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According to organizational management experts, a 54-person board of governors is virtually unheard of, since a board of that size is bound to produce such a wide variety of opinions that it would make it nearly impossible to get anything done. But that is indeed the size of the board that oversees the affairs of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And while it is, in the best of times, unwieldy, it is, at the present moment, experiencing something of a civil war.
As The Hollywood Reporter was the first to report on Feb. 22, the Academy, coming off an Oscars telecast that drew record-low ratings for broadcasting partner ABC, intends to present eight awards — documentary short, film editing, makeup/hairstyling, original score, production design, animated short, live-action short and sound — prior to the live telecast of the 94th Oscars on March 27, and then incorporate edited versions of those presentations into it.
Ever since that story broke, many Academy members and “Film Twitter” tweeters have relentlessly slammed the organization — in particular, its board, as well as outgoing CEO Dawn Hudson — for what they regard as disrespectful treatment of the affected crafts. Meanwhile, the Academy’s defenders have called on such critics to wait until they see the new format (which appears to be modeled after the one employed for some categories on the Tonys telecast) in practice before hardening their opinion, while also noting that the organization derives almost all of its operating revenue from the deal with ABC, and if the general public continues to flee the telecast, the organization will face an existential threat — in other words, that it was necessary to amputate a limb in order to save the patient.
This week, THR has spoken with numerous Academy governors, members and insiders on both sides of the debate to try to get a better sense of their concerns.
On Tuesday, Laura Karpman, a governor of the music branch — which picks the nominees for best original song (which will still be presented live) and best original score (which will not) — posted this to social media: “I am shocked that the officers of the Academy denied the Board of Governors the opportunity to vote and participate in the decision to exclude the music branch in the live broadcast. This is literally a wound in the heart of the music community. Thank you to the many members of the music branch who have spoken out. I hear you loud and clear. I stand with you.”
Ava DuVernay, a governor of the directors branch, responded, “Respectfully, and I had no part in the decision, but the word ‘excluded’ is a powerful one for many. It has a particular and heightened meaning to many. And as the music branch winners and nominees and speeches will be fully included in the broadcast, I think it’s important to call things by their right name so as not to minimize the meaning of true exclusion in these spaces.”
Meanwhile, Academy insiders say that all governors were made aware, at multiple board meetings last spring and summer, of the intention of the board’s “awards committee” to implement the sorts of changes to the Oscars telecast that are now causing controversy. The awards committee, which is chaired by producers branch governor Jennifer Todd, comprises 12 governors from almost as many branches, including several whose corresponding awards are impacted by this decision, such as another music branch governor, Charles Bernstein, as well as documentary branch governor Kate Amend and makeup artists/hairstyling branch governor Bill Corso (who, in 2005, received his own Oscar while standing in an aisle as part of another experiment at streamlining the telecast).
Moreover, Academy insiders say, all governors know that decisions related to the format of the Oscars show are always delegated to the awards committee, not adjudicated by the full board, since timely decisions about anything are virtually impossible when the full board is weighing in.
Critics, however, dismiss the awards committee as a group handpicked by outgoing Academy president David Rubin — who, as president, appoints people to committees — because they are most likely to carry out his and Hudson’s wishes. They note that the awards committee’s proposal was endorsed by Rubin and Hudson, as well as the man they hired to produce the 94th Oscars telecast, Will Packer.
Another governor of a branch that has lost a category from the live telecast, who wishes to remain nameless, says he was jarred when, over the summer, he received a call from Hudson explaining why significant changes to the format of the Oscars were necessary. This governor says that he was told that ABC had warned the Academy that it would cancel the Oscars telecast, via a clause in the Academy and ABC’s deal for the Oscars’ broadcasting rights, if 12 categories were not removed from the show. “We were told we’d have to sacrifice something or we were going to lose the whole show,” this governor recalls.
In the end, rather than dropping 12 categories altogether from the telecast, the Academy was able to satisfy ABC with the current plan, which will leave the network with more time to restore the sorts of ratings-drivers that were glaringly absent from last year’s telecast, such as a host (or, as will be the case this year, three hosts), clips of the nominated films and performances of the best original song Oscar nominees.
But many of the Academy’s rank-and-file members are anything but satisfied. Mitchell Block of the short films and feature animation branch wrote on Facebook, “The Academy’s lack of transparency to its governors, executive committees and members got them into this mess. Top-down leadership is good for Putin but not good for volunteer honorary organizations with a membership. We’re all in this together, but that’s not how the management of our Academy works.”
Other Academy members pushed back. Howard Cohen, co-president of Roadside Attractions, wrote, “Sorry, I’m with David Rubin on this one. As an AMPAS member, as an attendee in person at 7 of the last 8 ceremonies and as someone who deeply respects the craftspeople moved to non-live slots, this ceremony MUST change if it wants to continue on a commercial network. The few people upset by this change are worth it if the program can improve. It’s gone down a narrow indie-driven path for the last 15 years. Why bother being on ABC if you ignore the audience?”
Added Netflix chief Ted Sarandos, a member of the executives branch, “All of the traditional Oscars will be presented in front of a full house and televised on ABC. It’s going to be a great show! Smart evolution of the broadcast. Nobody slighted.”
Sarandos’ comment about the Oscars being presented “in front of a full house” is a reference to the Academy’s insistence that Oscars attendees will be seated inside the Dolby Theatre by 4 p.m. PT for the presentation of the eight awards that will be edited down and air during the live telecast, which starts at 5 p.m. PT (save for nominees and presenters, who will be given staggered times to arrive on the red carpet in order to participate in ABC’s Oscars preshow, which will be airing during the 4 p.m. hour).
But, opined one governor whose branch’s corresponding award will be presented during that hour, “I think most people will be at the bar. We are going to need a lot more seat-fillers. So that’s going to be a bummer for the nominees whose awards are being presented then.” This governor added, in reference to the members of his branch, “They’re calling me and they’re upset, and obviously the nominees are upset, and I don’t even know what to say to them. The board is just too big and they [the awards committee, Rubin and Hudson] don’t tell most of us anything. They just keep reaching for this fictionalized mainstream viewer, but the Oscars are for people who love the movies, whether that audience is growing or shrinking.”
THR has heard that the music and sound branches are particularly fired up about the situation and that there has been talk of trying to get the nominees for their corresponding awards to boycott the ceremony. Also, key players in the larger music community are preparing a letter to be sent to the Academy expressing their displeasure with the situation.
Things could come to a head Monday when the Academy’s CEO, governors and nominees congregate at the Fairmont Century Plaza Hotel for the first Oscar Nominees Luncheon since the outbreak of the pandemic nearly two years ago.
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