Ex-Oscars Publicist: "Astounded, Shocked and Baffled" by Board's "Rush to Judgment" (Guest Column)

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

Oscars So White Illo - H 2016

This piece by Robert Werden, a member of the Academy's public relations branch who for many years was a publicist for the Oscars ceremony and later for the Academy itself, is part of an ongoing series of guest columns by Academy members about the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and the Academy's response to it.

I've been an Academy member, in the public relations branch, since 1983. For 18 years (1975-1993), I served as the publicist on the Academy Awards, first working with the PR agency that represented the Academy and then as an Academy employee. As one schooled in PR (I have a degree from Boston University), I was astounded, shocked and baffled by the Board's rush to judgment.

My branch has three PR members on the Board. What the Academy was initially facing had to do with the Awards, but it soon spread to the racial makeup and age of the membership. At no time was anyone from the PR branch, nor any other branch, contacted for comment or suggestions of how to calm the emerging storm brought on by the media and self-righteous activists. Suddenly the Academy was charged with capitulating to political-correctness.

First, I wonder, why this rush to judgment? This was a publicity problem that could have easily been deflated by responding to those misinformed critics and the media with valid facts and figures. Instead, the knee-jerk, PC response to those crying about the lack of diversity in the white-only acting nominations validated their belief that the Academy was the villain in what is acknowledged as a problem for the studios and independent filmmakers to solve.

What has happened here may well become a class project in a college PR 101 class.

In the response to the disparaging attack on the Academy for this year's acting nominations' lack of people of color, I saw no attempt by the Academy to contain the controversy by counteracting the misinformation of how the nominations are made. They should have pointed out that branches nominate and try to select the best of the best films and film production people, seeking only the finest work with no concern for race, color or creed — and that the Academy and the membership are not racist. Nor did I see or read any Academy statement pointing out that it does not finance, distribute or produce films, and thus has no interaction in those areas. Or pointing out that, over the past 15 years, 10 percent of acting nominees were black. Or that the Academy has, for a number of years, engaged in proactive steps to increase diversity in its membership, as well as in its employment.

Maybe, in addition to the three new governors soon to be named under the new rules and regulation, another should be named that would serve in an adversary position to caution against hasty calls to judgment and function as ombudsman for the membership.

Of major concern to a large percentage of the membership is that the Board, without discussion with the membership, would make such radical changes to Membership Rules and Regulations — primarily, the revocation of nomination and voting privileges which were bestowed on the member as part of his/her lifetime membership. [Editor's note: the Board of Governors is elected by members to represent members.] The Board's radical new plan to do this, based on "active" time participation in the film industry, was sent to every member, explaining that it will work based on activity during 10-year periods. If you have not been active during the last 10 years or did not previously accumulate three consecutive 10-year periods activity, then you now have "emeritus" status.

Does that disqualify those members from participation on the foreign-language film committee and from voting for the Student Academy Awards? Will the standards for membership admission be changed? A number of questions need answers. This is one of the most troubling areas for the membership. As one member said, "The point is to purge older members and create something akin to affirmative action for new members."

What's done is done. There is damage here for both the Academy and the membership. The Hollywood Reporter's series of articles written by members pretty much sums it up. One should hope that the Board would now have another meeting to seriously discuss how to overcome the damage to the Academy, the membership and the Oscar franchise.