The Academy Finds Its Footing (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst reports that the Academy, after a banner few months, will next focus on the Governors Awards, an Oscars doc and museum fundraising.
Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

People, including me, tend to give the Academy a hard time -- about its members, their voting abilities and preferences, the length of the Oscars telecast and everything in-between. Gripes come from the public, the press and yes, even Academy members themselves. This has always been the case and, to one degree or another, probably always will be the case. Frankly, I think that the Academy has come to expect it. But, over the course of the last few months, the Academy has had to get used to something rather unusual: compliments, from all of the aforementioned constituencies.

It all started on May 4, when the Academy hosted an unprecedented gathering -- or rather gatherings, in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, each of which was simulcast to the others -- to which it invited all of its roughly 6,000 members. Turnout was high, concerns were aired and addressed and, by all accounts, morale was boosted.

Then, on June 28, the Academy, having recently thrown out its ridiculous quota system that limited the number of people that each of its branches could invite to join it each year, invited the most diverse group of new members in its history. Many cheered the move, including me.

Q&A: New Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs on Her Historic Election, the Oscars and Her Top Priorities

Then, barely a month later, on July 30, the Academy's Board of Governors met to replace outgoing president Hawk Koch, and chose as his successor Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a much liked and respected marketing vet who had theretofore held every major position on the Board except the top one, and who became only the third woman and first African-American ever elected to the position. (I have spoken to many Academy members since then and not one has had anything but praise to offer for Isaacs.)

The following day, the Academy announced that at the same Board meeting at which Isaacs was elected, it had also voted create a new branch for casting directors, delighting many members of that pivotal segment of the Hollywood community who had spent years campaigning for that level of recognition. (The excellent doc Casting By..., which screened at last year's fall fests and is now airing on HBO, undoubtedly helped to highlight the importance of what they actually do.)

And then, on August 2, Isaacs and the Academy confirmed that Ellen DeGeneres, the popular comedienne and TV talk show host, will be returning to host the Oscars telecast seven months from now and seven years after her first stint as host, succeeding Seth MacFarlane, whose misogynistic comments last year -- a year after the Oscar telecast producer Brett Ratner had to resign because of homophobic comments -- turned off many. (No selection could have pleased everyone, but this one came about as close as you can get -- and rang of poetic justice.)

But that's just the high-profile stuff. The Academy has also been behind a lot of other positive things, of late, that have managed to slip under most people's radar.

STORY: Casting Directors Celebrate New Academy Branch, Hope for Casting Oscar

All summer long, the Academy has been hosting -- and will continue to host -- its "Oscars Outdoors" series at the 10,000 square-foot plaza that it purchased for that purpose not long ago in Hollywood. Every few nights it outfits the property with a 40x20-foot screen and lawn chairs, which get filled by members of the public who, for the price of $5 (or nothing for kids under 10), get to bring in food and booze and take in movies old and new, often in the presence of someone associated with the film. A recent hit was the June 6 screening of the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom -- which RADiUS released on June 14, and which is my own favorite film of the year so far -- after which Judith Hill, one of the fabulous backup singers featured in the film, performed for the crowd.

On July 22, the Academy hosted, at its Beverly Hills headquarters, a grand tribute to Wong Kar-Wai, the revered Hong Kong filmmaker. The evening, which drew numerous Hollywood power players, consisted of a reception, followed by a Q&A with the director moderated by Mad Men showrunner Matt Weiner, followed by one of the first screenings of Wong's latest film, the kung fu biopic The Grandmaster, which The Weinstein Co. will release later this month. Wong, who wasn't even invited to join the Academy until last year, despite having maintained a reputation as one of the world's great filmmakers for almost a quarter-century, received a lengthy standing ovation from the packed house -- which he told me, when I interviewed him the next morning, he found very moving.

And last night, the Academy hosted, at the Linwood Dunn Theatre in its Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Hollywood, a special tribute to Destin Daniel Cretton, a young filmmaker who in 2010 won the Academy's Nicholl Fellowship -- a $35,000 prize given to up to five talented new screenwriters each year -- and then made Short Term 12, a magnificent new film that Cinedigm will release Aug. 23. The drama, which won this year's SxSW Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award and the Los Angeles Film Festival's Audience Award, screened last night after a congratulatory reception for Cretton, whose earlier, short version of Short Term 12 was a finalist for the Student Academy Award for Best Narrative Film in 2009. At a post-screening Q&A, Cretton credited the Nicholl Fellowship with giving him the confidence, desire and funds to finish making the moving pic, which is something of a cross between The Night of the Hunter (1955) and The Interrupters (2011) -- and was shot in just 20 days!

The coming weeks and months look just as bright for the Academy.

Next Thursday, the Academy will host at its Beverly Hills headquarters a screening -- open to the public -- of the beloved "classic" The Princess Bride (1987), complete with live play-by-play commentary by the film's director Rob Reiner and star Cary Elwes, as well as writer-director/smart alec Jason Reitman, who has independently facilitated similar offbeat events in the past.

Then, towards the end of the month, the Academy's newly-elected Board of Governors will gather for the first time and, among other things, determine the recipients of this year's Governors Awards, the annual ceremony at which "honorary Oscars" are presented, which this year falls on Nov. 16. Last year the Academy did not honor an actor -- the only time that has happened in the four years in which the ceremony has taken place -- which makes it almost certain that they will pick an actor this year. (The acting branch is easily the Academy's most populous.) If they elect to honor one of a handful of beloved legends who never won an Oscar outright -- Doris Day, Maureen O'Hara, Angela Lansbury, Leslie Caron, Gena Rowlands, Kim Novak, James Garner, Hal Holbrook or Gene Wilder -- I think the selection will be widely cheered.

STORY: Motion Picture Academy Creates New Branch For Casting Directors

Meanwhile, I spoke yesterday with the widely-revered filmmaking team of Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein -- the latter of whom is one of the Academy's three governors representing its documentary branch, and both of whom are now promoting their new narrative feature Lovelace, which RADiUS will release on Aug. 9 -- and learned that the duo have been commissioned by Turner Classic Movies, with the blessing of the Academy, to direct a documentary about the Oscars. The Academy tightly guards its archival footage -- some of it has only been publicly released on the long out-of-print VHSes Oscar's Greatest Moments: 1971-1991 (1992) and Academy Award Winners: The First 50 Years (1994) -- so this is a very big deal. Friedman and Epstein tell me they are now at work figuring out exactly what the doc's focus and structure will be; Oscar history and trends are likely to be emphasized.

And finally, as I am reminded every day when I pass the historic Wilshire May Company building on Wilshire Blvd. while on my way to the office, efforts to finance and construct The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which will occupy the building and serve as one of Hollywood's main tourist attractions, are well underway. While the Academy still needs to raise millions of dollars more -- Annette Bening, Tom Hanks and Bob Iger are leading a $300 million capital campaign -- it has to be delighted to have received a number of massive donations from industry insiders and supporters over the last few weeks.

With all sorts of new programming and people -- a relatively new CEO (Dawn Hudson came aboard two-and-a-half years ago), a new president (Isaacs) and, in the near future, a new managing director of communications (Jasmine Madatian left the post last week and will soon be replaced, perhaps by veteran Academy publicist Teni Melidonian, who has certainly earned the gig) -- one thing is eminently clear: it's a new day at the Academy.