Privacy policy creates cat-and-mouse game

Acad membership list kept under lock-and-key

“I really don’t feel comfortable talking about this,” says a veteran publicist on the other end of the line. “They have a list with names and contact information that they’ll never release but everyone wants, so we have to dig it up kind of sub rosa on our own. It’s a client service. It isn’t cheap. Now I really have to go.”

You’d think we were discussing the secret sect of Opus Dei, or the initiation roster of Skull and Bones. But we’re just doing a little snooping about one of the most prized pieces of arcana enshrined at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS): its jealously guarded membership directory.

At most Hollywood professional organizations, such a mundane artifact would be available upon request. Not at AMPAS. “The List” of member names and addresses, maintained by three staffers in the Academy’s membership office, isn’t for sale, publication or distribution. Academy members who want to view it are plain out of luck.

“Membership has its privileges,” muses John Pavlik, the Acad’s director of communications. “But that isn’t one of them.”

Why the lock-and-key policy? “Originally, the protection of the list was so that people couldn’t solicit you, send stuff out and court you for your Oscar vote,” says one member of the Academy’s public relations branch, who like almost all Academy members interviewed spoke under the cloak of anonymity. “Plus they’re not a public organization, so they don’t have to have transparency.”

So prized by marketers and solicitors is the List that at least two Academy members — again, anonymously — reported knowledge of its contents being bartered for fees of $10,000 or more. (“I’m not the least bit surprised to hear that,” Pavlik says of these rumored under-the-table fees.) What advertiser or distributor, after all, wouldn’t want to have access to the high-status, big-spending Hollywood powerbrokers gracing the List’s pages?

No wonder the studios pay handsomely to hire “awards consultants” during the fall and winter awards season to hunt down members’ names and mailing addresses on their own, without Academy sanction. It’s a cat-and-mouse game: AMPAS hides the List and, as a result, Hollywood companies can spend big bucks to re-create their own rosters, without Academy sanction. It’s a bit like Prohibition promoting rum running by banning booze.

The List’s value, of course, attests to just how elite membership in the AMPAS club is. The number of actual voting members of AMPAS tops 5,800. That number includes 366 “members at large” — casting directors, makeup artists, hairstylists and other eligible voters involved in the world of film production who have no branch affiliation. All members enjoy perks that include year-round Academy screenings, free movie theater passes during Oscar season, free DVD screeners (if you agree to the Academy’s strict provisos), and countless networking get-togethers.

At least the Academy does release one public “list” (other than its Oscar nominees and winners): the number of members in each of its 14 branches. Actors constitute by far the largest branch with 1,298 members, followed by producers (465), executives (433), sound technicians (416) and writers (403). The highlight of a member’s duties, of course, is nominating and voting on its Oscar candidates. Each member can nominate candidates only within his or her own branch category: Actors may nominate only actors, editors only editors. The exception is for the best picture Oscar, for which all members can submit nominations and vote. In all, there are up to 25 awards categories.

Also on the Academy’s unpublished membership list are 700 nonvoting members, bringing the total membership tally past 6,500. Nonvoters are forgiven the annual membership dues (currently $250) and include those who have taken “retired” status as well as “associates” — those who are not directly involved in the actual production of films, such as agents.

Ah yes, the agents. Here we come to one of the biggest gripes regarding Academy membership. If executives and publicists — who unlike most branch members operate outside the realm of pure production — can boast their own branch and the right to vote, why not these dealmakers? After all, they’re the folks most powerfully involved in the negotiating, packaging and often the financing of movies. For decades they’ve lobbied the Academy’s Board of Governors to grant them voting and branch status, only to be refused year after year. “They should keep lobbying and they just might get in,” says Pavlik. “The makeup of the board is constantly changing.”

Asked about AMPAS’ reasons for shunning the agents’ habitual request, one of the Academy’s governors insisted the board’s business must remain “secret,” then warily punted: “It’s a long process to form a new branch … and some people feel that agents would be too biased and only vote for their own clients. I personally think that’s incredibly limiting and insulting.”

Insulting? Perhaps, but if bias were a condition for voting exclusion, would any Hollywood professionals be allowed to cast Oscar ballots?

Meanwhile, there are signs that AMPAS’ cloak of secrecy over its membership lists and procedures may soon go the way of bootlegged rum. Last June, to the surprise of many, AMPAS released the 2004 roster of industry professionals invited by the Academy to apply for membership. There were 127 invitees, all but four of whom were ultimately ushered in. It was the only time in recent memory that any membership-related lists had been revealed.

Why the Academy’s sudden openness? “They printed the invitation list because they wanted to counter the impression that Academy was just a bunch of old people,” says a long-time member, adding that the roster was sprinkled with youthful names like Scarlett Johansson and Audrey Tautou. Admits Pavlik: “When you have an organization that doesn’t kick you out, that’s based on your reputation for the work you’ve done, you’re going to skew a little older.”

Little older? Most Academy screening audiences resemble nothing so much as a flotilla of white corks bobbing over a red-cushioned sea. “Still, the invitation list was a noble effort to erase the Academy’s liver spots,” says one member.

Faced with lifetime members who live longer than ever, the Academy has started promoting its own slow-growth movement, even as it recruits new young blood. There are open discussions about pruning AMPAS’ acting branch, which accounts for a whopping 22% of its active membership. And new membership procedures now limit AMPAS’ growth to an annual net increase of 30 members, with each branch having a cap on the number of people they can invite to apply.

Incidentally, “invited to apply” comes about as close to guaranteed acceptance as you can get at AMPAS, considering that even winning an Oscar isn’t a slam-dunk. Like other prospective members, Oscar winners also must rally two members of their branch to nominate them, then wait for the branch’s executive committee to vote on their nomination, which now occurs once a year in June.

Indeed, it seems as hard to leave this member-for-life club as it is to get in. Death is certainly one way out.

“Or you could give your DVD to a pirate — that would get you kicked out,” notes Pavlik. “Or sell your membership tickets to the Academy Awards show.” Even resigning still retains your membership, just not your voting perk.

“But the best Academy perk of all,” offers member and producer Rosilyn Heller, “is just being in a fellowship of these incredibly talented peers.” And, of course, the knowledge you helped determine one of the most famous and, for a brief time, secretive “lists” on the planet: the names of Hollywood’s Oscar winners.