With the movie biz buffeted by challenges on many fronts — from piracy to competition from other media forms to the rapid pace of technological change — observers sometimes question the relevance of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Jonathan Erland, a visual effects pioneer and one of the movie industry’s most admired technologists, tackled the question head-on in his acceptance speech of the Academy’s Bonner Medal at the Feb. 11 Sci-Tech Awards ceremony.
On the eve of the 84th Oscars, his observations — excerpted here — spotlight the Academy’s purpose and activism. As Erland puts it, “The show exists to support the Awards, and the Awards exist to support the Academy’s mission to foster the pursuit of excellence in our art form.”
For some time now, we’ve been hearing, both from within and from without, that the Academy has to be fundamentally transformed to stay relevant to current trends. In my personal view, that’s the same erroneous “tail wag the dog” notion that holds that the TV show we’re so famous for is why we have an Academy. Nonsense. When this Academy was founded, we not only didn’t have a TV show, we didn’t even have awards, and the record shows that it was by no means certain that we would ever have awards.
But Mary Pickford and her fellow founders certainly did have a crystal clear vision and a wonderful mission; a mission shared down the years by the likes of John Bonner; a mission just as relevant today as the day it was minted: the pursuit of excellence of motion pictures. And it was precisely to foster that pursuit of excellence, by the way, that we did create the Academy Awards — and the show that celebrates them. But, the show exists to support the Awards, and the Awards exist to support the Academy’s mission to foster the pursuit of excellence in our art form. And we should be ever cognizant of that hierarchy.
If our Academy still stands for excellence in motion pictures — and it must — then the real task before us is to manage the trends such that motion pictures stay relevant to the Academy’s mission and the ideals we espouse and not the other way about. When all motion pictures are excellent, then we can perhaps talk about a new vision for this Academy.
We hear that young people don’t like the films our Academy honors with awards; that the Academy is for old people — or is that simply code for adults? If we’re now supposed to become what some people think young people want us to be today, then what the hell is there left for them to grow up for? We, and what we do, are why they grow up, and the fact that they do grow up, and grow up to want excellent films, is why we’re here. With time and experience, come maturity, knowledge, perspective, discernment and, above all, wisdom. Armed with these, we can resist becoming unduly perplexed by the turbulence of future shock.
All this underscores what many of you know about me already: that I look to history to light our way to the future. I’ve often said that our Academy is, at once, “the guardian of our past; and the guarantor of our future.” Our heritage, its preservation and restoration looms large for all of us. Restore films, we must; build a museum, we must; but, to guarantee our future, we have also to restore and reassert the conviction, consistency and the focus of our core mission.
It’s that mission, the high standard of excellence, symbolized by this Bonner Medal, the Sawyer, and all our awards, that drives the selection process for entry into our Academy. A very rigorous process that selects for seasoned professionals, with demonstrably excellent credentials, who have a key creative role not only in the films they make but in the life of the Academy they join.
For ultimately, it is these people, and not the edifice on Wilshire nor the Awards, nor the Show, but these people and the staff and volunteers who share our devotion to this cause, that comprise this family and this Academy.
And so, to borrow a phrase from an American president, “Ask not what your Academy can do for you; ask what you can do for your Academy.”