UPDATED with Academy letter to members at bottom: Well, it doesn’t look like Oscar will be kicking any nuns or many senior citizens to the curb after all.
With Tuesday’s clarification of what “active voters” really means, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences might have dodged a potential bullet. In January, when the organization announced emergency measures to diversify its membership and purge the rolls of Oscar voters no longer active in the industry, it stirred an outcry among members, many retired, who felt they were unfairly being made the scapegoats in a bigger controversy triggered by the second year in a row of all-white acting nominees. If you think Donald Trump’s voters are angry, you should have heard from this crowd. Obviously the Academy did, and over the past few weeks I also have heard from many longtime members fearful of losing their voting privileges and moved to “emeritus” status because their careers in movies did not fit the announced requirement of working in motion pictures over the course of three 10-year terms (or being the recipient of an Oscar or nomination) since they joined the Academy.
It was ill-defined at the time — the Academy was busy putting a Band-Aid on a major PR crisis — but now in a letter to members has been tweaked to define “active voters” as “those who have worked in the last 10 years or those who have worked anytime during three 10-year periods whether consecutive or not.” Eligibility now is going to be determined by the sum total of work in an entire career, not just since joining the Academy. That’s key, and I am told once Academy leaders sat down to figure out how this was all going to be implemented, they realized the requirements had to take into account a member’s whole career, not just after they joined the exclusive club. It was both impractical and impossible to administrate in a fair manner. The number of members that now will be affected will be much, much lower, and those who are likely won’t have much of a case. Each branch has its own particular requirements for entry, and it can take years, even decades, before someone is eligible, so it seemed unfair to exclude the period of time someone worked before getting into the Academy.
Everyone has a different story, and now it will be up to each branch to figure it out over the next couple of months. For instance, although this would not have affected Christopher Plummer since he already has an Oscar, the fact is he didn’t even join the Academy until \eight years ago, despite having a 50-year career on screen. There are many members like him, across all branches, who joined well into their careers. Making this all about the career and not date of membership is absolutely the right move and will save some further PR headaches for the Academy, which is being besieged from all sides lately.
To give an example, Mother Dolores aka Dolores Hart, a longtime voting member despite leaving the business for the Abbey in 1963, likely would have lost her voting privileges despite being dedicated to watching every screener and taking the job of voting seriously. She publicly expressed her disappointment at the development. Although her film career essentially ran from 1957’s Loving You to 1963’s Come Fly With Me, as a child she was in 1947’s Forever Amber, according to IMDb, so that span alone would give her two 10-year periods of eligibility before she switched professions. But, she also actively participated in the making of the Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary short, God Is The Bigger Elvis, as well as last year’s feature doc Tab Hunter Confidential. By my count, that gives her another 10-year period in which she was active in motion pictures to guarantee lifetime voting rights. You’re safe, Mother.
There are numerous others in the same boat who now should be able to retain their vote and saved from embarrassment. Individual branches will have the power to err on the side of compassion. Academy insiders have told me it never was their goal to disparage those who might have been prominent in their professions at one time, making memorable contributions to the industry, but no longer are but instead to weed out members who might have worked in movies briefly, got into the Academy, and then left the business permanently. I know of one studio ad exec who worked for a major in the 1980s for about four years but then got out, never to return. He is still an Oscar voter. Not for long. And that is as it should be. The goal, as laid out 50 years ago when Gregory Peck was President and instituted a similar housecleaning designed to bring in younger members, always has been to have an Academy largely made up of working active professionals. The bones of that mantra have been in the bylaws since that time, giving the Academy something in its own DNA on which to launch these changes. Keeping that goal in sight but using sensitivity and common sense to ensure it is the way forward.
As for the rest of the changes that came out of yesterday’s much-publicized Board of Governors meeting, the Academy, as expected in a bid to bring more diverse voices to leadership, added three new Governors, an African-American, Reginald Hudlin, to the Directors Branch; a Latino, Gregory Nava (Writers); and an Asian-American, Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Short Films and Feature Animation). The moves gave those three branches one extra Governor as opposed to the usual three allowed for the other branches. I am told, though, that there were no objections — even though Writers, Directors and Shorts now have added firepower on the board. The meeting also did not address the issue of the actual awards or this year’s controversial Oscarcast itself. That will come later, when producers David Hill and Hudlin present their postmortem, with criticisms sure to be brought up about Asian stereotyping and the embarrassing attempt to play off history-making Directing winner Alejandro G. Inarritu before he could deliver his own comments about the importance of diversity for all minorities. The ongoing contract re-negotiations between the Academy and ABC (which has rights to telecast the Oscars through 2020) also did not come up, but according to some reports, ABC is angling for more “creative” control over the broadcast. One insider characterized that simply as spin on the network’s part. Even though ratings for this year’s Chris Rock-hosted broadcast hit an eight-year low, there is a 100% certainty that the basic structure of the show will not change. The Academy is, and always has been, unbending on removing any of the 24 categories now given out on the show, and with a board largely controlled by branches representing the various “arts and sciences” of the Academy, don’t look for any “creative” changes in that regard. Should ABC, guided by Ben Sherwood, and with former point man Paul Lee now out, try to flex that kind of muscle, the Academy knows it could get whatever it wants from CBS, a network long wanting to get into the movie awards business.
Here is the letter sent today to Academy members from the Board of Governors:
There has been a lot of confusion about what we’re planning to do regarding voting status, and this has resulted in some anger and frustration. Some members feel they will lose their voting privileges simply because they’re retired. Some feel they are being accused of racial bias. Others feel they are being cast as “over the hill”. None of these is true. In fact, most members who fear losing their vote, will not. So we want to clear up this confusion and ease your concerns.
Lifetime voting will be for “lifers”. If you have spent a lifetime working in motion pictures, you will not lose your vote. We’ll describe below how each branch will create the criteria to judge its members fairly and liberally, but we want you to know that the only members who will be moved to Emeritus status will be those who worked in motion pictures for a relatively short time, and then moved on to other things a long time ago. Voting will be for those who are – or were – the most active in motion pictures.
First, a little background. In 1970, the Academy passed a rule, still in our bylaws, stating that voting status is primarily for members who “continue to be active in the field of theatrical motion pictures”. Further, the bylaws require that members’ voting status “be subject to continuous review by the Board of Governors which shall make transfers of members from one classification to another as it deems advisable.”
In other words, our bylaws have not allowed lifetime voting privileges for anyone since 1970. But they will now.
You will not lose your voting privileges simply because you’re retired, or haven’t been active for a while. There is nothing ageist about this. In fact, these new guidelines advantage those with longer careers over those with shorter careers.
In addition, the bylaws allow for other criteria than just “activity”. These include members who are “highly qualified to vote on the Academy’s several awards, have continued to be credited with outstanding screen achievements, or otherwise have achieved such unique distinction, earned such special merit or made such a substantial contribution to the motion picture arts and sciences, as to warrant continued active membership.”
So while “activity” remains our first criterion, your branch can take other factors into account as well to allow you to retain your voting privileges. Again, we want voting for those who are, or were, the most active, but we also want to be inclusive and fair. The benefit of the doubt goes to the member.
Here’s how the rules will work.
Beginning with this year’s class, new members will be given an automatic ten-year term of voting privileges, starting not at time of admission, but at an earlier point: “first qualifying work” (see below). If they are active in motion pictures during this first ten year period, they will automatically be granted voting privileges for a second ten year term. If they are active at all during that second term, they will receive a third ten-year term. If they’re active at any time during that third term, they will be vested with lifetime voting rights. (The three ten-year terms do not have to be consecutive, and if you do the math, you’ll see that the requirement can be met in as little as 21 years from “first qualifying work”.) In addition, if they ever receive an Oscar nomination, they will be vested with lifetime voting privileges. That’s how new members will be treated from this year on. Now, here’s how we’ll apply these very inclusive standards to current members.
In our initial resolution we tried, but failed, to come up with a “one size fits all” definition of activity that could fairly be applied Academy-wide. That was the language that unintentionally caused so much confusion and anger. So we’re fixing that.
Just as with new members, we will not start the first “ten-year clock” at the beginning of your membership, which for many, occurred well into your distinguished careers. We will start the clock at your “first qualifying work”. And here’s more good news: we will also let each branch decide how to define what it means to remain “active”. The idea here is to specifically design the criteria so they’re fair and inclusive for each branch. And finally, all members will have the right to appeal any decision regarding voting status directly to their peers on their branch’s Executive Committee.
Here are some examples.
Quite a few branches can easily define their criteria by screen credits. But producers, writers, and others, can work for years without getting credit. So those branches will come up with their own definitions, based on employment and not screen credit, to make sure that people who remained active for a full career don’t lose their vote.
Many Production Designers do not get their first Production Designer credit until well into their careers, so requiring them to have three ten-year terms since their first Production Designer credit would be unfair. That branch will define another starting point to allow people with full careers to keep their vote.
In the next two months, each branch’s executive committee will come up with its own way of defining these things, so that it’s eminently fair and inclusive for their members. Members will be informed of their voting status by the end of July.
Again, the philosophy here is that lifetime voting is for people who put a lifetime into motion pictures.
Those members who will be moved to Emeritus status will be only those few who both have not worked in a long time AND who did not work for a long time when they were active. There are members who had relatively short careers, then moved long ago to other professions; that’s who we will look to move to Emeritus status.
Finally, why are we doing this? Despite what you may have heard, and despite the timing of our announcement, this proposal is actually not about diversity. We have other proposals to advance the growth of diversity. This initiative, required by our bylaws, has to do with relevance. One of the reasons the Oscar is considered the most important award in motion pictures is because of who votes for it. As long as everyone understands that we keep voting privileges for those who are – or were – the most active in motion pictures, we will retain their confidence, and the awards will retain their enormous value. But if people are asking why someone with a short career many years ago is still voting for the Oscar after moving into an entirely different profession, it calls into question the relevance of that vote and the importance of the awards.
So, bottom line: if you satisfy the minimum requirements of career activity as determined by your own branch colleagues, or it is determined that you qualify by the other standards, you will keep your vote. If you haven’t been active for a long time, and weren’t that active to begin with, you might not. Adhering to our existing bylaws in this regard is our best assurance that we will continue to retain the crucial relevance of our awards, and continue to maintain the Academy’s standard of excellence.
We hope this reassures you that the process will be fair, inclusive, and transparent. Almost all the decisions will be made at the branch level, where your colleagues best understand a career like yours and why you qualify for voting privileges.