“Will I be seeing you in Telluride?” I asked new Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president David Rubin as he celebrates his first full week on the job today, after presiding over the graduation of the third class of Academy Gold Star interns as his first official duty over the weekend. At Telluride, the Academy holds an annual reception for its members during the Labor Day weekend film festival in the Rocky Mountains.
“You will. I haven’t been to the festival before. I am, I believe, a 25- or 30-year veteran of the Sundance Film Festival. I go every year. It has become my happy place where I see five films a day. I don’t go to any parties. I don’t make dinner plans. I do a deep dive into independent cinema. It is a great adventure every year but I’m very much looking forward to my first experience at Telluride,” he replied, confirming what I had guessed: that this is an Academy president who is on the front lines of what movies are — or should be — all about.
Of course, you might expect that since he is a casting director by profession, the first from his only 6-year-old branch to serve as AMPAS president. Seeing movies isn’t just a passion for Rubin, it is a requirement of his profession. His film credits include Trumbo, Gravity, The English Patient, Hairspray and many others. For his TV work, he has won Emmys for Game Change and Big Little Lies, and is nominated again this year for Sharp Objects.
The good news in that in this age when so many are dreaming of streaming, Rubin is a staunch defender of seeing movies the way they were meant to be seen — on a theater screen — as he noted last week in his first letter to the membership. “I urge you as an Academy member to engage fully with the Academy’s community, well beyond the delights and convenience of those screeners we get every awards season,” he wrote. “In fact, to protect and promote the communal joy of sitting in a crowded theater, staring up at that big screen, I would suggest that we focus on ‘screenings’ over ‘screeners’!”
That is the kind of message that used to be regularly sent by AMPAS but less emphasized in recent years. Nothing against Netflix, Amazon and all their upcoming competitors, but it’s nice to see the new guy at the top going back to basics and so heartily endorsing the theatrical experience. I asked him to elaborate.
“Yes. I mean it was not meant to be a statement about the ongoing conversation regarding what is a motion picture because that’s a larger issue that can’t be summed up in a catchphrase,” he said. “It really was a call to the Academy members to participate, to be engaged with other academy members. There’s something that happens at an academy screening, which doesn’t happen when you’re sitting at home watching your television. You’re engaged with other film professionals talking about the movie you just saw. Not to mention the collective experience of sitting in a dark theater staring at a screen. There’s nothing like it,” he added, while emphasizing he is also in favor of how the Academy will deal with the ever-changing ways in which consumers watch movies, and what really defines the organization in the first place, one that still touts that it is about the “arts and sciences” of the medium.
“I’m not sure that we’ve reached an ultimate conclusion. In fact, I know that we haven’t. I believe it’s a dialogue that’s ongoing,” he said. “As the parameters shift, as people are watching films in new and different ways I think it has to be an ongoing conversation with our members, with the governors, with filmmakers and with distributors.” He added that he supported the decision of the board of governors, on which he has served for six years, to keep Oscar eligibility rules to a seven-day run in a theater in Los Angeles, with day and date with streaming permissible. However, he wants to continue the dialogue that will either reinforce that rule or lead to a change. It all has to do with defining just what a motion picture is, a key topic of interest for him.
Continuing the “dialogue” on a number of other issues that proved embarrassments for the Academy the past couple of years probably is, at the very least, on the back burner for now –including the idea of a Popular Movie category, taking some crafts categories off the live Oscar telecast, and other initiatives AMPAS had to reverse after being pilloried in the media and by members, some of whom continue to have strong opinions about the direction their Academy has taken in recent years.
But it is a new day, at least at the top, so first things first.
Rubin jumps into the job in the season AMPAS has decided to move its Oscar broadcast on ABC to its earliest Sunday ever, February 9. That was a decision made after the show received its lowest ratings ever in 2018. At the time, an Academy officer and board member offered me a reason for moving the show up: “Well, we have to do something.” In the interim, however, the hostless 2019 show saw a 12% ratings rise, so maybe the board acted too hastily, eh? The 2021 and 2022 shows will be back to business as usual at the end of February in their respective years, but Rubin has to deal with this year’s accelerated schedule for now. He isn’t wasting time.
“Well, it just means that we have to play a little bit of catch-up, and we’re jumping right on it,” he said. “We’re making determinations about Oscar producers . We’re trying to get all of the departments involved in the Oscar broadcast and underway as soon as possible and start our dialogue with our terrific partners at ABC, and that’s OK. I knew when I was elected I would need to roll up my sleeves for six weeks and I’m eager and excited to do it particularly because of the experience that I had producing the Governors Awards for two years.” My best guess, not based on anything he told me, is they will turn to new Board member Donna Gigliotti and Glenn Weiss to return to produce again this year, but you never know. As for the chances of another hostless Oscars in 2020, Rubin says those discussions are just starting and really depend on the kinds of movies that are involved and consultations with ABC.
Last year’s ill-fated announcement, then abandonment, of the Popular Movie category is now apparently in the rear view, especially since “popular” movies like A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, Black Panther and Green Book all were nominated for Best Picture this time around, and each won Oscars, too. The interest in the actual movies being honored has always been the most reliable barometer of ratings success for the Oscar show, and Rubin, like past leaders, is ever hopeful to maintain a balance. “I think I’m hoping that there are enormously popular films that are also of tremendous quality so that we can engage as wide an audience as possible who are eager to see the fate of those films at the Oscar ceremony,” he said. “We have no control over that but we are endlessly optimistic, and based on what I understand to be the slate of films between now and the end of the year, very encouraged.”
Well so far, there’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Anything else? He seemed amused when I asked if he was rooting for Avengers: Endgame to be a Best Picture nominee. The record will note that he didn’t take the bait.
As for the (ill-considered) controversy in some quarters about this year’s Best Picture winner Green Book, Rubin basically dismisses it as par for the course. “Difficult to say what draws the Academy voters to particular films other than the expertise in the making of them, but certainly the immense power of movies to touch hearts and minds is what draws us all to the movie theater. So I think that that’s certainly a huge part of it,” he said. “I think being the preeminent award for filmmaking carries with it an inevitability that you will be in the spotlight and people will have their own specific opinions about what you do, but we can’t operate in reaction to that. We watch films both as filmmakers and as audiences and we respond honestly with our votes.”
Rubin says that especially with the upcoming shorter season the Academy is cognizant of the timetable and will make every effort to give members access to films by stepping up the members’ interests and activities in getting to see them in time. Good luck with that. It was difficult enough before, so will be especially hard in a truncated period, but let’s hope AMPAS uses every tool, and maybe even relaxes some rules, in order to encourage as many members as possible to see the movies.
In our extensive conversation we touched on many other topics of interest to AMPAS members, particularly the long-delayed museum, now without an opening date but aimed they say for 2020. It recently lost both its longtime director Kerry Brougher as well as chief content exec Deborah Horowitz. The actual building is coming along nicely, but Rubin says that is obviously not enough.
“Our efforts and attention is focused on tremendously stimulating content in its exhibition that appeals to the everyday moviegoer and to the cinephile, and to make sure that this represents accurately the arts and sciences of motion pictures and also appeals with tremendous relevance to today’s audiences and today’s moviegoers, (and) museum goers,” he said. “We are expecting families who are tourists coming to Los Angeles to flock to the museum as well as cinephiles who are looking for a deep dive into moviemaking. We’re all coming together to bring this museum toward its opening date, and we’re on a regular basis assembling all the elements needed to get it done. It’s as though we’re producing a major, major motion picture, and we are in the sort of final stages of production moving into post-production, and we will we will bring it to ‘theaters,’ opening just at the right time.”
Rubin also talked about the success of the Academy’s efforts to increase diversity as well as membership numbers of women and people of color, pointing out they are well on their way to achieving their initial target of doubling both those sectors by next year. He says it doesn’t stop there and will continue. He talks about the Academy as truly a global organization, and renaming the Foreign Language Film award to Best International Film as a strong step forward. In other words there are no “foreigners” in this Academy. It is one.
On the touchy subject of the Academy’s well-publicized code of conduct that so far has resulted in the expulsions of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski, Rubin didn’t dodge the subject and instead doubled down on decisions he took part in as a governor and secretary of the AMPAS board, a position that deals directly with membership issues.
“We have established a set of standards of conduct for the Academy and very importantly have done so,” he said. “There’s also a very specific procedure that’s outlined by which claims of alleged breaches of those standards can be made. That is the infrastructure that we will rely on in that realm. It is something that I feel very strongly about. I am a delegate to the Anita Hill commission (more formally known as the Hollywood Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality) and very much involved in making sure that both the Academy and the industry at large is facing this issue head on.”
However, when I asked him about Polanski’s lawsuit filed in April against the Academy in order to get the Oscar-winning director reinstated as a member, Rubin said it was inappropriate for him to comment. Polanski’s team argues that the Academy violated its own written guidelines in his expulsion.
Despite some of the Herculean tasks he has been handed, Rubin overall seemed upbeat and confident, telling me his No. 1 goal revolves around the care and nurturing of the membership, both domestic and international. His ultimate promise, as stated in his August 8 letter to those members, is to “Connect. Collaborate. Engage.”
And so a new era begins.