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‘Animal House’ Star Stephen Furst Protests Academy Rule Changes

Stephen Furst, an actor known for playing “Flounder” in “Animal House” and appearing on “Babylon 5” who has more recently worked mostly as a director and producer, wrote to the Academy of Motion Pictures to comment on the recent membership rule changes enacted to promote diversity and offered his letter to be posted by Variety. Opinions are those of Furst and not necessarily of Variety.

Dear Ms. Boone, Ms. Munoz, and Board of Governors,

In less than a week after (according to Associated Press) “a handful of actors” decided that they were going to boycott The Oscars, the Academy Board of Governors has concluded that I am racist, not to mention, irrelevant. In fact, I am very far from either. Whether I am an active member of the Academy is secondary to me at this point, considering the insulting and unfounded generalities the Academy has made about the character and judgment of older Academy members.

Like many other members I know, I was saddened, as well as offended, to learn the Academy Board of Governors has chosen to scapegoat the older members of the Academy in order to deflect the criticism about the lack of diversity this year in the nominees for Academy Awards. I know that there has been much public conversation about why the nominees this year do not include any minorities, with the focus being on the membership having so many old, white, male members.  The Academy has therefore bowed to this explanation, in a most disturbing manner, although there is no evidence that old, white, male Academy members are racist, do not appreciate the art of minorities, or refuse to vote for minorities’ work.

Diversity in film is important, and having that diversity represented in Oscar nominees is important, but those goals aren’t achieved by disparaging the wonderful filmmakers of all races and ethnicities who have made lasting impressions and opened minds and hearts across the world through the art of film.

The Academy can’t fight issues with diversity by engaging in ageism and sexism.

But it promotes fairness — and diversity — by ensuring members see the films before voting.

Your open letter states that “‘The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up.’” Apparently, the Board of Governors believes kicking aside the older voters is some sort of a solution to a lack of diversity in the industry. But of course it isn’t. And, with that statement, the Academy evidently fails to recognize that the film industry isn’t particularly kind to older industry people, period, any more than it is to minority ones. By eliminating older members from your voting rolls, you are hardly leading the way. You are simply imitating the worst aspects of the industry, adding insult to injury. And, as far as that sexism goes: Many successful actresses have a hard time getting work in the business when they hit their 30s or 40s and they may choose to take a break from film to be with their families. Whether they quit the business, work in television or, like Meryl Streep, work less for awhile, they are still relevant.

In your original letter you use the words “active members.” This is extremely vague. A second email from Ms. Munoz acknowledges that members have questions about what that means, but then doesn’t answer the question.

There are many reasons why some members might be considered inactive:

1. They change roles in the film industry. I myself have been very active as a director and producer in recent years.

2. Veteran filmmakers have decided to turned to mentoring young future filmmakers.

3. Some filmmakers currently work on acclaimed TV series. They may return to film in some capacity, but their current work will inform and enrich their film work.

4. A film may not be released and qualify for an Academy award in a given year.

5. An actress — or actor — who was accomplished enough to become an Academy member decides to put her career on hold to raise a family.

Are these people irrelevant because they have not worked in their branch for 10 years? Actually, those people are the most objective, not having their own work to promote.

One of the main reasons for the lack of diversity in nominees this year is that many members vote without watching all the films. I probably am in a minority myself, because I watched 95% of the screeners sent out. That’s the minority you should be focusing on preserving, because that’s how you preserve integrity in the nominations.  But I seriously doubt that ANY member of the Academy refuses to nominate someone because of their race, ethnicity or gender.

I myself nominated Straight Outta Compton, Beasts of No Nation, Abraham Attah, Zoe Saldana, Jason Mitchell, and Tessa Thompson. There were so many fine performances and films that I could have nominated 10 in each category and still run out of space. With your new rules, you make it clear that by shaking up the membership, you expect a different result as more minorities join the Academy. But this isn’t Alabama in the 1960s. White members don’t only vote for white nominees, and I trust minority members will not favor only minority ones. Minority films and actors are regularly nominated, but not every year. Even Meryl Streep doesn’t get nominated every year.

Fairness in voting will probably increase the numbers of minorities who are nominated. This is an integrity issue, not a racism issue. The Academy does not have power over what films producers and studios make, but the Academy can take steps in assuring that member see a certain percentage of films before they are allowed to vote. Those who don’t are the people that should have their vote taken away for that season.

Doing away with screeners and streaming the films with a password that allows the Academy to keep a tally on how many films a member actually watched would be a much better way to promote fairness in the nomination process.

The framed Academy certificate of membership on my wall reads “Having demonstrated excellence in the art, science, or industry of the motion picture.” It doesn’t say “relevance in popular motion pictures.” I know many extraordinary, devoted and intelligent members who will no longer be able vote under your new rule. Dismissing their accomplishments as being too long ago to matter is a mistake. The new rules may well result in a revolving door of membership, but it will not help the promotion of excellence in film.

The Academy should indeed diversify its membership — it should have done it years ago, but must you demean your older members in the process? Why not simply increase the membership temporarily? In the great film “Hotel Rwanda,” when the sheer numbers of people seeking sanctuary threaten to overwhelm the hotel’s resources, Don Cheadle, as Paul Rusesabagina, says simply: “There’s always room.” There’s always room.

Respectfully,

Stephen Furst

Curmudgeon Films

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