When Oscar winners thank "the members of the Academy," who, exactly, do they mean? Who actually belongs to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, that august body that votes on the Oscars? Well, the membership rolls include past winners George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, and Jack Nicholson ... and Dakota Fanning.

Yep, believe it or not, the never-nominated Fanning received an invite at age 12, proving you don't need to be nominated -- or old enough to vote in an actual election -- to be a voting member of the Academy. While the group has never made its entire roster public, it has, in recent years, begun announcing new members, such as 2009 inductees Viola Davis, Casey Affleck and Anne Hathaway.
When Oscar winners thank "the members of the Academy," who, exactly, do they mean? Who actually belongs to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, that august body that votes on the Oscars? Well, the membership rolls include past winners George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, and Jack Nicholson ... and Dakota Fanning.

Yep, believe it or not, the never-nominated Fanning received an invite at age 12, proving you don't need to be nominated -- or old enough to vote in an actual election -- to be a voting member of the Academy. While the group has never made its entire roster public, it has, in recent years, begun announcing new members, such as 2009 inductees Viola Davis, Casey Affleck and Anne Hathaway.

James FrancoIn 2006, the year Fanning was invited along with 119 other newbies, the Academy was making a concentrated effort to get some young blood into the organization. "Most people ... think it's probably a bunch of elderly people," AMPAS director Bruce Davis told the Associated Press. "They're not thinking Scarlett Johansson and Maggie Gyllenhaal, they're thinking really old guys. That's a hard perception to overcome."

Hence the public announcements of such hot young talent as that year's list of under-30 nominees Heath Ledger, Keira Knightley, and Jake Gyllenhaal and last year's non-nominated but well-respected additions Emily Blunt, James Franco and Emile Hirsch.

Who else is in the club? Major movie stars like Will Smith (a two-time nominee) as well as Hugh Jackman and Jennifer Aniston, whose Oscars activity so far has been as host and presenter.

Michelle WilliamsOn the other hand, getting nominated doesn't automatically get you in. 'Brokeback Mountain's Michelle Williams was up for her first Oscar in 2006, but didn't receive an invitation to join until 2009, after she'd picked up a few more indie awards for the little-seen 'Wendy and Lucy.' Part of the delay may have been attributed to the fact that the Academy likes to keep its member count at around 6,000, which means only 100 to 150 new members are allowed each year. New slots open up as members pass away.

So how do you get on the invite list? According to the Oscars website, you've got to be among the "most exceptionally qualified names" of those who have "achieved distinction in the arts and sciences of motion pictures." The Academy extends membership to every aspect of the industry, not just the "talent:" Writers, directors, cinematographers, costume designers, composers and even studio executives and publicists receive membership in their own branch.

For an inside scoop on how the membership process works, Moviefone spoke to a former studio advertising executive (who asked to remain anonymous) who's a 27-year member. While actors and other high-profile people are invited to join, he applied for admission and, after being approved by the public relations branch, was accepted.

George ClooneyThough members may vote on all the nominees, they can nominate only within their own branch -- with one major exception. "Everyone in the academy is allowed to nominate for best picture," the exec explains. "Being in a 'non-creative' branch I can only nominate best picture, but I vote for all categories." Starting this year, a small group of multi-taskers like Clooney, who was ushered in as an actor but has been nominated as a writer and director, can now nominate beyond their "home branch."

One of the best membership perks: You don't even need to go to the dozens of free screenings held each year. DVD screeners of every nominated movie are sent to your home, with strict orders not to share them with anyone else. Members are also supposed to fill out their own ballots, but that rule isn't sacred to some. "I've heard that there are some despicable people who don't do their own voting," our exec tells us. "At least half the fun of belonging to the Academy is voting in each
category."

Jeff BridgesWith 10 Best Picture nominees in the running this year, members often don't get around to watching all the nominated movies, let alone every film they're sent "for your consideration." Busy nominee and Academy member Jeff Bridges, for example, sheepishly told NY Mag he was "way behind" on his stack of screeners.

As with any moviegoer, not every film is one a member even wants to see. Like, say, Ernest Borgnine, who caused a stir when he gave his thoughts about 'Brokeback Mountain' to EW: "I didn't see it and I don't care to see it ... If John Wayne were alive, he'd be rolling over in his grave.'' With that statement, Borgnine, who won his Best Actor Oscar back in 1955, cemented the idea that the Academy was a bunch of fuddy-duddies who were behind the times. Does the recent injection of hip, young members mean that the Oscars are now more adventurous?

Of course, there's another angle to consider: Underage member Fanning might not even receive R-rated movies like 'The Hurt Locker' and 'Inglourious Basterds,' which could end up skewing the awards (oh so slightly) towards more kid-friendly fare like 'Avatar' or 'Up.'
CATEGORIES Oscars