HAMMOND: Should The Academy Give Agents Full Voting Rights For Oscars?

You can always count on it. It seems there is always some talent agency honcho who revives the decades-old quest to gain Oscar voting rights for agents. The subject always comes up, but the answer, whatever the merits of the idea, will always be the same. It will NEVER happen. I’ve heard the effort is gearing up once more and agency movers and shakers in the movement for equal Academy voting rights are trying to find sympathetic ears in the media to further the cause and make some noise again. Of course, the Academy has traditionally held a different opinion. Agents are allowed in only as associate members. The number of agents with that status in the Academy is well under 100 and has included major names like Jeff Berg, Kevin Huvane, Patrick Whitesell and many others like WME’s Brian Swardstrom, who actually has his own Oscar but not a vote (keep reading for more on that). Being an associate means they get invites to attend Academy events and maybe access to freebie movies at local theaters during Oscar time, but they don’t have their own branch or any reps on the Board of Governors and no voting rights whatsoever, kind of like illegal aliens.

The fact is they’ve never even gotten close to those rights even when complaining that PR people have their own branch and get to vote. In recent years, the Academy has tightened requirements for every branch, including Public Relations, and now insist they have a rigid format for admission. In other words, no personal publicists and for the most part just those who have demonstrated a consistent leadership role at studios and distribution companies or unit publicists, who work directly on movie sets. And the Academy now only accepts new members once each year. For 2011 it recently welcomed 178 new voting members across all branches considered a part of the “arts and sciences” of motion pictures so prominently featured in the organization’s name. The definition apparently doesn’t apply to talent agents, whom the Acad has traditionally looked at as enablers rather an integral part of the filmmaking process. No matter which decade of the Acad’s 83-year history this issue has been broached, you will always have officials particularly worried about the potential conflict of interest in upping the status of agents.

But at least one vocal agent and associate Academy member complains to Deadline that the time has come for change. “It’s an anachronism. Everyone has a conflict of interest, not just agents,” they claim. Certainly anyone who knows the way many voters privately cast their ballots can attest to that, but who said life is fair? Throughout history, winning voting rights for many groups has taken enormous personal toll, sweat and protests. Short of taking to the streets of Beverly Hills and demanding their “rights”, it’s hard to imagine what agents can do to turn this around, and not many in the industry seem to have much sympathy for their cause. According to published reports, former President of the Academy Gregory Peck once said agents would get the vote “over my dead body”. I guess some would rather not be a member of the same club as the person who made the deals that helped get them there.

But hasn’t the perception of what agents really do in getting films made changed like everything else in this business? Aren’t the days of looking at them as just a deal maker over? With all the “packaging” and putting intricate movies together, agents — at least the best ones — really do participate more in the art and science of filmmaking, in the sense that without their dogged persistence there might be no film in the first place. Particularly in getting so many indie movies made these days, like Best Picture winners The Hurt Locker and The King’s Speech. Agenting may be the misunderstood art and science of movies.

Proof of that was never made more public than when actress Tilda Swinton accepted her Best Supporting Actress award in 2007 for Michael Clayton. In her speech she thanked director Tony Gilroy, co-star George Clooney, but above all her American agent, Swardstrom, who persuaded her to come to work in the U.S. “I’m giving this to you,” she said, and later told media, “I’m giving it to Brian. He deserves it. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him. … It might (calm hiim down) when I’m on the speakerphone telling him I’m going to do another art film in Europe.” And she meant it. He still has it. When I saw her in Telluride earlier this month and asked where her Oscar is now, she looked quizzically at me and said, “It’s his”. For an actor to give their Oscar away to their agent is the kind of testimony that could be effective in changing perceptions within the Academy hierarchy on this issue. Or not. Bottom line is most members of the Academy either have or have had an agent, and if they don’t want to play in the same sandbox with them there’s not much that can be done. Some in power positions still look at them as obstructionists or roadblocks in the art of making movies, and as far as full membership in the clubby Academy is concerned they are still looking in the window from the outside even as there are voting members who haven’t worked actively in the business for years. In other words, it’s hard to turn this train around.

It’s not unprecedented, though. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences doesn’t seem to have a problem with agents and even has two spots on their Board of Governors earmarked for “Professional Representatives”. But my suggestion for agents who really have their heart set on casting a ballot for the harder-to-crack Oscars and not just Emmys is to do like so many of your former colleagues have done in the past. Stop being an agent and become a producer, or better yet a studio head. Just ask Academy voting member Ron Meyer.

  1. Most agents don’t read, get movies made, or have creative instincts. There are some notable exceptions of course, but why should the Academy bestow a responsibility on them that they will only taint with personal/agency bias? Haven’t they brought enough harm to an already fragile industry? I say this as someone who works with them.

  2. Quite simply: NO. The most prejudiced of all Hollywood creatures. And not just TOWARDS their own agency clients but more so AGAINST others. Agents have too much power already. NO NO NO.

  3. I say yes. Agents have proven themselves to be reliable, intelligent, and unbiased. They have suffered long enough and their time has come.

  4. Absolutely not! The agents are biased. The Academy must preserve the integrity and the purity in its process of choosing winners for having best talents….winning based on one’s true merits….the Academy cannot allow the voting process to be tainted by anything or anyone…..
    The agents are best to stay where they are, which is finding real talents…represent them, guide them, and protect them….it’s a marriage between the agent and client….this is where it should stay……agents will not be impartial, but anything too biased, voting for talents from their own agencies….this will turn into a nightmare! The Oscars is….may the BEST WINS. The Oscars should get voters such as older play right writers….Sam Shepard, Bernard Shaw etc to vote…..these writers will know ” true talent ” from Hollywood product…

  5. Of course Tilda Swinton should thank her agent for convincing her to take the part. As every award-winning actor before her has done. But it was her performance that was awarded, not the advice. That Swinton, who eschewed Hollywood for years, gave the statue to her agent as a thank-you gift says lot about Swinton but nothing about whether agents should be voting for the Oscars.

  6. It’s like when US auto heads showed up in Washington asking for taxpayers to bail them out …and showed up in private jets. They had no idea that would seem ridiculous to the rest of us. So outta whack they couldn’t even see how wrong it was.

  7. I’d say Craft Services should also be allowed into the Academy.

    But until then, NO to agents. They’re a part of the industry, but not part of creatively putting the stories onto the screen.

  8. every thought that flew thru my mind ended up either in your column or in the comments. Arts & Sciences = agent? I don’t think so. “Agents have proven themselves to be reliable, intelligent, and unbiased. ” — please – I have worked at agencies in the past – they weren’t then and they especially aren’t now. We don’t need agents in the Academy so why give it another thought

    1. You don’t know what you are talking about. Agents have a lot to do with actors getting parts and films getting made.

  9. Is there a way to type a gazillion “NO”s without actually having to do so?

    Wanna kill the Oscars? Give agents a vote. Well, unless they can prove they only take their clients due to the client’s talent and no other reason. ; )

  10. Of course they shouldn’t be allowed in. that would require change or thought. That the Academy dismisses this notion each year is the easy way out. I’m not saying they should be admitted, I’ve never thought about it. But now I will. The Academy offers a life membership. Old folks in other words. Change is tough for us, and saying NO is always easier than yes or even maybe… too bad the Academy is turning into a museum for an art form they think is stuck in time, but in fact is moving way faster than it is. Institutional thinking on the order of the Masons. That cheery group is still around, but does anybody care? The Academy is in danger of going that way sooner than it thinks. Ask a kid what the Academy is or even stands for, and you’ll get a rude awakening. Admitting agents won’t change that, but maybe rethinking things that are calcified and stagnant might.

    1. I’m very sorry to see an academy member thinking this way. What it will ultimately lead to, very obviously,is more awards for money-makers and popcorn films, the first being the ONLY thing that matters to 99% of them. It’s the nature of the business. They really have no choice. Whereas the Academy Awards have been the one little haven where quality counts and where trying to actually say something stands a chance of being rewarded. The industry is rife with anecdotes illustrating this. James Ivory had plenty, for one, in the book long interview Robert Emmet Long did with him. The number of actors and actresses they wanted to cast that they belatedly learned had never even been informed of it by their agents – because Merchant Ivory films didn’t make enough money by their estimates. Who gives a damn about all the Oscars they had won? For only one example that springs to mind, easily verifiable. Obstructionist, for sure. Unless we’re talking Batman and the like.

    2. Agreed! but still it feels like agents voting is like letting Lobbyists vote in Congress. Integral to the process, sure. Do I want them actually voting? ehhhh. At least let me pretend it’s not a dirty, scheming biz.

  11. Why not let agents vote? What difference does it really make?

    The Academy Awards, IMO, lost their luster and integrity a long time ago. It is currently about on par with the MTV Movie Awards. The Oscar’s used to be an industry celebration of any given year’s finest work, but now, over the past fifteen years or so, it strikes me as being more keen on making statements than acknowledging excellence. Again, just my opinion.

  12. Maybe, the Academy should follow the role model of the VES. Not only can agents vote for awards, they can rise to become members of the Board of Directors and serve on the powerful Executive Committee which has tremendous influence on all society agenda.

    Obviously, the VES membership sees no conflict of interest having an agent serve as an officer with full voting rights while representing many of the current members. And, of course, being an agent and being treasurer of the society pose no problems for VES and its membership either.

    Why is this a problem with AMPAS….because it is a conflict of interest no matter how you choose to interpret it.

  13. FUCK NO! Agents are becoming the analog past, they have never really done anything but stand in the way. There are many deserving people who should be in the Academy who have actually made movies, agents are timmy cogs in the wheel.

  14. I was invited by the Academy to join after the Academy Agent Committee that was headed by one of my competitors approved my membership. There is a fraternity among some agents, and they know which agents are best qualified to become a member. Agents are no more biased than PR people, so the disstinction is old fashioned and biased. Ironically, I also was invited to become a member of BAFTA, and interestingly enough, I am able to vote in that organization which, in many ways, is more significant in that the BAFTA nominations precede the Academy nominations, and thereby become an early influential indicator of likely Academy nominees.

    1. michael peretzian is true gentleman with impeccable taste who agented in a style that is denigrated by the philistines and barbarians that make up the agenting community today. he was as loyal to his clients as they were to him. he was slow to anger and quick to forgive. He was a dramatic interpretive artist as well as an agent who could walk in his clients shoes, and did. If there was even one other agent like him working today I would say throw everybody out of the academy and only take agents. I know he will be embarrassed by this post because he is a truly modest man, but it needs to be said.

  15. I’m old. I was a long time agent and am a long time academy member. Many writers, directors, actors and producers who have been vastly successful financially have been denied invitations to join the academy because their body of work, albeit commercial, has not been judged to be up to academy standards. How could any agent possibly pass that test? The sell’em don’t smell’em ethos of agenting is correct for that endeavor, but antithetical to everything the academy has always tried to stand for. Does anybody out there really think the brilliant agent, and I am not being facetious, that packaged The Jackass series, or had the brilliance to team Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour trilogy should be voted into the academy?

  16. I’d quit if they let them. As it is, the PR and Executive branches don’t belong. They all want the power AND the glory, but as Billy Wilder said, the latter belongs to those who MAKE films, not those who PACKAGE films.

  17. If agents are doing anything worth while in regards to packaging , then why is FOOTLOOSE and THE THING in theaters now. Not to mention ABDUCTION. With all of those resources , at the disposal of CAA , ICM , UTA , and WME one would think we would have more than ten to fifteen watchable films per year. But we do not. I mean , how many films a year does anyone reading Nicky Fink pay to see in a year ?

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