Academy Board Elections: Steven Spielberg Among Incumbents, Jason Blum Among Challengers on Ballot

The first round of voting has begun to fill 17 seats on the organization's 54-person board of governors.
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Steven Spielberg

It's time for Hollywood's annual student council elections — and, this cycle, Steven Spielberg, Laura Dern, Jason Blum, Michael Mann, Eric Roth and Ruth E. Carter are among the names on the ballot.

The roughly 8,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have begun the annual process of reshaping their board of governors, which is comprised of 54 individuals — three elected to three-year terms as governor by each of the organization's 17 branches (one comes up for a vote every three years, and none can serve more than three terms in a row before being required to leave the board for at least one year), plus another three appointed by the organization's president to three-year terms as a governor-at-large to advocate for inclusion in Academy activities (all appointed concurrently).

The first step of the Academy's election process commenced on Friday when members were provided, via the Academy's members-only website, with the names of fellow members who have thrown their hat into the ring for their branch's open seat. According to the list, two branches have fewer than four declared candidates (costume designers, with two, and production designers, with one), but most have many more (producers have the most, with 20, followed by actors, with 17). Later this month, members from all branches will receive a ballot listing their branch's four (or fewer) finalists, and will vote again in early June to determine which individual to send to the board for the next three years. Results will be announced in mid June.

This year, 11 incumbents are running to hold on to their seats — the legendary Spielberg (of the directors branch), plus Oscar nominee and Academy Science and Technology Council co-chair Craig Barron (visual effects), Kevin Collier (sound), Oscar nominee turned Big Little Lies star Laura Dern (actors), Oscar nominee Mark Goldblatt (film editors), Rain Man Oscar winner Mark Johnson (producers), Laura Karpman (music), Oscar nominee Jan Pascale (designers), Academy secretary David Rubin (casting directors), Fox Searchlight co-chief Nancy Utley (marketing and public relations) and Roger Ross Williams (documentary), the first black director ever to win an Oscar.

As for the other incumbents? Six governors are "terming out" — current president John Bailey (cinematographers), Jon Bloom (short films and feature animation), Robin Swicord (writers) and all three governors-at-large Reginald Hudlin, Gregory Nava and Jennifer Yuh Nelson. And three other governors have declined to seek re-election — Sharen Davis (costume designers), Leonard Engelman (makeup artists and hairstylists) and Daniel Fellman (executives), who finished out the term vacated by Bill Mechanic when the former studio chief resigned, via an explosive letter, back in April 2018.

Interestingly, all three current governors-at-large are now seeking election from the branch to which they actually belong: Hudlin is taking on Spielberg, whereas Nava and Nelson are seeking to fill the seats vacated by Swicord and Bloom, respectively. Other former governors seeking to return to the board include Curt Behlmer (sound, 2007-2016), Bill Corso (makeup artists and hairstylists, 2013-2016), Charles Fox (music, 2007-2016), Judianna Makovsky (costume designers, 2013-2016) and Mann (directors, 2012-2018).

There are many other notables in contention, as well, particularly for the six non-appointed governorships in which the incumbent is not able or willing to seek re-election. Candidates from the executives branch include Sony chief Tom Rothman, Sony Classics co-chiefs Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, former UA and Orion chief turned Oscar-nominated producer Mike Medavoy (Black Swan), Marvel EVP production Victoria Alonso, Annapurna distribution chief Erik Lomis and executive/Oscar-winning producer Donna Gigliotti (Shakespeare in Love), who produced last February's well-received 91st Oscars, and is hoping to following in the footsteps of Jennifer Todd, who was elected to the Academy board (as a producers branch governor) after producing the 90th Oscars.

Entrants from the writers branch include Oscar winners Roth (Forrest Gump), Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction), Stephen Gaghan (Traffic) and John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), plus Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (director of best foreign language film Oscar winner The Lives of Others); from the short films and feature animation branch include multiple special Oscar winner Ed Catmull (former president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios) and Oscar nominees David Silverman (who also directed many episodes of TV's The Simpsons); from the cinematographers branch include Ellen Kuras (who, like George Clooney and Grant Heslov, directed one-third of the episodes of the forthcoming Hulu limited series Catch-22) and Steven Poster (the president of the International Cinematographers Guild); from the costume designers branch include Carter (who, for her work on Black Panther, just became the first black person ever to win the best costume design Oscar); and from the makeup artists and hairstylists branch include Oscar winner Howard Berger (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).

There are also many familiar names taking on incumbents. Dern's actors branch challengers include Oscar nominee Margaret Avery (The Color Purple), Stephen Lang (Avatar) and Rita Wilson (whose husband Tom Hanks previously served on the board). Oscar nominees Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name) and Ted Melfi (Hidden Figures), as well as Niki Caro (Whale Rider), are angling for Spielberg's directors branch seat. And vying to displace Johnson as a producers branch governor are Oscar winners Cathy Schulman (Crash) and Irwin Winkler (Rocky) and nominees Jennifer Fox (Michael Clayton), Chris Moore (Manchester by the Sea), David Permut (Hacksaw Ridge), Michael Shamberg (The Big Chill and Erin Brokovich), Lynette Howell Taylor (A Star Is Born) and Blum (Get Out), who lost in a run-off a year ago to the aforementioned Todd, plus Mace Neufeld and Paula Wagner.

Challengers for Utley's position representing the newly renamed marketing and public relations branch include awards strategists Tony Angellotti (coming off of Green Book's big best picture victory) and Michele Robertson (who anchored A Star Is Born's campaign), personal publicists Cindi Berger (who runs PMK*BNC) and Kelly Bush Novak (who runs ID) and studio vet Don Levy (whose father Marvin Levy served on the board for many years). Taking on the doc branch's Williams are Oscar winner Lynne Littman (Number Our Days) and Oscar nominees Evgeny Afineevsky (Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom) and Leslie Iwerks (Recycled Life). And targeting the music branch's Karpman are Oscar nominees John Debney (The Passion of the Christ) and J. Ralph (the only person ever nominated for multiple songs featured in documentaries — in his case, three), plus Motown vet William Goldstein.

The current board's most consequential decision was made at its April meeting, when it declined to revise its rules to make the path to Oscars steeper for streaming services that give films only limited theatrical releases. Spielberg was reportedly a leading advocate of extending the minimum theatrical release required for Oscars eligibility, a position opposed by the insurgent Netflix, which has done business with a huge segment of Hollywood, including about one-quarter of the current board. This election cycle could serve as something of a referendum on how the overall Academy feels about the way its governors — not least Spielberg — tackled that debate.

One thing that some expected, but that did not come to pass, on this year's ballot: a move by Netflix employees to land seats on the board. The streamer's chief content officer Ted Sarandos did not make it out of the first round in 2017 when he pursued an executives branch governor ship — the executives branch, which is filled with Netflix rivals, is considered to be as hostile to the service as any. But Netflix does have execs who are members of other branches, such as film chief Scott Stuber, who is still is part of the producers branch. And Netflix VP independent film and documentary features Lisa Nishimura and VP original film Tendo Nagenda, who both are members of the executives branch, also serve on the Academy's A2020 committee and are serious contenders for governors-at-large appointments.

The Academy's officer elections will take place in July or August, during the first meeting of the newly reconstituted board. While rookie governors are eligible to be nominated for these leadership positions, they tend to be filled by people with greater board experience. The rumor mill suggests that those likeliest to be nominated for the presidency are Rubin, should he be re-elected to the board (he lost to Bailey two years ago); current first vice president and makeup artists and hairstyling branch governor Lois Burwell; and current vice president and marketing and public relations branch governor Sid Ganis, a past president (2005-2009) in whose honor the George Lucas Foundation recently made a "transformative grant" supporting the Academy Museum of Motion Puctures. There is also a move afoot to draft into the mix short films and feature animation branch governor Bonnie Arnold, the popular former co-chief of DreamWorks Animation and driving force behind the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, the third and final installment of which was released in February.