Peter Bart: Academy’s Board Elections May Be Doomed To Disappoint


I’ll be casting my vote next week in a keenly anticipated and controversial election, except I can’t quite figure out why it’s so anticipated or controversial. No, it’s not about Trump or Clinton; the purpose of the election is to select the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – actually one third of the board. And the rhetoric surrounding the election has become nothing if not portentous.

But should it be? I have been a voting member for many years, but here’s my concern: In issuing pronouncements about building diversity and in proposing muddled changes to its voting rules, the Academy has assumed the position that it is, or should be, a lightning rod for change. The problem: it is not structured for such cosmic influence, nor has that been the mission of its membership. It has enough trouble simply mounting its annual awards show without stepping on itself.

88th Annual Academy Awards Nominations, Los Angeles, America - 14 Jan 2016

In the best of all worlds, should the Academy aspire to become a more dynamic social force? Sure — indeed some candidates are running on that platform. But given its clumsy structure (17 branches and 54 governors) and the realities of its membership, I am skeptical that this “dynamic” is a realistic expectation.

Some background: The Academy was started 90 years ago basically as a tool for studio management to combat the rising power of labor unions. It has come a long way since then. It’s even going to open a much anticipated (and delayed) museum in a couple of years that will put the achievements of Hollywood on vivid display. And the Academy will continue to expand its many educational activities and other initiatives tied in with overseas filmmakers.

88th Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon, Los Angeles, America - 08 Feb 2016

In next week’s voting, the Academy’s 17 branches will select one third of a new board to serve three-year terms. In the directors’ branch, for example, Steven Spielberg is a candidate to occupy the position formerly held by Kathryn Bigelow. Results will be announced July 21. The good news: More women and also more African Americans are running for office, but whether they will win is up to the branches – editors, special effects, set decorators, etc. To improve the odds, the Academy took it on itself to appoint three new governors, one of whom is black, one Asian and one Hispanic. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is black, is running for a fourth and final one-year term and likely will be re-elected.

To some members who are running, the Academy has been assuming too defensive a posture in reacting to last year’s post-awards critiques. The 6,000 members of the Academy, they point out, represent working Hollywood. Most agree that this constituency is vastly too white and too male and would like to see that change, but not by institutional mandate. The same could apply to the managements of the studios, networks and supporting industries. That, too, will take time and effort.

The Academy hasn’t helped itself by putting out a series of ambiguous announcements suggesting the elimination of voting rights of older, non-active members. Paradoxically, a case could be made that the members admitted in the 1960s and ’70s, who might lose their voting privileges, tended to be more liberal in their thinking than those of the recent decade, but there’s no study to prove that. In any event, some of the older members have become paranoid about the mixed messages. It now seems, however, as though these dicey decisions will be made branch by branch where tensions may be defused.


The upshot: In all likelihood more women, Hispanic and black governors will be elected this year. The law of averages also suggests that more minority actors will win Oscars this year (certainly the parts seem a lot juicier). Equally important, more individual Academy members are zealously working on their own to further the cause. Hawk Koch, a former Academy president (and son of a president) is reportedly developing a public service film titled If You See It, You Can Be It, which portrays the positive experience of minority workers in various Academy branches. The film, which will be partially funded by the major studios, will be circulated to schools and colleges with the aim of motivating more applicants to give filmmaking a shot. I know of several producers and filmmakers who also are actively navigating women into directing gigs – indeed, delivering jobs to them. I have somehow more faith in the effectiveness of these individual efforts than I do of the institutional ones.

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