Numlock Awards: Meet the fast-growing but most mysterious branch in the Academy

Numlock Awards is your one-stop awards season newsletter, and it’s back! Every week, join Walt Hickey and Michael Domanico as they break down the math behind the Oscars and the best narratives going into film’s biggest night. Today’s edition comes from Walter.

Last week, I went into how the relative voting strengths of the different branches within the Academy have changed over the course of the past 10 years, with branches like the VFX and Documentary branches gaining vote share within AMPAS to the detriment of branches like the Actors and Writers, who have shed vote share as their growth lags the overall organization.

There was another mystery locked in that analysis, namely the Members-at-large. The branch is one of the most dynamic in the Academy, and one of the least explained. The Directors branch directs, the Acting branch acts, the Production Design branch designs productions, but the members-at-large — who have full voting privileges, unlike the Associates, but more on that later — are not united by any profession, but rather by their occupational proximity to film.

I pulled every invitee into the Members-at-large branch since the Class of 2015, 304 names, and then I did my best to link those names to an IMDb profile or LinkedIn page or anything that could give me a little clarity about what in fact the member-at-large does. These are reasoned links and estimates, and I left some individuals as “unclear” if their name was sufficiently common that I couldn’t determine who they were at all. There’s also a chance that I linked to the stuntman John Doe when I should have instead linked to the agent Johnny Doe. Just email me any names you think I missed here, but the overall contours shouldn’t change all that much.

I broke these out into categories, and today I’ll go through who the actual members-at-large are.

The Members-at-Large are growing quickly

In general, the Members-at-Large branch are where people go when their work merits an invitation to the Academy but there isn’t an existing branch for them to go to. A great example of this is casting directors; essential to the film industry and critical creative partners on any project, the casting directors did not have a branch to call their own until 2013, and made due in the Members-at-Large branch.

After casting was spun out of the Members-at-Large, the branch had settled at 210 members as of the end of 2014. Today, the branch stands at 544 people, more than doubling in size. They were, over that period, the second-fastest growing branch in the Academy, after only Documentary.

Who joined?

There are two things that caused the growth. The first is that the Agents, who were associate members and could not vote, last year got the vote, and were unilaterally upgraded into Members-at-Large. The second is the branch has been recruiting heavily.

We only have the list of invitees from the class of 2015 onward. First, I looked at the associates invited from 2015-2019, and identified any who were agents. These 61 agents I identified would be rolled into Members-at-Large this year. Next, I grabbed the Members-at-Large invitees, which were 307 people from 2015-2020. The working database of these folks is here. This gives us a universe of 368 people invited since 2015. We don’t know about the 210 members-at-large already in the organization in 2014, or how many of the 168 associate members in the organization in 2014 were agents. Still, mysteries are fun and I can live with only partially cracking open a secretive society.

Filling the cracks

By my reckoning, here’s a general look at the Members-at-Large, based on their 2015-2020 invitations:

Here are the five general categories that emerge.

  • About a quarter of the invitations work in stunts. With 90 people newly added in their ranks, this is a solid contingent, nearly double the size of the Casting Branch when they got their own shingle. Last year, in our post-Oscar mailbag, I speculated that a stunt branch was in the making, and these numbers are pretty much exactly what you’d want to see if you want the stunt coordinators to have a home of their own in AMPAS.

  • Another quarter are agents. Again, if I did this analysis last year, this would be precisely zero. I did not though, so pretty much in the course of a single year the Ten Percenters managed to become Twenty Three Percenters of the Members-at-Large branch invitees. I give ’em a year until they get a packaging fee.

  • The smallest bit of the invitees are people who just don’t have a home anywhere else, which I mostly dropped in the Technician, Other and Nonprofits categories. Lots of these people were, for instance, people who worked in the cinematography department but are not Cinematographers, journeymen camera operators and colorists getting the nod in here. There were folks like prop masters and script supervisors, historians and film chemists and restorers, people who have long managed organizations for filmmakers. They combine to be less than 10 percent of the invitees, even though honestly that’s who I personally thought this branch was for.

  • Non-PGA Producers. Lots of the people in this group — people in the executive, production and producer categories, just shy of 20 percent of the invitations —had titles like Supervising Producer, Production Executive, Executive in charge of Music, and Studio executives, and all sorts of titles that pretty much mean “in charge of a lot of stuff, but for whatever reason not allowed to be in the Executives or Producers branch.” The producers branch has very sticky requirements about who is a producer and the executives branch also has its weird gatekeeping and seems to ignore technology-related roles. These seem to be folks a rung down who still run the show on a day to day basis, but they’re pretty much producers or executives.

  • VFX Producers. About 17 percent of the invitations. While I’m certain there are good reasons, I actually don’t know why most of these folks aren’t a fit in the Visual Effects branch. Their titles are usually either Visual Effects Supervisor or Postproduction Supervisor. My guess is this is a Goldilocks situation, where they’re too-VFXy for the Executives branch but too Executive for the VFX branch. Either way, there’s about 67 of them.

I wasn’t able to identify with a strong degree of certainty about 5 percent of the names, but those are the overall contours. Also, not all of these people may have joined or remain in the Academy: the number of times I Googled a name and “fired from the agency for allegations of sexual harassment” came up was not zero!

About half the Members-at-Large are stunts and agents, and the other half are vastly executives, producers, and VFX pros who don’t have a proper home in the Executive, Producer, or VFX branches.

So, why does this matter?

I think that the Academy has been changing in dynamic ways under the hood and it’s worth analyzing that. If the stunts alone were a branch, the 90 people they added since 2015 is more than the Casting, Cinematography, Costume Design and Makeup & Hair branches added over the same period.

Secondly, by having an enormous Members-at-Large branch, it may be easier to look the other way on diversity goals. The Members-at-Large branch was not one of the seven branches that invited more women than men in 2020 or one of the 13 that invited a majority of people internationally. However, the Executives, Producers, and Visual Effects managed to hit one or the other goal. When the Members-at-Large miss their diversity target, we don’t see think pieces about the lack of diversity in the field of Members-at-Large.

Lastly, I don’t know exactly how many agents are now voting members, but with the Associates losing a net 109 members this year and the Members-at-Large specifically inviting 26 new agents, I’m just spitballing but that could put us at roughly 135 voting agents in the Academy, just 10 votes shy of the Casting Directors branch. That’s a huge change! An entire unofficial branch sprouting up within the Members-at-Large overnight. And they vote this year.

Where next?

The Members-at-Large strike me as a transitional branch for lots of people in the Academy, and so I’m not going to be shocked if the Stunts and Agents get a branch of their own in due time.

That said, I’m not entirely sure if the Academy will be made better by having the Members-at-Large serve as the waiting room for branches-to-be.

And nothing against the agents, but I can imagine people may take issue with staging up a branch in Associates, rolling it into Members-at-Large, and then spinning it out into a standalone branch when it becomes too unwieldy to remain a branch-within-a-branch. The role of talent agents is certainly evolving, and this is an organization that already counts a Public Relations and Executive branch, but if you’re a branch like actors, writers, and sound already losing electoral ground, this can’t be a change you particularly enjoy.

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