An Academy Election? It’s Like Speed-Dating In The Dark


If you think the Oscar voting process is weird—with all those short lists, screening deadlines, members-only streaming arrangements, branch nominations, and hors d’oeuvres counts (or whatever passes for the latest feeding restrictions)—you’ll be wholly befuddled by the latest Board of Governors election at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The rules have changed (again). This year, candidates for the 17 open slots on a 54-member board self-submit their names, go through no qualifying round, and are elected on a branch-by-branch preferential ballot with up to five ranked choices, like the annual Best Picture vote. The first candidate in a branch to get 50% of the vote plus one is a winner.

As for the rest of the process, well, it’s kind of like speed-dating in the dark.

Nearly as this mere outsider can tell, here’s how the election, which gets underway at 9 AM PT this morning, is supposed to work:

For starters, based on a hand-count, and apologies to anyone who got missed, there appear to be 153 candidates for the 17 open seats, or nine candidates per seat. But they are not spread evenly among the branches. The actors branch appears to have 19 contenders including incumbent Whoopi Goldberg, former governor Ed Begley Jr., and coronavirus survivor Rita Wilson. The makeup artists and hairstylists branch seems to have only one candidate, Linda Flowers, whose election prospects are looking good.

The voting will be open through 5 PM PT on Friday, June 5. But the list of candidates wasn’t sent to Academy members until last Friday afternoon, never mind that self-submissions had already been closed for a week. So nearly 10,000 Academy members will choose new leaders, in a lightning round, from a list they didn’t see until just before the weekend’s round of civil unrest got started.

But that’s not the only tricky part. As it turns out, according to an Academy spokesperson, the list of candidates were not to be disclosed to the public—it was accessible only to Academy members, one or more of whom (or a staffer), in the spirit of the times, leaked it to the press as an anonymous source who could not be quoted because he, she or they were not authorized to comment.

Even trickier, the members can see who is running for spots in other branches; but they can only read candidate statements, posted on the Academy’s members-only portal, for their own branch. So an actor can see what candidate Richard Dreyfuss might have to say about his plans, but can’t read, for instance, what director and former governor Michael Mann might have in mind.

Whatever purpose the limitation might serve, it certainly discourages coalition-building among newly elected governors, who will make up one-third of the board.

In a further twist, as if one were needed, those candidate statements—which are optional—are strictly limited to a length of 1,000 characters. That’s characters, not words. A paragraph, shorter than some of Trollope’s sentences, to sum up one’s hopes and dreams for the film Academy in the age of virus, streaming, museum debt, and television ratings decline.

Voters, if they’re relying on the Academy portal for their information, won’t have much to go on. But that might be for the best, as they don’t have much time to think about it.

Still, it’s hard not to be curious about what those 153 candidates are proposing.

To find 17 sources willing to relay statements from 17 different branches is beyond this reporter’s powers.

But, just for fun, I managed to get a look at the candidates list for one branch, the producers—and it makes an intriguing case study.

This year, the producers find 16 candidates vying for their open board seat. There is no incumbent, since Albert Berger, though eligible to run for re-election, is not on the list of self-submitted.

Among those running, one, Jennifer Fox, appears to have no statement at all. Fox has been a past producer of the Academy’s Governors Awards banquet, so the assumption may be that she and her views are sufficiently well known to those who matter.

Of the remaining 15, six—Khadija Alami, Lynette Howell Taylor, Robert Lantos, Michael S. Phillips, Peter Samuelson, and Irwin Winkler—posted statements that are essentially resumes, with little or no attempt at a policy prescription. Of those, some pointed toward obvious diversity credentials. Thus, Alami identifies herself as “the first Arab Woman Producer and second Moroccan filmmaker” to join the Academy, and Howell Taylor, who co-produced this year’s Oscar show with Stephanie Allain, points out that she was a co-creator of the “HORIZON AWARD focusing on giving female filmmakers greater access to the industry.” Lantos, too, says he would bring diversity to the board, by virtue of his work with the Canadian and European film industries.

That leaves nine candidates who said at least a little something about plans or a direction for the Academy. Several kept it general—some at the level of platitude. Jason Blum said he expected to “support the Academy’s long tradition of integrity, diversity and promoting creativity in all forms.” Steven-Charles Jaffe promises to advance “new tech” and “social relevance.” Lori McCreary wants to focus especially on “the areas of inclusion and welcoming.” Chris Moore wants to make “the Academy a leader during this time when new platforms, new realities and new talents are disrupting our industry.” Michael Peyser says pretty much the same, with an emphasis on the many emerging forms of film and film delivery. Jeffrey Sharp wants to expand the Academy Gold diversity internship program, and bolster international outreach.

The remaining three candidates squeezed some fairly pointed proposals into their 1,000 characters.

One of them, Michael Shamberg, would try to implement some of the reforms he proposed several weeks ago in an open letter to the current Academy leadership. “My ‘platform’ is to transform the Academy into a social media institution, not just a physical one, with an annual members survey, virtual member committees, and a Zoom town hall where Academy leaders explain their vision and answer questions.”

Richard W. Stevenson, slightly less specific, but no less emphatic, wants to expand the Academy’s horizons far beyond its traditional focus on feature film. “While feature film making remains the Academy’s pride and joy, 95% of academy members are actually putting their storytelling talents to work in other forms of digital filmmaking currently not well represented on the Board of Governors,” he writes.

Then there is Lawrence David Foldes, who makes an impassioned appeal for membership policies based more heavily on achievement. In his words, “EXCELLENCE in ACHIEVEMENT should always come first—not politics, not quotas, not hashtags.”

There you have it. Sixteen candidates. Plenty of identity. A handful of actual plans. And whoever gets the seat will be added to a board whose meetings the members may not attend, and whose dealings, under the bylaws, are strictly confidential.

What could possibly go wrong?

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