When the names of winners are revealed on Oscar night, months of suspense give way to tears, smiles and speeches. Yet when the curtain falls, one question remains: Who cast the votes?
About 37 million people tuned in to the Academy Awards last year, and a great deal rides on the show's outcome. Winning a golden statuette can vault an actor to stardom, add millions to a movie's box office and boost a studio's prestige. Yet the roster of all 5,765 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a closely guarded secret.
Even inside the movie industry, intense speculation surrounds the academy's composition and how that influences who gets nominated for and wins Oscars. The organization does not publish a membership list.
"I have to tell you," said academy member Viola Davis, nominated for lead actress this year for "The Help." "I don't even know who is a member of the academy."
A Los Angeles Times study found that academy voters are markedly less diverse than the public, and even more monolithic than many in the film industry may suspect. Oscar voters are nearly 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male, the Times found. Blacks are about 2 percent of the academy, and Latinos are less than 2 percent.
Oscar voters have a median age of 62, the study showed. People younger than 50 constitute just 14 percent of the membership.
The academy calls itself "the world's preeminent movie-related organization" of "the most accomplished men and women working in cinema," and its membership includes some of the brightest lights in the film business — Tom Hanks, Sidney Poitier, Meryl Streep and Steven Spielberg, among others.
The roster also features actors far better known for their television acting, such as Erik Estrada from "CHiPs," Jaclyn Smith of "Charlie's Angels" and "The Love Boat's" Gavin MacLeod.
The academy is primarily a group of working professionals, and nearly 50 percent of the academy's actors have appeared on screen in the last two years. But membership is generally for life, and hundreds of academy voters haven't worked on a movie in decades.
Some are people who have left the movie business entirely but continue to vote on the Oscars — including a nun, a bookstore owner and a retired Peace Corps recruiter. Their votes count the same as ballots cast by the likes of Julia Roberts, George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio.
To conduct the study, Times reporters spoke with thousands of academy members and their representatives — and reviewed academy publications, resumes and biographies — to confirm the identities of 5,112 voters — more than 89 percent of the voting members. Those interviews revealed varying opinions about the academy's race, sex and age breakdown: Some members see it simply as a mirror of hiring patterns in Hollywood, while others say it reflects the group's mission to recognize achievement rather than promote diversity. Many said the academy should be much more representative.
The Times found that some of the academy's 15 branches are almost exclusively white and male. Caucasians make up 90 percent or more of every academy branch except actors, whose roster is 88 percent white. The academy's executive branch is 98 percent white, as is its writers branch.
Men compose more than 90 percent of five branches, including cinematography and visual effects. Of the academy's 43-member board of governors, six are women; public relations executive Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the sole person of color.
"You would think that in this day and age, there would be a little bit more equality across the board, but that's not the case," said Nancy Schreiber, one of a handful of women in the cinematography branch. "Being a cinematographer should not be gender-based, and it's ridiculous that it is."
Academy leaders including President Tom Sherak and Chief Executive Dawn Hudson said they have been trying to diversify the membership but that change is difficult because the film industry is not very diverse, and slow because the academy has limited membership growth since 2004.
"We absolutely recognize that we need to do a better job," said academy governor Phil Alden Robinson. But "we start off with one hand tied behind our back. ... If the industry as a whole is not doing a great job in opening up its ranks, it's very hard for us to diversify our membership."
Questions about the academy's diversity, or lack thereof, have persisted for years. In 1996, the Rev. Jesse Jackson organized nationwide protests over the absence of black and minority Oscar nominees, claiming it was evidence of "race exclusion" in Hollywood.
The question arose again last year, when not a single minority was among the 45 nominees for actor, actress, supporting actor and actress, director and original and adapted screenplay.
Asked about the diversity of Oscar presenters, Sherak said he did not instruct this year's show producers to include more minorities. "Producers produce the show, end of subject," he said. Past hosts have included African Americans Chris Rock and Whoopi Goldberg, and Eddie Murphy was initially slated to host this year's broadcast.
Age and gender have also prompted questions.
Sony Pictures executives said last year that they believed their film "The Social Network" lost the best picture race to "The King's Speech" because older Oscar voters didn't relate to the Facebook story. This year, some believe the 9/11 drama "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" made the best picture list because it appealed to middle-aged men.
"The film is about men trying to be good fathers, sons trying to be good sons," said Terry Press, a public relations branch member who has helped mount many Oscar campaigns. "It's about unfulfilled conversations with your father and that's an extremely middle-aged man thing. It's like 'Field of Dreams.'"
Black actress and academy member Alfre Woodard, 59, cited the sexually explicit "Shame," which got no nominations, as a film whose Oscar hopes may have been doomed by the academy's demographics.
"Maybe if the median age was 45 to 50, a film like 'Shame' might show up, which I thought was a brilliantly rendered piece but a subject matter that you don't expect a certain older demographic would flock to see," she said.
This year, several minorities landed nominations in the acting categories: Davis and her fellow cast member from "The Help," Octavia Spencer, and Demian Bichir, a Mexican-born performer who starred in "A Better Life." All of the year's five nominated directors are white men, and none of the 21 producers of the nine best picture nominees is a person of color.
Were there more Latino academy members, Bichir said, opportunities for Latinos would improve. "That would mean there would be a lot more roles for Latin actors," the actor said, "and a lot more movies for (Latin) cinematographers."
Los Angeles Times staff writers Jasmine Elist, Deborah Vankin, Reed Johnson and Emily Rome contributed to this report.