Inside the Academy and inside Hollywood, everybody is trying to survive the last few days of awards season and get through Sunday night’s ceremony.
But given the chaos of the last seven months, making it through the Oscars show is only the beginning. If they survive the show, how do Academy officials and board members survive this stormy, chaotic last stretch?
And it’s conceivable that somebody going to take a fall for a series of self-inflicted missteps: the botched announcement of a new Oscar category for popular movies, which was tabled for further study after a month; the hiring of Kevin Hart to host the show, followed by Hart’s resignation, the fruitless search for a replacement and the decision to proceed without a host; and the announcement that four categories would be handed out during commercial breaks and edited into the show, which prompted a firestorm of criticism and was then withdrawn.
Mind you, it might be jumping the gun to ask these questions before we’ve seen Sunday’s Oscar show. If everybody agrees that the hostless show is great and if its ratings are a significant improvement from last year’s record low, maybe the Academy can chalk it up to growing pains and move ahead without major changes.
But if the ratings remain low and the show is a flop, the mistakes of this Oscar season could linger. “We can’t continue to function like this,” one board member told TheWrap this week. “I’ve never seen anything like this, and I’m just so worried about the Academy, which I love.”
Not everyone agrees — you can find some Academy members who think that change is always difficult and that nothing dramatic needs to happen. And you could even argue that the recent snafus aren’t as embarrassing as announcing the wrong Best Picture winner two year ago, or as damaging to the Academy as the two years of all-white acting nominations that led to the #OscarsSoWhite movement.
Even if the Oscar show is good enough and highly-rated enough to take away some of the heat, you have to wonder what the fallout might be after a messy year.
Option 1: Academy President John Bailey takes the fall.
Bailey, a governor representing the Academy’s Cinematography Branch who is in his second term as AMPAS president, is an easy fall guy: He’s in the last year of his third consecutive three-year term as governor, so he has to leave the board this summer and won’t be able to run for re-election.
Bailey’s stubbornness is partially blamed for the way the changes in the Oscar show were voted on and then rolled out — with a quick vote on the popular Oscar and the commercial-break moves before either was fully fleshed out, and then a fast public announcement conspicuously lacking in details.
“It’s all about leadership, and John is going to take a huge hit from this,” said one governor. It may well be a blessing for Bailey that he can’t run again — but also a blessing for others, because it makes the outgoing president a very convenient scapegoat.
Option 2: CEO Dawn Hudson takes the fall.
Dawn Hudson, who assumed the newly-created role of CEO after longtime executive director Bruce Davis retired in 2011, has been a polarizing figure for her whole tenure at the Academy; she has allies on the board, but is also opposed by a faction (which, before his election, definitely included Bailey).
But two years ago, the board voted to extend her contract through the summer of 2020, so she may be safe at a time when her pet project, the Academy Museum, is nearing its long-delayed completion.
“She has a contract — she’s not going anywhere,” said an executive committee member who considers Hudson “an embarrassment” but notes that she is not personally tied to any of the recent unpopular decisions. It also helps Hudson that she is in office to administer the wishes of the board rather than to tell them what to do.
Option 3: Incumbent board members running for re-election take the fall.
Each of the Academy’s 17 branches is represented by three governors, who serve three-year terms that are staggered so that one governor from each branch is up for re-election every year. (Two rounds of voting take place in the spring, with the results announced in June.)
Typically, almost all incumbents win re-election: Last year, for example, 10 of them were returned to the board, while the only incumbent who ran and lost was replaced by a former governor coming back to the board after a hiatus.
But one of the complaints from rank-and-file members this year has been that they weren’t consulted on the unpopular changes. So if members are angry at the way the board made the aborted Oscar moves without consulting them, this could be a year when an unusually large number of incumbents are ousted from their seats.
The board members whose terms expire this year include the Actors Branch’s Laura Dern, who is well-liked and also known as a staunch Hudson ally; the Directors Branch’s Steven Spielberg, who would surprise no one if he opted not to run again; the Writers Branch’s Robin Swicord; and the Producers Branch’s Mark Johnson.
Governors who might be held responsible for volunteering their branches to be part of the off-the-air experiment are Mark Goldblatt of the Film Editors Branch and Leonard Engleman of the Makeup Artists and Hairstylists Branch, whose branches oversee awards that were scheduled for the move; and Jan Pascale of the Production Design Branch and Sharen K. Davis of the Costume Designers Branch, whose branches volunteered but were not chosen.
Still, those decisions were not made by the governors alone, but by larger branch executive committees on which the governors are outnumbered by other members. Those executive committees are elected by a vote of the branch, which means they could conceivably have a larger-than-usual turnover as well.
Option 4: Tensions grow between the Academy and ABC.
Because the chaos of this season began with pressure from ABC to make the Oscars show faster and more mainstream, do the snafus damage the Academy’s relationship with that network? For years, ABC has been pushing for more control over the Oscars show, but nearly all of the initiatives it persuaded the Academy to adopt drew such condemnation that they were scrapped.
The Academy receives by far the majority of its operating income from the money ABC pays to air the Oscars, and the contract between the organization and the network currently extends through 2028. That relationship isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future.
Option 5: The Board of Governors undergoes structural changes.
If there’s one common complaint among both board members and Academy members who work with them, it’s this: With new branches added to the Academy in recent years, and three governors at large appointed to aid in the cause of diversity, the board has swollen to a size that many longtime members say is completely unworkable.
In the wake of this year’s problems, support is growing for shrinking the board from three to two representatives per branch, which would trim it from 54 to fewer than 40. “It’s got to be cut in half, or at least to two members per branch,” said one veteran member. “There’s no way to placate a board of 54 people.”
But that plan would bring its own problems, not the least of which would be getting 54 people to agree that a third of them should give up their positions.
Option 6: The Academy finds new ways to do what it wanted to do in the first place.
Remember, the board voted last August to trim and streamline the Oscar show. The fact that it wasn’t thought out or rolled out well doesn’t change that initial vote, or the feeling that the Oscars should change.
So some are suggesting that what’s really needed is to go back and figure out how to shorten the show in a way that won’t get all of Hollywood inflamed and indignant. The first step would definitely have to involve more communication with members.
But also, if the board comes out of Sunday’s Oscar show thinking that some categories should still be moved off the live broadcast, it could well put the focus back on the three short-film categories. One governor told TheWrap that when the initial vote was made back in August, he was convinced that the four categories to be moved would be Best Live-Action Short, Best Animated Short, Best Documentary Short and one of the two sound categories, probably Best Sound Editing.
According to multiple members, moving the shorts will definitely be back in the conversation after this year’s fiasco. And there’s another phrase I’ve heard more than once recently: “Why does sound get two categories, anyway?”
Option 7: Nobody takes the fall.
If the show is good and the ratings are decent, could it all be chalked up to miscommunication? Yes, it could, particularly with a new president coming in.
Here’s one thing on which everybody agrees: Changing the Academy is very, very hard.