The Arts

Change Agent
Janet Yang ’78 ushers in a new atmosphere of inclusion at the Oscars

November 8th, 2023
Image of Janet Yang on stage at the Academy Awards with the life-sized Oscar behind her
Yang at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences 2022 Scientific and Technical Awards in February 2023.Photo: AMPAS

In 2015, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag raised a viral ruckus in protest of that year’s all-Caucasian field of 20 Best Actor nominees. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) took the criticism to heart. The following year, movie producer Janet Yang ’78 joined AMPAS’s A2020 committee tasked with diversifying the ranks of its overwhelmingly white organization.

Fast forward seven years: people from underrepresented ethnic and racial communities now constitute 19 percent of AMPAS membership, versus 10 percent in 2015. And in August 2022, Yang became the Academy’s first Asian American president. She watched proudly this spring when Everything Everywhere All at Once delivered a historic Best Picture triumph with three of the four Best Actor trophies going to Asian American actors. “It felt pretty great,” says Yang. “And what I really liked is that so many kinds of movies were recognized, like RRR [from India], made by a diverse group of filmmakers for diverse audiences.”

Yang grew up in Long Island and focused on Chinese Studies at Brown. After graduation, she ran Oliver Stone’s production company, supervising films like The Joy Luck Club and The People vs. Larry Flynt. In 2020, Yang produced the Oscar-nominated animated feature Over the Moon, inspired by ancient Chinese folklore. Meanwhile, her pathway to AMPAS leadership evolved “organically,” she says. “For a long time, I’d get my DVDs [of Oscar-contending films] and I’d vote, and that was the extent of my involvement. But then I sat on the diversity committee, and that was just a natural outgrowth of work I’d already been doing in the Asian American community.”

Yang joined the Academy’s board of governors four years ago. She says, “I really got to know the inner workings of the Academy by seeing how hundreds of staff worked to create not just the Oscars but all these other programs, and now we have this incredible museum. So [being elected president] didn’t come completely out of the blue.”

Fortifying the Academy’s role as a Hollywood change agent, Yang and CEO Bill Kramer recently introduced “inclusion standards” for Best Picture candidates as the centerpiece of AMPAS’s Aperture initiative. “It’s about looking at not just who is in front of the camera but also who’s behind the camera and also what’s happening at staff levels,” Yang explains. “Certain barriers that existed before seem to have dissolved. Maybe they haven’t completely gone away but when you have a non-English language film like Parasite winning Best Picture [in 2020]—that’s a first. We want to encourage people to widen the aperture and keep their eyes open. With so many incredible voices from different communities, there’s a lot to celebrate on that front.” 

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