Oscar and Academy Grapple With a Series of 21st Century Curveballs

Be careful what you wish for.

For a long time, some members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences worried that Oscars were becoming irrelevant, due to the glut of awards shows and declining ratings.

However, in the past few years, the Academy has often been at the center of worldwide debates about industry inclusion (e.g., #OscarsSoWhite) and harassment/bullying (#MeToo, #TimesUp). These movements will remain central to all Oscar conversations leading up to the March 4 ceremony.

Instead of being ignored, Oscar became a hot-button symbol. So be careful what you wish for.

Until the Oscarcast (and beyond), debates about nominees will focus on the Hollywood system — and on the Academy. For most of its 90-year history, the public wanted to know who won, but didn’t particularly care about who voted. That changed with the internet. Every Academy move has been under scrutiny.

As Academy president John Bailey and the AMPAS executives, board and members struggle with their newfound fame, give them a moment of sympathy. They’re dealing with questions that their predecessors didn’t have to grapple with.

Transparency
The Academy is basically an honor society. For most of its 90 years, AMPAS was also a private club. According to Variety archives, there were 3,529 voters in 1979 and 86% of them lived in California. It was a group for Hollywood insiders. Now, as membership expands, journalists want to know every detail about membership and about the board. It’s self-perpetuating: The more people talk about the inner workings of the Academy, the more questions are asked.

For example, the AMPAS board voted to create three governors-at-large, to expand membership significantly, to recruit voters who hadn’t requested membership, and so on. Some members protested they weren’t consulted. Privately, a few individuals shrug that government legislators make decisions every day without consulting constituents, so the moves are not unusual.

Like every other company in the digital age, AMPAS is trying to figure out a balance between “none of your business” and full disclosure. The Academy gives out news on a need-to-know basis and reporters speculate on the rest. And, to the distress of many members, a lot of this speculation is wildly wrong.
More info would cut down on the erroneous “reporting,” but is it worth it?

Goals: What is the Academy’s mandate?
In its push for diversity/inclusion, the Academy has said it wants to set an example for the industry. On Oct. 14, when ousting Harvey Weinstein, AMPAS said: “The board continues to work to establish ethical standards of conduct that all Academy members will be expected to exemplify.” Usually, hiring practices and unethical conduct are the responsibility of employers (i.e., studios and agencies, with help from the guilds). The Academy appointed itself as industry watchdog, issuing standards of conduct Jan. 27. Is this a good thing? Would membership polls and more town hall meetings be helpful, or just an invitation to gripe?

Non-Oscar stuff
The Academy has scholarships, mentoring programs, screenwriting contests, exhibits and more. But the big question is the museum, a full-time operation that requires huge manpower and money, not just for initial funding, but also for annual upkeep. Academy execs and members need to figure out how to make this happen without draining money and energy from the other programs.

For 90 years, the Academy wanted to be the symbol of Hollywood — the glamour, excitement and artistry. Now, the word “Hollywood” evokes questions about narrow thinking and scandalous behavior. The Academy is still a symbol and often blamed.

Be careful what you wish for.

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