Historically speaking, presidents of the motion picture Academy have been directors, producers, stars, executives — more front-office types than in-the-trenches artisans. Until last week, the only “below-the-line” leader of the organization in its 90-year history was art director Gene Allen, who served from 1983 to 1985.
That makes this week’s election of cinematographer John Bailey all the more noteworthy for Academy members determined to keep their contributions to the art and craft of cinema in the spotlight. And in Bailey’s particular professional sphere, there is obvious cause for celebration; cinematographers are excited and inspired to finally see one of their own at the AMPAS helm.
“I think it’s really great,” says 13-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men,” “Blade Runner 2049”). “I know he’ll be terrific and keep the momentum of the Academy going.”
Greig Fraser received an Oscar nomination last year for “Lion,” which also won him an American Society of Cinematographers award. “I was really pleased when I heard the news,” he says. “John, myself and the other cinematography Oscar nominees all dined together in February, which is where I first met him. He struck me as incredibly thoughtful, insightful, and progressive in his work.”
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Eric Steelberg (“Up in the Air,” “Baywatch”) has been a member of the Academy’s cinematographers branch executive committee for three years. “I couldn’t be happier for John,” he says. “Having a craft person at the head honors the spirit of collaboration in filmmaking.”
Bailey’s fellow branch governor Mandy Walker (“Australia,” “Hidden Figures”) adds: “John is so worthy. His experience of 20 years with AMPAS, the ASC, and even working with the library of congress, puts him in a very good position to look after the values, education, preservation and ongoing celebration of filmmaking.”
Beyond his work in the field, Bailey is also a renaissance man. Many in the trade reference those qualities and how they make him perfectly suited to head the organization.
“John’s obviously a wonderful cinematographer, but he’s also a film scholar and collector of photography and is really knowledgeable about the history of cinema,” says Oscar-nominated lenser Caleb Deschanel (“The Right Stuff,” “Rules Don’t Apply”), a former Academy governor. “It’s a good choice at this time, with the Academy building this museum, because he’s been a big proponent of the library, the archives and the elevation of film. That’s what I think got him elected. He also has a really broad range of interests and that’s going to serve the Academy well.”
For evidence of Bailey’s scholarly chops, one need only look to “John’s Baliwick,” his blog at the ASC website. There he confesses he always dreamed of becoming “the American Andre Bazin,” a domestic answer to that singular voice of the French New Wave movement, to wax poetic on the innovations of his own generation of budding American filmmakers. He cranks out thousands of words on a wide spectrum of topics, from a centennial celebration of Technicolor’s three-color film process, to thoughts on fame through the lenses (so to speak) of Andy Warhol and Kim Kardashian, to an appreciation of motion picture still photographers.
You’ll also find plenty of displeasure with the ongoing arc of popular American cinema, however. In one post that ultimately blasts “the mindless recycling of vacuous action movies and ever more cartoonish visual effects,” Bailey uses producer Lynda Obst’s recent tome on the current Hollywood paradigm as a jumping-off point.
“It is not a pretty sight to behold if you have any regard for what movies may have meant to you since you were a child,” Bailey wrote. He further bemoaned “the entry of studio marketing wizards — the once quiet back-office nerds, now newly transfigured into front-and-center stars — injected into the process, not at the point of deciding how to sell a recently shot film (as it was in the old days of the previous decades), but right up front at the embryonic conceptual stage.”
It would be interesting to see if Bailey maintains his correspondence. A public-facing “letters from the president” kind of thing could be con(in)structive.
There’s a definitive tone of nostalgia in Bailey’s writing, which raises the question of how he will fit in at an Academy that has been, of late, moving forward at a break-neck pace. But many are quick to point out that the new president’s historical acumen will ultimately be an asset for a film industry hurtling toward an unsure future.
“This guy is one of the most thoughtful minds in the industry in probably the last 50 years of cinema,” one industry source tells me. “He’s going to be a very strong advocate for preservation and archival standards. The fact that there is someone who is technical in that position is a good thing as it relates to the disempowerment of filmmakers and what has been going on both inside and outside the studios, with companies that are making hugely consequential determinations on things that are going to play out for the next decade.”
Bailey terms out of his current board seat in 2019, so he can ultimately serve a maximum of two years as president (assuming he runs and is re-elected next year).
This year’s Academy election was fiercely covered by the media, and for obvious reasons. Exiting president Cheryl Boone Isaacs oversaw some of the most tumultuous episodes in the organization’s history, all the way up to and including that embarrassingly mishandled envelope at the Oscars in February. Suffice it to say, Bailey — who by the way celebrated his 75th birthday Thursday — takes the reins at a most interesting time.