By Steve Gorman and Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Oscars have launched a landmark campaign to diversify the ranks of Academy Award voters who decide which actors, movies and filmmakers earn recognition, but Hollywood's highest honors may remain a predominantly white affair for some time to come.
Amid an outcry against a field of Oscar-nominated performers lacking a single person of color for a second straight year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a sweeping affirmative action program on Friday, pledging to double female and minority membership by 2020.
The largely white, male and older makeup of the 6,000-plus film industry professionals who belong to the academy has long been cited as a barrier to racial and gender equality at the Oscars.
"It's unprecedented for the academy to make this kind of drastic overhaul," said Tom O'Neil, editor of the awards-tracking website Gold Derby. "It's a very dramatic announcement and a very welcome breakthrough."
Others insisted the Oscars merely reflect more systemic hurdles faced by minorities and women in Hollywood as a whole.
The changes, unanimously approved on Thursday night by the academy's governing board, include a program to "identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity," and to strip some older members of voting privileges.
Under the new rules, lifetime voting rights would be conferred only on those academy members who remain active in the film industry over the course of three 10-year terms or who have won or been nominated for an Oscar.
There was no immediate word from actor Will Smith, film director Spike Lee or a handful of others vowing to skip the Feb. 28 awards show about whether they felt the changes go far enough for them to call off their Oscar boycott.
None the measures will affect voting for this year's Oscars race - a contest whose dearth of racial diversity led to the revival of the Twitter feed #OscarsSoWhite that emerged in 2015.
Longer-term progress faces a deeply entrenched white, male-dominated system of studios, talent agencies and production companies that have been slow to welcome minorities in lead acting roles or as directors and screenwriters. Women have long faced similar impediments.
"The Oscar awards are the cosmetics of the industry. The infrastructure is the problem," said Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts.
Visual effects specialist James Knight, a member of the academy's science and technology council, commended the changes unveiled Friday but said Oscar voters cast their ballots based on the quality of movies they have to choose from, not on racial factors.
"It comes down to what's out there," he said.
Warner Bros, one of Hollywood's major studios, issued a statement within hours embracing the Oscar announcement, and Kevin Tsujihara, chairman of the Time Warner Inc-owned <TWX.N> studio, added, "there is more we must and will do."
Gold Derby editor O'Neil said restricting Oscar voting privileges could start to have an impact as soon as next year for movies such as "Straight Outta Compton," the critically acclaimed hip-hop drama released by Warner Bros and snubbed by Oscar voters in the best picture category this year.
If the rule change "sidelines a lot of geezers in the academy who don't appreciate 'Straight Outta Compton,' then the next 'Straight Outta Compton' could make the list next year," he said.
(Editing by Meredith Mazzilli and Sandra Maler)