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.