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Michael Shamberg, the Oscar-nominated producer of Erin Brockovich, Contagion and Django Unchained, has lost his bid to force the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to vote on his proposal to overhaul the organization’s social media approach.
L.A. Judge H. Jay Ford III found on Tuesday that the Academy correctly interpreted its rules when its board of governors refused to consider Shamberg’s ideas to boost Oscars viewership. He said of his order dismissing the lawsuit, “I cannot say that the Academy’s position on its interpretation of the bylaws is clearly unreasonable or otherwise irrational,” concluding he has to abstain from deciding the dispute since there’s no language in the rules expressly supporting either side.
Shamberg told The Hollywood Reporter, “The fact that the Academy wasted legal fees on a $1,000 an hour law [firm] instead of simply voting on positive ideas shows the board cares more about protecting their insular and secretive decision-making than figuring out the future.”
“This year’s Oscar ratings are down a precipitous 61% in the last decade and are the second lowest of all time,” Shamberg continued. “Instead of celebrating the relevance of movies, the ceremony made fun of Best Picture nominees and downgraded the important creative contributions of many branches. The format of the show hasn’t changed since the first broadcast in 1953. The Oscars need to be radically reconceived in the style of entertainment today or they will fade away.”
Shortly after Shamberg sued, the Academy changed its rules to clear up confusion about how member-proposed changes would be considered by the board of governors.
It originally stated: “Amendments to the bylaws may be proposed by any member of the Academy.”
It now reads: “Amendments to the bylaws may be proposed by a Governor, or by any member of the Academy, in writing to the Academy Secretary, who will bring the proposal to the Membership and Governance Committee to be considered for recommendation to the Board of Governors.”
Shamberg argued that the revisions adversely impacted the right of members to introduce bylaw amendments, while the Academy maintained that it simply clarified the process, and that there’s no obligation to vote on all proposals.
During a Tuesday morning Zoom hearing, Ford found that the rules are ambiguous as to whether members are entitled to a vote on their proposed amendments. He concluded that he has to “abstain from adjudicating this dispute.”
The judge cited an absence of language in the Academy’s rules supporting either side. When there’s ambiguity such as in this case, he concluded that he must defer to the Academy’s interpretation.
“Under these circumstances, the Court exercises judicial restraint and declines to substitute its judgment for that of a private organization on a matter that is best left to that organization,” Ford wrote in a tentative ruling. “The policy of judicial restraint controls, and the Court cannot substitute its own judgment for that of the Defendants.”
Matthew Learned, representing Shamberg, countered that the “Academy can maintain autonomy simply by voting no.”
“It was a close call,” Ford responded.
In an open letter he sent in 2020, Shamberg criticized the Academy for failing to launch initiatives “to talk about critical industry issues since Covid-19 erupted.” He called the group an “an epic fail as a 21st century social media institution,” and blamed it for plummeting Oscars ratings.
“The Academy’s social media is anodyne, stiff and institutional,” he wrote. “Most Academy Tweets don’t even get a thousand likes. … Tom Hanks talked about recovering from the virus on SNL, not on AMPAS. The Academy never goes live on Instagram or does live AMAs. The younger audience and their families are on TikTok but the Academy has never once posted on TikTok. Academy posts never go viral.”
The Academy for the first time this year chose not to present eight Oscar categories — documentary short, film editing, makeup/hairstyling, original score, production design, animated short, live-action short and sound — live during the main broadcast. It handed out the awards inside the Dolby Theatre in the hour before the live telecast started. The segments were recorded and edited into the show.
The decision was met with fierce backlash by numerous Academy members and the film community at large. The American Cinema Editors sent a letter to the Academy condemning the plan.
The scrutiny was compounded by criticism of Academy president David Rubin and chief executive Dawn Hudson’s decision to allow Will Smith to remain in the Dolby Theatre after he slapped presenter Chris Rock during the live telecast. An executive recruiting firm is currently interviewing candidates to be the next chief executive on top of an election for a new president.
“The job posting has never been sent to us members for comment even though the new CEO will determine the Academy’s future,” Shamberg said.
The Academy and its attorneys did not comment on the hearing.
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