The notion of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) began with Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). He said he wanted to create an organization that would mediate labor disputes without unions and improve the industry's image. He met with actor Conrad Nagel, director Fred Niblo, and the head of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, Fred Beetson to discuss these matters. The idea of this elite club having an annual banquet was discussed, but no mention of awards at that time. They also established that membership into the organization would only be open to people involved in one of the five branches of the industry: actors, directors, writers, technicians, and producers.
After their brief meeting, Mayer gathered up a group of thirty-six people involved in the film industry and invited them to a formal banquet at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on January 11, 1927. That evening Mayer presented to those guests what he called the International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Everyone in the room that evening became a founder of the Academy. Between that evening and when the official Articles of Incorporation for the organization were filed on May 4, 1927, the "International" was dropped from the name, becoming the "Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences".
Several organizational meetings were held prior to the first official meeting held on May 6, 1927. Their first organizational meeting was held on May 11. At that meeting Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. was elected as the first president of the Academy, while Fred Niblo was the first vice-president, and their first roster, composed of 230 members, was printed. That night, the Academy also bestowed its first honorary membership, to Thomas Edison. Initially, the Academy was broken down into five main groups, or branches, although this number of branches has grown over the years. The original five were: Producers, Actors, Directors, Writers and Technicians.
The initial concerns of the group had to do with labor." However, as time went on, the organization moved "further away from involvement in labor-management arbitrations and negotiations." One of several committees formed in those initial days was for "Awards of Merit," but it was not until May 1928 that the committee began to have serious discussions about the structure of the awards and the presentation ceremony. By July 1928 the board of directors had approved a list of 12 awards to be presented. During July the voting system for the Awards was established, and the nomination and selection process began. This "award of merit for distinctive achievement" is what we know now as the Academy Award.
The initial location of the organization was 6912 Hollywood Boulevard. In November 1927, the Academy moved to the Roosevelt Hotel at 7010 Hollywood Boulevard, which was also the month the Academy's library began compiling a complete collection of books and periodicals dealing with the industry from around the world. In May 1928, the Academy authorized the construction of a state of the art screening room, to be located in the Club lounge of the hotel. The screening room was not completed until April 1929.
With the publication of Report on Incandescent Illumination in 1928, the Academy began a long history of publishing books to assist its members. Another early initiative concerned training Army Signal Corps officers.
In 1929, Academy members in a joint venture with the University of Southern California created America's first film school to further the art and science of moving pictures. The school's founding faculty included Fairbanks (President of the Academy), D. W. Griffith, William C. deMille, Ernst Lubitsch, Irving Thalberg, and Darryl F. Zanuck.
1930 saw another move, to 7046 Hollywood Boulevard, in order to accommodate the enlarging staff, and by December of that year the library was acknowledged as "having one of the most complete collections of information on the motion picture industry anywhere in existence." They would remain at that location until 1935, when further growth would cause them to move once again. This time, the administrative offices would move to one location, to the Taft Building at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, while the library would move to 1455 North Gordon Street.
In 1934, the Academy began publication of the Screen Achievement Records Bulletin, which today is known as the Motion Picture Credits Database. This is a list of film credits up for an Academy Award, as well as other films released in Los Angeles County, using research materials from the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library. Another publication of the 1930s was the first annual Academy Players Directory in 1937. The Directory was published by the Academy until 2006, when it was sold to a private concern. The Academy had been involved in the technical aspects of film making since its founding in 1927, and by 1938, the Science and Technology Council consisted of 36 technical committees addressing technical issues related to sound recording and reproduction, projection, lighting, film preservation and cinematography.
In 2009, the inaugural Governors Awards were held, at which the Academy awards the Academy Honorary Award and the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award.
In 2016, the Academy became the target of criticism for its failure to recognize the achievements of minority professionals. For the second year in a row all 20 nominees in the major acting categories were white. The president of the Academy Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African American and third woman to lead the Academy, denied in 2015 that there was a problem. When asked if the Academy had difficulty with recognizing diversity, she replied "Not at all. Not at all." When the nominations for acting were all white for a second year in a row Gil Robertson IV, president of the African American Film Critics Association called it "offensive." The actors' branch is "overwhelmingly white" and the question is raised whether conscious or unconscious racial biases played a role.
Spike Lee, interviewed shortly after the all-white nominee list was published, pointed to Hollywood leadership as the root problem, "We may win an Oscar now and then, but an Oscar is not going to fundamentally change how Hollywood does business. I'm not talking about Hollywood stars. I'm talking about executives. We're not in the room." Boone Isaacs also released a statement, in which she said "I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it's time for big changes." After Boone Isaac's statement, prominent African-Americans such as director Spike Lee, actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, and activist Rev. Al Sharpton called for a boycott of the 2016 Oscars for failing to recognize minority achievements, the board voted to make "historic" changes to its membership. The Academy stated that by 2020 it would double its number of women and minority members.
In August 2017, John Bailey was elected President of the Academy to a four-year term.