement.”
DeGeneres is also a proven commodity. She successfully hosted the Oscars in 2007, drawing almost as many viewers as MacFarlane did last year.
“The academy doesn’t want to take any chances with the performance skills of the host,” O’Neil said. “This is a good, smart choice that will put the focus back on the content of the show, rather than will the host crash and burn.”
Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who produced the 2013 telecast, are returning for next year’s show. O’Neil notes that the veteran producers are also openly gay and vocal supporters of gay rights.
DeGeneres, 55, has developed a devoted following with her 10-year-old daytime talk show, which can serve as a built-in platform to promote the Academy Awards.
Boone Isaacs, the academy’s new president, is a veteran marketing executive and longtime academy member and governor.
“She’s a very worthy candidate regardless of what she looks like,” Feinberg said. “But the fact that she is a relatively younger African-American woman and that’s the face of the academy, that’s a significant symbolic thing.”
For real change, these appointments can’t just be exceptions, Schulman said, but “exceptions converted into the norm.”
“Change happens when the numbers increase.” she said. “Change doesn’t happen overnight, but it was long overdue that the academy made some appointments like this.”
Among the diverse new members invited to join the academy are Prince, Jennifer Lopez, writer-director Ava DuVernay, Sandra Oh, Paula Patton and songwriter Siedah Garrett.
DeGeneres, Boone Isaacs and the Oscar producers were not available to comment on this story.