Academy's New Voting Rules Raise Questions, Concerns and Anger Among Members

Oscars So White Illo - H 2016
Courtesy of A.M.P.A.S.

Oscars So White Illo - H 2016

Academy members are reacting with a range of responses — from joy to resignation to anger — to Friday's announcement that the organization plans to restrict voting privileges to "active" members in response to the lack of diversity amongst this year's Oscar nominations. Under the new rules, members who have not worked across a span of three decades after gaining membership will lose the right to cast Oscar ballots unless they've been nominated for an Oscar themselves.

Supporters have been most open with their reactions. Ava DuVernay, a member of the directors branch who controversially did not receive a directing nomination for Selma last year, tweeted: "One good step in a long, complicated journey for people of color + women artists. Shame is a helluva motivator. We've all felt shame even when we didn't believe we were wrong. It's the fact that EVERYONE ELSE thinks you're wrong. Fix it mode kicks in. Marginalized artists have advocated for Academy change for DECADES. Actual campaigns. Calls voiced FROM THE STAGE. Deaf ears. Closed minds. Whether it's shame, true feelings, or being dragged kicking + screaming, just get it done. Because the alternative isn't pretty."

However, of the wide cross section of members with whom The Hollywood Reporter spoke on Friday and Saturday, far more were displeased with the move than pleased with it, insisting that the Academy's older members were being unfairly scapegoated.

"Notes from the soon-to-be-retired peanut gallery," was the subject line of an email I received from one longtime member of the writers branch whose credits all came in the 1970s. "I'm an obvious candidate," he acknowledged, "which does not bother me too much. But I have voted, often, for Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Samuel L. Jackson and other people of color. And such a procedure does raise the question of the nature of the Academy: is its membership based on merit and accomplishment or in-tune-ness with all that is currently popular?"

Some were less accepting of the news. "It's trying to clear the decks so the show can go on in February without people screaming," vented Sam Weisman, 68, of the directors branch. "As a member who has stepped partially away from the industry, it feels like someone like me is being victimized. I'm in the mentoring phase of my life — I teach — so I'm now supposed to not be relevant, even though I'm being as relevant, in working with young artists, as people who have current credits are. And, by the way, I've contributed a lot of time to the Academy as a judge for the Nicholl Fellowships and the Student Academy Awards. So basically they're saying that I don't matter anymore. It seems like this is a hastily put-together reaction to a firestorm."

Tab Hunter, 84, a member of the actors branch, concurred, calling the announcement "bullshit." He elaborated, "Obviously, it's a thinly-veiled ploy to kick out older white contributors — the backbone of the industry — to make way for younger, 'politically-correct' voters. The Academy should not cave in to media hype and change the rules without talking to or getting votes from all members first."

Documentary branch member Arnold Schwartzman, an Oscar winner for 1982's Genocide, was aggrieved on behalf of his fellow members. "I'm quite angry," he said. "I'm all right, I've got my Oscar. But what about all of those people that were elected to the Academy because they are skilled, but who never got an Oscar nomination?" He continued, "I just resent being characterized by some people as a racist. We judge films on the merits. There were some great films with white people that didn't get in that I was upset about. Race had nothing to do with any of it."

Executives branch member Marcia Nasatir, 89, who in recent decades has worked as an independent producer, asked what the word "active" even means in the eyes of the Academy. "Someone has to answer that question," she said. "It sometimes takes 10 years to get a movie made when you work on it as a producer, so what does this mean for producers?"

"Thank God I'm 'active,'" chuckled Mike Medavoy, 75, also of the executives branch. He said of the new membership requirements, "My feeling is generally that they're fair. There are a lot of members that got in because at the time they were executives. But if you haven't been active for over 10 years, then you're not 'active' and it seems to me you have to justify your membership." He questioned, though, if the changes would impact the diversity of the Academy's selections. "You can keep adding members — pack it like the Supreme Court [during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration] — but I don't think that answers the question. I also don't think that the boycott [of the Oscars ceremony called for by some] is a good idea because it diminishes the rest of the people in the Academy."

A member of the music branch who wished to remain anonymous suggested the move has far more bark than it has bite. "I don't know how many people it's actually going to affect," she said, noting that the majority of "old-timers" were invited after being nominated (although some got in under rules that used to allow people with questionable credentials to become a member upon receiving the recommendation of two other members).

Leigh Castle, an agent who, as an associate member, doesn't have voting privileges, was torn about the decision made in the name of the organization to which she has belonged for decades. "I'm kind of on the fence about it and trying to look at both sides," she said. "I go to the Academy a lot and there are some people there that shouldn't be voting — they're very elderly and they don't look as if they can really judge what's in today's market, so in that way it has some merit. But there are other people that are 90 years old or whatever and they're perfectly vibrant and very much with it and, while they may be retired, it doesn't mean they aren't functioning on all cylinders. They have earned the privilege of being in the Academy through their work and just because they're no longer active doesn't mean that they can't be a good judge of what they're looking at." (Of "the diversity business" that spurred the rule change, she said, "People were chosen on merit. I don't think it had anything in the world to do with color. I mean, I would have picked Will Smith for Concussion — I think he did a marvelous job in that and it's very topical. But the reason that didn't get anywhere is the same reason that Truth didn't get anywhere: money talks.")

Veteran publicist Bruce Feldman, a member of the public relations branch, was outraged. He said that days ago, upon hearing rumors that the Academy might seek to sanction members who haven't been active in recent years, he emailed the PR branch's three representatives on the Board of Governors — Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, Marvin Levy and Nancy Utley — and pleaded with them to consult the members they represent before making any changes, and that Levy and Utley acknowledged his concerns in a reply but Boone Isaacs did not. "I think that's wrong," he said. "I think they have an obligation to represent us and not to act unilaterally. As a long-standing member, I find these actions very, very discouraging. While I understand that changes are necessary, it's disappointing that the Governors never communicated what they were considering with members and never asked for feedback before they made a decision. I would like to point out that we elect members to represent us and they have very simply failed to do so."

Another member of the PR branch who wished to remain anonymous fumed, "They did a knee-jerk reaction, when in fact the issue around actors [of color not receiving nominations] is in the actors branch — they are the ones who do the nominations!" He continued, "This 30-year rule is going to hit the PR branch and executives branch the hardest. What are you going to tell Bob Iger? He got in in 2005 when he took over Disney. He leaves in a year and goes to the NFL. So is he out? He is only building the Academy Museum."

A similar point was raised by another longtime member. He asked, "Who calls Les Moonves when CBS [Films] goes down? Then Rich Ross and Gail Berman? They’re in TV! And what about Jeff Shell and Kevin Tsujihara? They’re not going to be active for 30 years going forward. Michael Lynton once he’s fired? Beyonce and J-Lo? Are they in the movie business? Is Jada Pinkett Smith in the movie business? And by the way, there are a lot of Academy board members who aren't 'active,' like Jon Bloom or Bill Kroyer, who teaches." He continued, "I have news for you: older people who lived through the struggles for civil rights are way more sensitive to minority issues than young people who don’t understand what it was all about in the first place. It’s f—ing knee-jerk liberalism without taking into consideration what is fair. Bill Mechanic should get a special shout-out for waging a 10-year struggle to kick out older people and bragging about it in the Times. What an idiot." And, he added, "I imagine the NAACP’s film group [the Image Awards] is also racist for not choosing Ava DuVernay for best director for Selma?"

A member of the documentary branch posted a bitingly sarcastic statement to Facebook: "The Motion Picture Academy, in the spirit of Affirmative Action (which has worked so well in our universities), is determined to take the Oscar vote away from the Old White Guys (including mine, possibly). Personally, I wish they'd examine their complex preferential ballot procedure which clearly isn't working right. But no, blame the Old White Guys."

Another PR branch member who is very active mused: "Their goal is to eliminate 'non-active' members, in spite of their experience, and to attract young industry members more in tune with the times. However, last I looked, these young industry members are the ones working today who are not making diverse films. What makes anyone think that having these additional members will change anything? The assumption is that minorities vote for minority projects and white members don’t. I've never heard anything so absurd and, yes, racist."

Among the people whose voting privileges appear to be on the chopping block is Mother Dolores Hart, 77, who for many decades has been a nun at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn., but who was an actress until the age of 24, and famously gave Elvis Presley his first on-screen kiss. "I've been an Academy member since 1960 and it does mean a lot to me, it really does," said Hart, who emphasized that she diligently watches almost all of the screeners she receives. "The older I get, the more I value the films that come — and I have time to see them." She said she is not sure she'll continue to watch films "if I have no way to offer a comment about them," and feels other members moved to "emeritus" status will react the same way: "I think it's going to destroy their initiative. Why would you sit for all of those hours if you have no say in anything?"

"I really think that the Academy will miss the input of people who have wisdom and experience," continued Hart. "I live in a monastery. We have age groups from 23 to 89, and it's very interesting to see how a younger generation evaluates things. But to cut out the wisdom of another grouping? I think you lose a very important voice." She added, "It's age discrimination," and insisted that she and the Academy members she knows don't have a racist bone in their body: "I just find the whole thing so disturbing, to say the least. I used to know the president of the Academy, and unfortunately I don't now. But if I did, I would ask her to please reconsider this."