How a Fight Over Social Media Between an Oscar-Nominated Producer and the Film Academy Wound Up in Court

'Big Chill' and 'Erin Brokovich' producer Michael Shamberg filed a civil action in L.A. County Superior Court alleging that the organization violated its bylaws by failing to vote on a proposal he made before the board in January.
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Michael Shamberg

Michael Shamberg, the Oscar-nominated producer of The Big Chill and Erin Brokovich, filed a civil action in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Monday alleging that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — of which he has been a member since 1981 — violated its bylaws by failing to vote on a proposal that he made before its board of governors — of which he is not a member — earlier this year. Shamberg's pitch called for overhauling the organization's social media approach, which he finds to be terribly lacking.

Why, you might wonder, has a dispute of this nature wound up in court in the middle of a global pandemic?

"Yes, it's not as important as finding a vaccine — and remember, I produced Contagion," Shamberg tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It's not as important as Black Lives Matter. But I had no choice. It's like trying to get a good movie made — you don't give up when you have a good idea if you're a producer. I just felt, 'All right, I'll give the issue some prominence and file a suit,' which didn't cost me very much money, 'and see what their official response is.'"

Shamberg has been highly critical of the organization's social media strategy for approximately two years, but his concerns first became public back in April, when he wrote an open letter complaining that the Academy had "launched no initiatives to talk about critical industry issues since Covid-19 erupted," calling the organization "an epic fail as a 21st century social media institution" and suggesting that its ineffective use of social media was responsible for the plummeting ratings of the Oscars telecast, which is the Academy's primary source of revenue.

"The Academy's social media is anodyne, stiff and institutional," he alleged at the time. "Most Academy Tweets don’t even get a thousand likes. … Tom Hanks talked about recovering from the virus on SNL, not on AMPAS. The Academy never goes live on Instagram or does live AMAs. The younger audience and their families are on TikTok but the Academy has never once posted on TikTok. Academy posts never go viral."

Officials at the Academy, a buttoned-up organization, were taken aback by Shamberg's public airing of his grievances, particularly because they felt that they had gone out of their way to engage with him about them. Indeed, after submitting them in the form of a written proposal to president David Rubin and CEO Dawn Hudson, he had been invited, in September 2019, to meet with them, the board's first vice president and the organization's head of marketing, who told him his ideas would be taken into consideration.

Then, in January 2020, Shamberg took advantage of a rarely used clause in the Academy's bylaws (Article XI, Section 1) that permits any member of the Academy, not just governors, to propose amendments to the organization's bylaws, which must then be voted on by the full board or the full Academy. He proposed two, which would respectively mandate that the Academy (a) employ "state of the art social media" and (b) conduct "an annual member survey."

He was subsequently invited to present his proposed amendments to the full board at its April meeting. The board listened to Shamberg's 10-minute presentation but, he alleges in his suit, he subsequently learned — through a call and emails with Rubin — that the board had not approved his proposal. Then, through "a demand for member inspection requesting copies of the agenda and minutes from the board meeting in order to evaluate the board's compliance with the procedural requirements set forth under the organization's bylaws," he was aggrieved to discover that the board had opted not to vote on his proposal, but rather to ask its membership and governance committee to review the process by which members may propose by-laws changes.

On June 25, Shamberg's attorney, Matthew B. Learned, sent a demand for corrective action to the Academy. Scott Miller, the Academy's chief administrative officer and general counsel, replied, in a letter obtained by THR, "The fact that no board member at that meeting made a motion to adopt his proposed bylaw amendments, after explicitly being given the opportunity to do so, means the bylaw proposal was rejected." He added, "The fact that Mr. Shamberg disagrees with the Academy's social media strategy does not mean the board has failed to exercise reasonable business judgement in that area. And it does not mean Mr. Shamberg gets to supplant their judgement with his."

Nevertheless, Shamberg, on Monday, filed suit requesting "declaratory and injunctive relief compelling the organization to vote" on his amendments — not through a board vote, which he no longer desires due to the board's "history" with and "bias" toward him, but rather through the alternative method permitted by the bylaws, "compelling all AMPAS members (not just the board) to vote."

In an email to Rubin and Hudson notifying them of the lawsuit, obtained exclusively by THR, Shamberg stated: "You keep saying that Academy social media is successful and improved. Not true. In the last month average Instagram likes have gone down and are only 32,458. Average Twitter likes are 9,900 and average retweets are 3,068. The problem is that posts have no thematic consistency and no relevance to what's happening now. Academy posting is random, backward facing, and not designed to be relevant when they feature a photo of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, a still from Forrest Gump, a picture from Beasts of the Southern Wild, the same photo you posted last year of Florence Pugh, and Dakota Johnson at last year's Oscars, etc. I leave it to you to share this legal action with the board and the members, or they can learn about it on social media."

Shamberg, 75, does not have a Twitter handle himself, but says he is very acquainted with the platform. "I'm on it all the time," he emphasizes. "I don't post because I don't have anything to say, but I'm what they call a 'doomscroller' — I'm on Twitter like every 10 minutes. I get all of my information from social media." But does that qualify him to advise the Academy about how to promote itself? "I didn't say, 'It's my expertise,'" he insists. "I said, 'Ask experts.' I said, get younger people who understand social media, form a working committee of the publicity and marketing branch, and set up an editorial board that will recommend social media. It's not about my ideas for social media — they're hiding behind that. It's about better social media and getting the best people to do it."

Shamberg, in his April open letter, provided a list of Academy members who have more than 1 million Twitter followers, and asked the Academy why it wasn't enlisting them to help its cause. Academy insiders forcefully dispute the notion that the organization can direct its members to promote the Oscars telecast or tweet about anything else. "That's absolute bullshit," Shamberg retorts. "You do what's called a social media takeover. You go to a member and say, 'Hey, Dwayne ['The Rock' Johnson], we want you to talk about the new movie you're making.' Or, 'Hey, Beyonce, what music do you like in movies?' That's not hard to do. If they're proud to be Academy members, why wouldn't they be proud to post something special for the Academy?" He adds, "You could plot out six to 12 months of, 'Hey, I'm Ava DuVernay, and in this time of intense social justice. Here's what I suggest you watch' or 'Here's what inspires me to make my next movie.' That stuff gets picked up, OK?"

He continues, "I'm friends with this really gifted young actress, Joey King. She can go to the beach and get a million likes. And I know social media consultants who know exactly how to do it. One of the things you do is paid posts [to ensure that something] appears in people's feeds. Another is you get these influencers — members — to retweet things. This is just Internet 101."

Some Academy insiders believe that Shamberg is less concerned about the organization's online presence than he is disgruntled after expressing an interest in producing the 91st Oscars telecast in early 2019, but being passed over in favor of Donna Gigliotti and Glenn Weiss, and in representing the organization's producers branch on the board, but losing out last year to incumbent Mark Johnson and this year to Lynette Howell Taylor.

"I wanted to produce the show," Shamberg acknowledges. "I've wanted to produce the show for, like, nine years. I'm the only person who ever wanted to produce the show — it's a thankless task and it doesn't pay very much. I just wanted to do it for the creative challenge." He continues, "I pitched them how to do 'a social media Oscars,' and not one idea did they take. So 'anger' is not the right word. I'm frustrated that they will not embrace social media on the Oscars." And, he adds, "I had to run for the board. I can't complain about it but not run."

Academy insiders stand behind their social media efforts. They note that they have far more social media followers than the organizations behind the Emmys, Grammys, Tonys or any other awards show, and that they acquired 500,000 new followers just over Oscars weekend back in February. During the pandemic, they launched a #WatchWithTheAcademy initiative, as part of which creative talent behind several films, such as Dolemite Is My Name and Booksmart, tweeted along with fans during screenings of their work. And over the past year and a half, the organization has hired six people to work on its social media team — most recently, earlier this spring, Meryl Johnson to oversee digital strategy — within the marketing department.

Why, one might wonder, would Shamberg, if he is so displeased with the Academy, sue the organization, rather than just resign from it? "If I resign, I won't get the screeners," he jokes, adding that he gets them from BAFTA and the Producers Guild of America anyway. "I love the Academy and I love being a member. It's just a 93-year-old organization that has fallen behind the times, and it's the responsibility of members to speak up."