Oscars: How John Bailey Was Elected Academy President

The veteran cinematographer, who first was elected to the board in 1996, defeated casting director David Rubin in a two-person race after actress Laura Dern declined her nomination.
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John Bailey

The election of cinematographer John Bailey to become the 34th president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, at Tuesday night's meeting of the Academy's board of governors, will shock many who wake up to the news on Wednesday morning, since he wasn't one of the candidates widely expected to run for the position. So how did he wind up prevailing?

Inside the board room on the seventh floor of the Academy's Wilshire Blvd. headquarters, actress Laura Dern, the presumptive frontrunner for the position, was indeed nominated — but she declined the nomination, citing her busy schedule, and instead threw her support behind David Rubin, the casting director who was thought to be her only serious rival for the job, with the possible exception of documentarian Rory Kennedy.

In the end, only two people were nominated: Rubin and Bailey, a veteran director of photography whose credits include 1980's Ordinary People, 1983's The Big Chill and 1993's Groundhog Day. Both accepted their nominations and entered a run-off overseen by the Academy's general counsel, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan.

The fact that Bailey prevailed is seen by some as a victory for the more conservative wing of the 54-person board, which feels that the board has become too activist in recent years.

The votes for Bailey could also be interpreted as votes for experience on the board. Rubin first was elected to the board in 2013 and was re-elected in 2016, while Kennedy, first elected in 2015, and Dern, first elected in 2016, are still serving their first terms. The idea of any of the three ascending so quickly to the presidency didn't appeal to some fellow governors. Bailey, by contrast, first was elected to the board in 1996 and then was re-elected in 1999, serving until 2002; he then was re-elected to the board in 2010, again in 2013 and once more in 2016. (He has two more years on the board before he is forced, by term limits, to leave the board for at least one year.)

The election of Bailey — as opposed to, say, Dern, if not Rubin — also has to be seen as a victory for governors representing the "below-the-line," or craft, branches on the board. They have tended, in recent years, to band together to protect their mutual interests, including keeping the presentation of awards in their respective categories on the main Oscars telecast. While many actors have been elected president throughout the Academy's 90-year history, the most recent one was the late Karl Malden, who held the position 25 years ago.

Bailey's election also probably won't be cheered by Academy CEO Dawn Hudson. Hudson, whose contract was extended earlier this year, had hoped for a close ally to step into the presidency, succeeding Cheryl Boone Isaacs, with whom Hudson had clashed over the past four years. Dern is a longtime friend whose star-power would have helped with fundraising efforts for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and who, as a woman, would have embodied Hudson's push for inclusion; Rubin also was a key partner in that push.

Instead, Hudson will have to work — for at least the next year, and possibly the next two (board presidents are elected to one-year terms and Bailey could be re-elected to a second year as president before he terms off the board) — alongside a man who embodies the stereotype of an Academy member as an older white man (he turns 75 on Thursday). Bailey also may not be as enthusiastic as Hudson about the direction in which the Academy is heading. Rather than continuing to focus on controversial efforts, he might well prioritize things like the Academy's library and screening programs, which were focuses of his as chair of the board's preservation and history committee until Tuesday.