Oscars: Board of Governors Election Results Signal Support for Current Academy Leadership (Analysis)

Academy's Board of Governors-Publicity-H 2016
Courtesy of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

The results of Hollywood's annual student council vote — also known as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' board of governors election — are now in. As insiders try to figure out what, if anything, the returns reveal about the famously cliquish and quirky organization, my take is that its leadership has to be pretty pleased. There was no sweeping rebuke of the current board. In fact, almost all governors who wished to continue to serve will get the opportunity to do so.

One-third of the board's 51 elected seats come up for grabs every year — one of the three seats on each of the 17 branches. (There are also three unelected "diversity governors," appointed by the president.) This year's contest has been more closely watched than any before because each branch's four finalists were chosen through a democratic process for the first time; this was the first board election since #OscarsSoWhite2 sharply divided the membership; and the Academy is anxious to present a diverse public face to the world.

Back in the spring, the Academy's initial response to a second consecutive year of all-white acting nominees appeared to be to target "inactive" — read: older — members. That resulted in an outpouring of impassioned concerns from members who felt they were being unfairly scapegoated. After the Oscars ceremony, though, the Academy quietly backed away from its original approach, and members' emotions began to cool, as is reflected in Monday's results.

In fact, the Academy leadership could argue that it has received a vote of confidence. Veteran publicist Bruce Feldman, the most outspoken critic of the organization's response to #OscarsSoWhite, was seeking a seat on the public relations branch, but lost a hard-fought race to incumbent Nancy Utley, co-president of Fox Searchlight. In the end, seven of the 11 incumbents who sought re-election were voted back in — Utley, plus the casting directors' David Rubin, cinematographers' John Bailey, designer's Jan Pascale, producers' Mark Johnson, short films and feature animation's Jon Bloom and writers' Robin Swicord.

Three past governors also were returned to the board after at least one year off — the executives' William M. Mechanic (prevailing over incumbent Amy Pascal, the former Sony chief), makeup artists and hairstylists' Leonard Engelman (winning over one-term incumbent Bill Corso) and visual effects' Craig Barron  (incumbent Richard Edlund was ineligible to continue, as no governor can serve more than three consecutive three-year terms without taking a year off in-between). 

Only two incumbents went down to defeat. Longtime and well-liked actors' rep Ed Begley, Jr. (who, as a side gig, has eloquently read out the names of all of the Oscar nominees at the annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon ever since the exit of the Academy's former COO Ric Robertson in 2013) lost to popular Oscar nominee Laura Dern. And Judianna Makovsky, who served the costume designers branch for one term, was upended by Sharen K. Davis, a fellow Oscar nominee.

Of the other five seats, four were vacated by their incumbent ahead of this year's race. The directors branch's Steven Spielberg and documentary branch's Roger Ross Williams will step into seats that had been held by fellow Oscar winners Kathryn Bigelow and Alex Gibney, respectively, who both opted not to seek re-election. And the sound branch's Kevin Collier and music branch's Laura Karpman will succeed Curt Behlmer and Charles Fox, respectively, who both termed out.

The fifth seat, the film editors branch, is still TBD, since past governor Mark L. Goldblatt and Maryann Brandon, J.J. Abrams' longtime editor, tied and will now face a run-off vote.

It will be interesting to see what role Spielberg plays on the board. The three-time Oscar winner, whose publicist Marvin Levy and muse Tom Hanks long have occupied seats on it, is as famous and respected as anyone in Hollywood and will bring to the board the sort of gravitas that Gregory Peck and Karl Malden once did. That, undoubtedly, will be welcomed. But association with Spielberg comes at a price: Though soft-spoken and polite, he also is strongly opinionated, and won't be a rubber stamp for anyone.

If Feldman was the loudest internal critic of the Academy's response to #OscarsSoWhite, Spielberg was the most prominent, telling The Hollywood Reporter in February, "I don't believe that there is inherent or dormant racism because of the amount of white Academy members. I'm also not 100 percent sure that taking votes away from Academy members who have paid their dues and maybe are retired now and have done great service — maybe they've not won a nomination, which would have given them immunity to the new rules, but they have served proudly and this is their industry, too — to strip their votes? I'm not 100 percent behind that." (Spielberg previously sought election to the board in 2006, losing to Alexander Payne.)

If any aspect of the results is disappointing to president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson, it probably is the fact that the diversity of the board didn't change much at a time when the organization is aggressively seeking to eradicate the long-held notion that is a club dominated by old white men.

Boone Isaacs no longer will be the only black person among the 51 elected board members; she will be joined by Davis and Williams. (Williams, the first black director ever to win an Oscar, for his documentary short Music by Prudence, was one of the few members who spoke out publicly in support of the Academy's response to #OscarsSoWhite.) But, in terms of adding to the number of women on the board, there was no progress. Eighteen women, including diversity governor Jennifer Yuh Nelson, sat on the 2015-2016 board, and the newly elected board currently has 17 women — although it could reach 18, depending on the outcome of the film editors' run-off election to replace Lynzee Klingman (the only incumbent who sought re-election but did not receive enough support to make it onto the ballot).

All in all, though, it was a good day for the current leadership of the Academy. And they'll take every one of those they can get.