What Does a New Branch of the Film Academy Mean for Hollywood Choreographers?
In 2017, La La Land nearly swept the Academy Awards with six wins, plus a nomination for Best Picture. But not only was Mandy Moore, the choreographer who crafted many of the film’s most memorable scenes, not nominated for an award—she couldn’t have been, as there is no Oscar for Best Choreography—she was also denied entry into the Academy when she applied a few years later.
Moore is one of the many choreographers working in film who’ve been shut out of membership to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the honorary trade organization for film professionals that presents the prestigious Academy Awards. In fact, out of AMPAS’ more than 10,000 members, as of this spring there was only a single choreographer: Vincent Paterson, who is known for his choreography for movies like The Birdcage and Evita and who has been a member since 2001. (Though Debbie Allen, Adam Shankman, and Rob Marshall are members of AMPAS, Allen is a member as an actor and the other two are members as directors, not choreographers.)
This spring, AMPAS announced the creation of a new branch that could be a step towards including more choreographers in the organization—and, perhaps eventually, a Best Choreography category. Unlike directors, music artists, writers, and other film creatives who each have their own designated branch, the few choreographers allowed entry in the Academy over the years have historically been members-at-large, a hodge-podge group consisting of professionals who didn’t fit into any of the existing 17 branches. Now, the new Production and Technology branch will give these former members-at-large, including choreographers, a home, albeit one that includes many disparate types of film professionals, like stunt coordinators, preservation and restoration specialists, and script supervisors.
It’s somewhat unclear whether the new branch will pave the way for more choreographers in AMPAS or is just business as usual with a new name. (The Academy could not be reached for comment.) But for dancer and choreographer Claire Elizabeth Ross, who founded the popular Instagram account @creditthecreator, there’s hope in even the small semantic shift from a category of professionals who “don’t fit” elsewhere to the new branch where choreographers are explicitly named as potential members. “It’s saying that choreographers do fit, and we do belong, and we are important within the making of a motion picture,” says Ross. Notably, commercial dance legend Fatima Robinson was invited to join the new branch at the end of June.
Does this mean a Best Choreography category is imminent? Paterson, who, along with McDonald Selznick Associates co-founder and agent Julie McDonald, has been advocating for such a category for years, says he and McDonald were told by Academy leadership that getting more choreographers into the organization would be the first step to begin a conversation about an award. But while Paterson is hopeful, he sees the new branch as an attempt to organize the logistically messy members-at-large designation rather than an intentional step towards including more choreographers. He expects choreographers who apply will still face significant barriers: Eligible applicants must be sponsored by two current members from any branch (members may sponsor only one applicant per year), and applications are reviewed and voted on by elected members of the Board of Governors. Without other choreographers to sponsor and advocate for their peers, and with the many other better-represented film professions in the new branch vying for a limited number of spots, choreographer
applicants will have an uphill battle.
“What’s not going to change is the need for all of us as choreographers to come together as a collective and keep advocating for us to be represented within the Academy,” says Ross. “Yes, now we have a space. But within that space, we still need to make sure our voices are being heard, because this is a massive industry, and it’s also a massive branch. I don’t think this is a win yet, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”