Academy wins praise for its first all-members meeting, but tensions flare during foreign-language discussion
Saturday's unprecedented three-city meeting of more than 1,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was a first for the Academy – and a virtual love-fest aside from tensions over foreign language nomination process and the larger issue of tranparency.
“I was very excited and moved by the amount of love in the room,” said AMPAS president Hawk Koch told TheWrap on Saturday afternoon, less than an hour after wrapping up the simultaneous meetings in Beverly Hills, New York and Emeryville in the Bay Area.
That love, though, did not extend to the entire program, which included at least one exchange about the Academy's foreign-language system that was described as contentious by several members in attendance.
“There was a lot of engagement – it was a huge step for the Academy,” said one member who, like all those who spoke to TheWrap, asked not to be identified. “But there was a fair amount of member resentment about the secrecy of the Academy.”
The testiest discussion focused on the committee process for the foreign-language award, but another member said it did highlight a concern among the members at large.
"I stayed and talked to fellow Academy members for 30 to 45 minutes after the program, and some of them did say that the foreign-language discussion raised a larger issue, which is transparency in the Academy," the member said. "I got the impression that they will review their policies."
Koch said that lowering the veil was one of the reasons to hold the meeting. “The Academy is planning to be more open,” he told TheWrap, pointing to Saturday morning's press release that broke new ground by revealing a voting statistic (albeit a wildly positive one) that had in past years been kept private: 90 percent of the Academy's members had voted for the last Oscars.
“That was such an amazing number that we wanted to make it public,” he said of the voting number, which had never before been revealed. “Over 96 percent of the people who signed up for online voting cast ballots.”
Added Academy CEO Dawn Hudson, “It was such a testament to the success of e-voting that we wanted to tell the members."
(Koch also said that 87 percent of members who opted for paper ballots voted. If I remember my high-school math correctly, the "87 percent + 96 percent = 90 percent" breakdown means that about twice as many of the Academy's 5,856 voting members opted for paper ballots as for online voting.)
The meetings, which consisted of a one-hour meal and then 90 minutes of presentations and Q&A sessions, were well-attended, with the 1,000-seat Samuel Goldwyn Theater largely filled and good crowds also going to the Lighthouse International Theater in New York and Pixar headquarters in the Bay Area.
(A New York member did say that the crowd, while good-sized, was nowhere near as big as the Thursday-night audience at the Academy screening of “The Great Gatsby.”)
According to a member in Los Angeles, Koch opened the program by remarking, “We do this every 85 years,” drawing a big laugh. He, Hudson, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Kathleen Kennedy, Ed Begley Jr., Susannah Grant and Mark Johnson all made presentations about various aspects of the Academy, many of them in response to specific questions that had ben emailed by members.
The discussion also turned to the Board of Governors’ recent plan to remove the cap on the admission of new members, theoretically allowing the Academy to expand dramatically when the next group is invited to join in June.
“I don't think the membership will change dramatically,” Koch told TheWrap. “We're never going to change how difficult it is to get into the Academy. You have to be the best of the best. But in recent years, there may have been times when there may have been 11 people who qualified as the best of the best, but because of limits that branch could only admit nine of them. This year, all 11 will get in.”
At the meeting, according to members in attendance, Koch addressed recent calls for the Academy to become more diverse by reinforcing that the group would not lower its standards, and suggesting that for the Academy to become more diverse, the industry had to become more diverse.
(He also faulted the press for focusing on the Academy's diversity rather than looking at the industry's.)
Koch said the two main questions he heard from members were about how the In Memoriam sequence at the Oscars was chosen, and whether they could receive screeners of the five nominees in the Best Foreign-Language Film category.
During the meeting, he announced a plan to send out foreign-language screeners and end the requirement that voters must prove they had seen all five nominees before voting. In his conversation with TheWrap, he insisted that the change would not disadvantage smaller, less-known movies or require them to campaign in order to be seen.
“This levels the playing field,” he insisted. “The members are chomping at the bit – they want to see watch the movies. The feedback we got about doing screeners for the foreign language category was huge.”
Earlier rounds of the foreign-language process led to what several members described as the most contentious part of the program, when a member of the category's general committee asked why the makeup of the category's executive committee was kept secret.
An AMPAS official replied that the list is printed in the Oscar program, which has been true in past years but was not this year. The list of members is not made available elsewhere.
“He had a lot of support for his position as to why they keep the names of the executive committee confidential,” said a member at the Los Angeles meeting. Others said that the exchange – which involved Koch, former foreign-language committee chair Mark Johnson and Academy COO Ric Robertson – went on long enough to “exasperate” some in attendance.
When Koch ended the meeting at 12:30, saying he'd promised to wrap it up by then, members in both Los Angeles and New York said they felt frustrated, and wanted to continue the dialogue.
“The New York group stuck around for another 20 or 30 minutes talking about how New York members can be more engaged in the Academy,” said a member at that meeting.
Added a member in Los Angeles, “It was valuable, and it could have easily gone on for at least another 30 minutes.”
Afterwards, Koch and Hudson pronounced themselves elated by the results. “Last fall, when we started talking about this after doing smaller mixers with specific branches, we thought, ‘Let's just try it, even if only 25 people show up.
“This was a reinforcement of how engaged and active our members are.”