The club that picks Oscar winners
For Hollywood the Oscars is the crowning night of the year as stars of the silver screen tearfully accept their 13.5-inch golden statuettes with professions of undying gratitude to the "members of the Academy" who voted for them.
But the question of who these 5,765 voters belonging to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences actually are has long been shrouded in mystery, their identities kept a closely guarded secret.
On the eve of the 84th Academy Awards this week an exhaustive investigation has now found what many have long suspected. They are overwhelmingly white, male and old.
Those selected to vote for the Oscars retain the right for life meaning some have not worked on a film themselves for decades. They include former film industry workers who have moved on to other professions, including a nun, the owner of a book shop, and a retired recruiter for the Peace Corps.
Their votes count equally with those of other more famous members such as Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and George Clooney.
The study unmasking the Oscar voters was carried out by a team from the Los Angeles Times, which was able to confirm the details of the vast majority of Academy members.
It found that 94 per cent were white, 77 per cent men and their average age is 62, with only 14 per cent under 50. Black and Hispanic voters accounted for only two per cent each.
Denzel Washington, who won the Best Actor Oscar for "Training Day" in 2001, was among those who said the Academy should "open it up" and "balance" its membership.
"If the country is 12 per cent black, make the academy 12 per cent black," he said. "If the nation is 15 per cent Hispanic, make the Academy 15 per cent Hispanic. Why not?"
The actor recently admitted that his wife makes the choices when he submits his own votes for the Oscars.
Nancy Schreiber, a rare female member of the Academy's cinematography branch, said: "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."
Bernie Casey, a black actor, told the Los Angeles Times he had recently left the Academy because "people of colour are always peripheral."
Critics of the Academy have long accused it of ignoring black and Hispanic talent, and women. This year the five nominees for best director are all white men. Only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has ever won the best director Oscar, for "The Hurt Locker" in 2010.
Last year's awards were criticised as the "all white" Oscars as all the nominees in all the major categories were white.
The Academy also faced criticism over whether some of its members deserved their position.
Sid Ganis, a former Academy President, did not single out individual cases, but said: "Sometimes you scratch your head and say 'How did he get in? Or the reverse of that, 'How come he's not in?', or 'She's not in?'"
The Academy was founded in 1927 and for decades new recruits were gathered on a seemingly informal basis by existing members.
The rules were tightened in 2003 but those who joined prior to that remain members for life. The membership now expands by a maximum of 30 each year.
New members must have either received an Oscar nomination, be endorsed by a membership committee, or recommended by two members of a branch. There are 16 branches including acting, directing, cinematography, visual effects, animation and public relations.
Some leading figures in the film industry, including directors George Lucas and Woody Allen, are not voting members. They both declined membership.
Those who are include the actors Meat Loaf, Paul Reubens, who played the television character Pee-wee Herman in the 1980s and Erik Estrada, who starred in the 1980s television police drama CHiPs.
The vast majority of Oscar voters live in Los Angeles but there are 373 in New York and 155 in London.
Tom Sherak, the current Academy President, said it was trying to diversify membership.
"If I sat here and you asked if every single member of the Academy met those admission rules, I would say to you, 'No, they haven't'," he told The Los Angeles Times.
"Well how did they get in? Their peers voted them in. Is everybody perfect? No."