Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Unilateral Disintegration of the Academy Awards® by Dawn Hudson & Cheryl Boone Isaacs

Anyone with a vested, or even casual, interest in movies has heard by now of the controversy that has enveloped the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which annually awards the so-called Academy Awards® or "Oscars®" highlighting excellence in cinema.  Because of the lack of African American nominees in the acting categories two years in a row, the membership of the Academy has been accused of racial bias because it has not been voting for films that are representative of the diverse demographics that reflects the population of the United States by focusing their attention solely on films featuring Caucasian principal characters.  The trending hashtag #OscarsSoWhite symbolizes the level of attention the issue has been receiving in the media and public consciousness the last few weeks.

In response, the Board of Governors of the Academy, without consulting its membership at large, unilaterally unveiled a new initiative which would double “the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.”  As part of this initiative, the Academy also announced that voting privileges for new members are no longer lifetime.  Instead, new members will be eligible to vote for 10 year terms, to be renewed only if they remain active in motion pictures during that decade.  Members who have been inactive for 10 years would lose their voting privileges (and be categorized as “emeritus” members) unless they won or were nominated for an Oscar, or were active in motion pictures for three ten-year terms after becoming a member.

In appeasing critics of perceived racial bias and discrimination, the Academy has created a situation where it is now accused of being discriminatory towards another protected class of individuals--its older members.  However, in its FAQs released in response to complaints by members who are potentially affected, the Academy denied it was practicing age discrimination.  While the plain language of the new rules does not reference age as a disqualification for continued membership, its actual and practical application is still arguably age discriminatory because it is more likely to affect older members, who are retired or struggling to continue to work, than younger members still in the midst of success.

In this highly emotional atmosphere, few are willing to argue that the Academy should not necessarily have an inherent responsibility to have its membership, and the way they vote, skewed towards reflecting the demographics of the United States at-large.  Those who have attempted to make that case have been silenced by being swiftly branded something akin to racist segregationists.  One might argue that Academy members should not have to pay preferential treatment towards films that reflect diverse demographics if they do not feel those films are worthy of their interest or attention.  The Academy ought to focus on welcoming individuals, who have accomplished enough at the time of their admission into the organization to have warranted their inclusion, and to choose films that its members legitimately feel have honored the artistry of cinema during a given year.  Its members ought not be penalized for their personal tastes and to have those tastes dictated by others.  While I recognize how images on-screen can have an influential impact on the world, and I would welcome studio executives providing financial support behind films that would be responsive to any market demand for those broader perspectives, the Academy Awards should not be expected to reflect the demographics of the country because it is not the People’s Choice Awards.

Nevertheless, if the Academy Board of Governors feels that inviting more women or diverse individuals helps enrich their organization, they by all means should pursue that endeavor.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with inviting women and people of color into the Academy as long as their careers and accomplishments would have warranted their inclusion no matter what demographic they reflect.  I completely disagree with anyone who might be contemptuous of the Academy’s new initiative solely because they do not want to see women or people of color invited into the organization.  I simply do not like the additional, unnecessary provision concerning the disposition of “inactive” members as they call into question any efforts on the part of the Academy to be inclusive because of how those provisions affect older members.

Ironically, these rules are more likely to harm the “working class” crew members, and character actors and actresses, who form the backbone of the industry and have no power to effect change.  The executives with the influence to green-light films with more diverse perspectives will not be affected because they would be considered “active.”  As such, a screenwriter, film editor or a costume designer who is either retired--or has been working in television in the last decade--risks losing their voting privileges.  Or a character actress who has been a member for only 20 years, but made 25 films during the course of her career, could also be at risk if during the last decade she was either teaching, or doing TV guest shots, because of the limited opportunities for someone in her demographic to land a one-line bit part in a feature film.  In its myopic actions, the Academy fails to recognize how these people do not have the luxury to dictate the trajectory of their careersIt also fails to acknowledge how movies and television have become symbiotic and that artists are not always able to choose the medium they work in.

Retaining voting privileges is vital for Academy members because it confers upon that industry professional a level of respect and accomplishment.  The vetting process for admission is intensive, with prospective members required to demonstrate a level of expertise and accomplishment that allows them to effectively judge excellence in filmmaking.  Unlike other industries or occupations requiring continued training or accreditation (such as police, firefighters, the military, or working in medicine or the law), there is no rational basis to discriminate against so-called “inactive” members and require them to continue proving their qualifications.  There is no reason to presume that the skill sets that allowed them to be invited into the Academy are likely to be adversely affected over time.  Even though the Academy claims they will not publicly announce who is a voting or “emeritus” member, affected members who are below-the-line crew members, or character actors and actresses, would no longer be able to state on their CVs that they are in the preferred class.  Taking away their voting rights, and forcing them into being secondary "emeritus" members, adversely affects their professional stature, and potentially harms their future income.  Presidential candidates who have weighed in on the issue, like Ben Carson, might dismiss it as being irrelevant as far as he is concerned, but that myopic, elitist perspective fails to recognize how the movie industry affects interstate commerce by keeping millions of individuals, not just the top-paid stars, employed throughout the country and that the actions of such a high-profile organization like the Academy towards its own membership can have an adverse influence on other industries and organizations that might have nothing to do with the movies.

Several individuals have called out the Academy for what they perceive to be a thinly veiled attempt to purge “older, white, male” members from the voting roster, because the people supporting these new initiatives are not content with just adding more women and people of color.  The Academy’s new provisions concerning “inactive” members appear to be an attempt to narrowly define its membership demographics, and how they might be inclined to vote, by eliminating individuals they presume, without empirical evidence, will vote against films and artists reflecting a multi-cultural perspective.  It presumes that older, white, male Academy members neglected to nominate actors and actresses of color due to conscious or unconscious racial bias, and further presumes that adding women and diverse members would skew future voting in favor of actors reflecting those demographics.  This mentality does not afford these individuals the proper respect to presume that they would have enough perspective to vote on the quality of a film no matter what demographic it represents.  Rather than helping them, I believe these shortsighted provisions could inadvertently backfire by also hurting veteran women and minority members who might fall short of the new, arcane requirements.  

It has been suggested by individuals supporting the new measures that exceptions should be made for women and people of color, and that the new rules concerning “inactive” members should only be applied to older, white, male members of the Academy.  However, if one follows that logic and truly believes that such exceptions should be made based on gender and race, then that proves the extent to which the new rules are utterly useless and are merely a camouflage for reverse discrimination if they are indeed going to be applied arbitrarily and inconsistently.  It has also been suggested that the new rules should be affirmed because the Academy, back in the early 1970s when Gregory Peck was its President, demoted its older members in a similar manner while it was trying to attract a younger demographic to its organization.  However, this argument is also weak because it is, in essence, saying that the discrimination of a protected class of individuals should continue to be tolerated because there exists historical precedent for such policies and behavior.  This should not have happened back then, and it should not be happening again now.  It is likely that the earlier policies affecting older members implemented over 40 years ago during Peck's regime were not challenged because there was less awareness and concern over age discrimination back in the early 1970s than there is now.

In the time since the Academy announced these new rules, artists and industry professionals as diverse as producer/screenwriter Patricia Resnick, actress Rutanya Alda, actors Billy Mumy and Stephen Furst, animator Nancy Beiman, studio publicist Mark Reina, visual effects artist John Van Vliet, and director Sam Weisman, as well as former studio executive David Kirkpatrick, have all publicly weighed in on how these new rules would adversely affect them.  The irony is that, from amongst this group, several are women over 40, two publicly identified themselves as gay, and one is Latino—all of whom one would expect to fall into the category of so-called “diverse” individuals who the Academy purports to be including in this initiative.  Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has even weighed in on the issue, with Secretary Clinton praising the Academy for their plans to include more diverse individuals, but neglecting to acknowledge how the implementation of these rules would affect older members.  One presumes that Secretary Clinton might not be aware of those provisions and is merely providing surface-level commentary.  However, when Democratic National Committee Vice Chair Donna Brazile wrote glowingly about these initiatives in the Hollywood Reporter, and acknowledged her awareness of the provisions affecting “inactive” members, it underscored the extent to which certain individuals are willing to sacrifice and accept the discrimination of another protected class of citizens, who they otherwise might have defended, so long as it helps perpetuate their primary personal and political agendas.

This initiative to invite more diverse members into the Academy, at the expense of older members, reflects the continued agenda mandated by current Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson.  Because Isaacs and Hudson have accepted credit and responsibility in a recent fawning and self-congratulatory Hollywood Reporter interview for persuading the Board of Governors, at a secret meeting they held at Academy headquarters on January 21, to vote for the provisions questioning the credentials of current members, it becomes relevant to consider their individual qualifications.  The short list of credits on their IMDB pages requires one to, instead, refer to several other sources, including the website, to recognize that Isaacs’s background is in marketing and public relations for the major studios, and that Hudson (a failed actress with only 7 credits on IMDB) was the Executive Director of Film Independent (formerly IFP-West), a non-profit supporting indie filmmakers.  (For the record, I am not attempting to question the credentials of other individuals working in the film industry, whose backgrounds are similar to Isaacs and Hudson, because those other industry professionals are not calling for the unilateral demotion of voting members defined as "inactive" the way they are.)

In the book "Not Hollywood: Independent Film at the Twilight of the American Dream,"  Dawn Hudson is described as "a young actress and aspiring dancer in Los Angeles who took a part-time job at the IFP-West office in 1990."  It further mentions how "Hudson describes herself as having been very radical in college: 'When I was majoring in government at Harvard it was because I wanted to overthrow the government and change the world.'  She had tried working as an intern for various politicians and concluded that it was 'very tough to make an impact in politics, change people's I became more interested in the arts...(I) had no ambition to be a filmmaker or to run an organization...I really wanted the life of the artist.  I really felt that was where one would have an impact on the world.  But I also found my skill set suited to running (IFP-West), because I think it has to do with not just skills but a real deep passionate belief that film can change the world."  As such, one gets the impression that Hudson has no genuine appreciation or interest in the history of film as an entertainment and artistic medium on its own terms, but merely as a convenient vehicle with which she can project her views onto the world.  Therefore, it should not surprise anyone that Hudson harbors no respect for the accomplishments of so called "inactive" industry veterans that have spent decades of their lives devoted to working in films.  Also, given her radical political views--which includes her previously avowed dreams of overthrowing the democracy of the United States--it should not be surprising how Hudson, collaborating with Isaacs, called for the secret meeting of the Academy Board of Governors on January 21st to insist on a unilateral vote that excluded any sense of transparency or suggestion of polling the Academy membership at-large to consider their views on their proposed changes.  As with other political radicals of all spectrums and perspectives, it appears that Hudson effected progressive change not through open debate and consensus, but through underhanded coercion and manipulation.

In 2012, the LA Weekly wrote a complimentary profile on Dawn Hudson that attempted to refute a damning, earlier LA Times article that summarized reports of poor job performance, made against her after she became CEO of the Academy, that led to calls by members of the Board of Governors that she should be replaced.  While the LA Weekly article attempted to defend Hudson by citing how most of the sources in the LA Times piece remained anonymous, it nevertheless acknowledged how her reputation was not about the films, just about the profits; that she doesn't have enough of a background in movie-making to know the art of it; that she's pushy and bossy and rash.”  One can easily surmise how Hudson--the former campus radical who professed a desire to overthrow the government and later failed in acting, dancing and politics--is now using the Academy as her vehicle to unilaterally force her views on the world at-large, and the film industry in-particular, without any regard for the collateral damage she might cause, even towards people from groups she purports to have concern for.

Unlike other Academy Presidents, or Members serving on its Board of Governors (such as Bette Davis or producer/screenwriter, Fay Kanin, among others), it becomes apparent that neither Isaacs nor Hudson are successful filmmaking artists with a genuine appreciation for film as simply an aesthetic, entertainment medium that remains separate from any heavy-handed message or political agenda.  As such, because they have enjoyed continued employment in their careers in PR and running Film Independent, respectively, they also do not possess the empathy to understand the struggles faced by actual filmmaking personnel, who often experience brief periods of employment, coupled with extended periods of unemployment.  While Isaacs at least acknowledges in the aforementioned Hollywood Reporter interview that she recognizes why older Academy members would be offended by the new rules, which makes me want to give her the benefit of the doubt, Hudson demonstrates her callous obliviousness when she casually generalizes how the affected Members worked in the film industry…at one point in their careers, and they've moved on to a completely different field, completely different careers, and yet, because we have lifetime membership and lifetime voting rights, they are still voting on what is the best in contemporary film culture…They will still be members, they just will lose the ability to vote on a community that they are not really a part of.”

Hudson’s quote reflects the degree of arrogance and hubris from which she and Isaacs are operating.  If these members are purportedly no longer part of the filmmaking community, why bother to allow them to remain so-called "emeritus" members, which is a thankless, token status?  Hudson's quote also demonstrates how she is using the Academy to fulfill her dreams of overthrowing an established, venerated institution (like the United States government, which she--thankfully--never came close to destroying), as well as her apparent glee as a frustrated actress from sitting in judgment of actual filmmaking artists who all got into the Academy on merit and who all achieved far more than Hudson ever did in her failed acting career.  It is outrageous how two people who have not accomplished much in terms of actual filmmaking are dictating the standards determining whether so-called “inactive” members should retain their voting privileges.  They are not artists with a love, understanding and expertise for the filmmaking process, but ideologues pushing their agenda ahead of celebrating the excellence and grandeur of movies.  

During the aforementioned Hollywood Reporter interview, in an attempt to demonstrate how the new rules were not developed in haste in response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, both Isaacs and Hudson mention how they had been developing the new Academy membership provisions for about three or four years.  However, that admission merely suggests the extent to which Isaacs and Hudson have capitalized on this controversy to put forth an agenda, that they had ample time to concoct, upon the Board of Governors under the guise of responding to a media crisis concerning purported racial bias.  In its FAQs concerning its new membership rules, the Academy heavy-handedly attempted to quash any criticism of its initiatives by highlighting how Voting for the Oscars is a privilege of membership, not a right.”  Echoing their own logic, the current leadership at the Academy--led by Dawn Hudson and Cheryl Boone Isaacs--ought to also recognize how receiving an Oscar nomination, the issue that started this whole controversy, is not an inalienable right either.