A Hollywood Without Immigrants: A Diversity Check on the 2008–17 Academy Awards, in Data

By Li Lai

Mediaversity Reviews (Originally posted on Medium)

In the last two years, #OscarsSoWhite has dominated the discussion of inclusivity within the Academy Awards. Consequently, efforts to diversify membership are underway—in particular, through Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs’ A2020 initiative which seeks to double the diversity of the membership list by the end of the decade. But change doesn’t come overnight, so we’ll give that some time and shift focus for this year’s Academy Awards.

Instead, this study will look at a group of Americans that have been increasingly marginalized by recent political events—immigrants.

Behind the 2017 Academy Awards sits the backdrop of some of the most anti-immigrant sentiment in recent memory. As we pause to celebrate filmmakers and artists, do we realize how many of them are actually immigrants themselves? Or have parents who immigrated?

To conduct this study, I needed to look at countries of origin and parentage of Oscar nominees. I restricted my findings to individuals who enjoy broader celebrity and thus, more readily available data, so the five key categories we’ll be discussing are:

Best Picture (directors)
Best Actor
Best Actress
Best Supporting Actor
Best Supporting Actress

In this report, I will refer to the above as “Top Categories” and define “immigrants” as individuals born abroad but who currently live—or have previously lived and owned property—in the United States. By examining this group, we ask ourselves one overarching question:

In a #HollywoodWithoutImmigrants, would our favorite films even exist?


1st Academy Awards

Immigrants made major contributions to the inaugural Academy Awards in 1929. During that first ceremony, 6 of the 12 winners were immigrants born in countries such as India, Moldova, or Switzerland. Meanwhile, children of immigrants snapped up another 4 of 12 wins with parents hailing from Belarus, Scotland, present-day Italy, and Ireland.

This Year’s Snapshot

Though no longer quite so dominant, immigrants still made a robust showing in this year’s Academy Awards. More than a third — 34.5% — of Best Picture and Actor/Actress nominees were immigrants or the children of immigrants.

Top Categories saw the talents of these globe-trotting nominees:

Over the last decade, individuals with long-term ties to America saw slight decreases in their share of Top Category nominations, as foreign or immigrant talent posted strong numbers that ranged from a combined share of 26.9% (in 2009) to 64.3% (2016).

Nominees in Top Categories by Immigrant Status, 2008–17 Academy Awards

To consider a #HollywoodWithoutImmigrants, here is a glance at ten movies or performances we would’ve missed over the last decade without immigrant talent:

If the parents of these following Americans had been blocked from migrating to the United States, here are another ten films that never would have seen the light of day (at least, not in their present incarnations):

A world without Hidden Figures? I’ll pass, thanks.



To understand last year’s outrage at the #OscarsSoWhite controversy as compared to this year’s subdued reaction, just compare:

A major factor to the heartening numbers this year was the recognition of black filmmakers and artists, who enjoyed 24% of the nominations in Top Categories — double their share of the U.S. population.

Unfortunately, gains were tempered by the usual mix of Good News, Bad News. Hispanics were conspicuously absent from Top Categories this year despite making up nearly a fifth of the U.S. population in 2015.

Meanwhile, the Academy Awards is fighting its own history of racial bias. Over the last decade, white nominees averaged an 86.8% share of Top Category nominations:

Keep in mind, white individuals made up just 61% of the U.S. population in 2015:

A More Diverse Future

In late 2015, the Academy launched an initiative called A2020 that seeks to double the diversity of their membership by the end of the decade. We might be seeing preliminary effects of the country’s demand for diverse media already, but this will be a work-in-progress. Last year’s new invitees will only shift the overall make-up of the membership list from roughly 75% male to 73% male and roughly 92% white to 89% white, according to The Hollywood Reporter. With such incremental gains as these, patience will be required.


What kind of Mediaversity study would this be without a look at Gender?

A quick survey of our 10-year dataset shows that among directors for Best Picture nominations, only 8% of the slots went to women — 7 directors, to be exact.

Of this paltry number, just one director, Ava DuVernay, was a woman of color.

The dearth of female representation behind the camera continues to be a blind spot for Hollywood. Luckily, gender equality is on the agenda. Earlier this year, we saw the release of two important, comprehensive studies that highlight this issue:

  • The annual report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film revealed that rates of female directors were even lower now than they were in 1998.
  • USC Annenburg’s Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative published a study on over 800 top films that found “no meaningful change in the percentage of girls and women on screen between 2007 and 2015.”

So why should this give us cause for anything but despair? Sometimes, it takes a shocking reminder of inequality to jolt the public into action. Last year, the racial homogeneity of Oscar nominees had never looked worse. But #OscarsSoWhite made headlines and continues to pressure the Academy today as they attempt to evolve their membership into something that resembles their audience.

More encouraging is Deadline’s report this month that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is currently in settlement talks with major film studios over discriminatory hiring practices for female directors. Money is our country’s biggest megaphone; if the industry is found guilty and substantially fined, we know they’ll start to listen.


On Immigration

Immigrants and their children have a long, undeniable track record of contributing to cinema in America. In the inaugural Academy Awards, 90% of all winners were immigrants or had parents who immigrated. While the same group no longer sees such overwhelming numbers, they still comprised almost 35% of nominees in Best Picture or Actor/Actress categories in 2017.

In a #HollywoodWithoutImmigrants, we could kiss goodbye to the directors of Hidden Figures, La La Land, and Arrival while foreign-born artists Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman, Dev Patel, and Nicole Kidman would not have moved to the United States, perhaps preventing La La Land, Jackie, or Lion from benefiting from their talents.

On Race

Over the last decade, white nominees averaged a share of almost 87% in Top Categories — an over-representation of their share of the population by about +26%. However, 2017 saw major gains in non-white representation, as white nominees comprised 69% of Top Category nominations—still +8% their share of the population, but a big step in the right direction.

Interestingly, the majority of ground made up in non-white representation was due to major contributions from the black community. Other minority groups such as Hispanics or Asians continue to be grossly under-represented, or absent altogether, from Oscar nominations.

On Gender

Women have one of the steepest hills to climb in Hollywood, as the film industry saw a decline in shares of female directors last year. Over the last decade, just 7 female directors, or 8%, had their films nominated for Best Picture.

On the plus side, research reports from this year are calling out the industry for entrenched misogyny and the EOCC is currently in settlement talks with industry players over gender discrimination. It’s a slog, but advocates for gender equality are stepping up to the plate.


It’s official: a #HollywoodWithoutImmigrants would be a sad one indeed.

Were you Team La La Land or Team Hidden Figures? Without immigrants, you would have been neither. (Then again, you can always join Team Hidden Fences.)

And this isn’t just a 21st century phenomenon; if the 1st Academy Awards in 1929 were any indication, American cinema was founded on foreign-born talent. While the majority of the immigrants covered in this study hail from predominately white countries such as Canada, Australia, or the UK, we must remember that in the late sixties, Hollywood artists such as Barbara Streisand or Al Pacino were considered “ethnic”, as reported by the New Yorker.

Prejudice is a moving target and it behooves the industry to recognize that exciting, fresh talent comes in a brilliant spectrum of skin colors and nationalities. Without a robust and flexible visa system, and path to American residency, Hollywood would be all the poorer for it. This is no time for the film industry to be lazy; the number of moviegoers has been declining since at least 2005. Hats off to the Academy and president Cheryl Boone Isaacs for recognizing the urgent need to compete with newer media like streaming television or VOD. Under her leadership, we’re beginning to see some sea changes coming for the Academy, and hopefully, the industry as a whole.

Remember—progress doesn’t just happen. It has to be demanded. But considering this year’s bounty of interesting, complex, and inclusive films? It sure as hell is worth the effort.

Until this becomes the norm, watch intelligently.

(And we’ll be here for pointers.)

Watch the Oscars with us this Sunday! We’ll be live-tweeting, so come and cheer for diverse media with us @mediaversityrev.

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  • John

    #OscarsSoWhite was a failure when racial jokes was made towards Asians on the award show. Like I always say; Hollywood wants our money, but not necessarily us.