Why Agents Should Vote

Illustration: Neil Webb

Dealmakers are excluded from determining Academy Awards, despite increasing influence in filmmaking and a process already rife with conflicts.

At the Toronto International Film Festival in September, I had the opportunity to see the best movies that the filmmaking community has to offer. No-budget indies and big studio releases were represented, and the audiences at those screenings -- the first look at many of the films that will dominate the Oscar conversation the next few months -- were packed with Hollywood types: producers, executives, below-the-line specialists and a large contingent of agents from every organization, including ICM, CAA, UTA and my own WME.

Many agents were in Toronto to support their clients' work, but many more were there simply to see films and to discover talent. Yet unlike many of the other industry insiders at those screenings, agents specifically are excluded from voting for the film community's highest honor: the Oscars. There's something incongruous and unfair about that rule. I believe that it would benefit AMPAS and the art of filmmaking to remedy a long-standing bias and finally allow agents to have full voting privileges in the Academy.

Here's why:

WE INFLUENCE THE BUSINESS: Agents have been allowed to become Academy members since the early days of Hollywood, but we have been relegated to an "associates" branch and denied voting rights. This made sense when the Academy was formed in 1927 because the film business was much different than it is today. From 1939 to 1945, for instance, director Michael Curtiz made 16 movies, including Casablanca. That's assembly-line filmmaking. Hollywood was run as a virtual monopoly, with artists under long-term agreements with studios that afforded them minimal creative rights. Agents at that time had very limited influence in the process.

Slowly, thanks in part to agents, artists have wrested more control of their work, and agents in turn have become an integral part of the creative process. We are now often involved in not only identifying quality material, optioning the material, putting together financing and securing distribution, but we also often impact marketing in addition to negotiating the client's deal. Such Oscar-nominated films as The Fighter, District 9 and Inglourious Basterds were all projects agents believed in and helped bring to the screen.

WE KNOW THE FILMS: Agents are omnivorous consumers of entertainment. Like many agents, I generally see two to three new films a week, from obscure foreign dramas to mainstream action blockbusters. The major agents today, from CAA's Bryan Lourd to UTA's Jeremy Zimmer to WME's Mike Simpson and Patrick Whitesell to ICM's Jeff Berg, are defined as much by their knowledge of film and their ability to identify important talent as by their negotiation skills. Actors, writers, directors, cinematographers, costume designers -- in every aspect of filmmaking, we often are the first to champion new and exciting voices. These artists, and the moviegoing audience in general, would benefit if intelligent, informed, passionate, enthusiastic advocates were able to vote for the best in the field.

WE CAN AVOID CONFLICTS: The criticism of agents has always been that as professional advocates, we will simply vote for our clients. Yet most studio execs have a horse in the Oscar race, as do many producers, sound mixers and publicists -- all of whom are trusted to put aside their personal biases. Agents would take this responsibility with the same degree of seriousness that everybody else does.

Ultimately, it is in the best interest of the Academy, as well as up-and-coming writers, directors, actors and other artists, that the people voting are knowledgeable and influential members of the film business. Agents should be acknowledged as being part of this community.

We read a lot today about how nations and companies need to tear down barriers and embrace change and diversity. This is a philosophy that our business has adhered to from the beginning, working with the best talent irrespective of their country of origin or industry connections. Allowing agents to vote for the Oscars is in keeping with the spirit that has made our film industry the most vibrant and successful in the world.

Newman, a former Miramax executive, has been an agent for more than two decades. Now at WME, his clients include Danny Boyle, Kenneth Branagh, Guillermo del Toro, Jonathan Demme, Baz Luhrmann and Robert Rodriguez.


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