Oscars Board Election Has New Rules – But Expect the Same Old Results

Incumbents rarely need any extra help to prevail when the Academy members pick their board, but they might have gotten a boost anyway

steve pond

Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences usually don’t need much help to stay the course, but the Academy may have given them a nudge in that direction by changing the rules this month in next week’s Board of Governors election.

Instead of the usual two rounds of voting, the second being a runoff between four finalists in each branch of the Academy, members will cast ballots between June 1 and June 5 in a single election. Votes will be counted using the same preferential or ranked-choice voting system that is used to determine the Oscar winner in the Best Picture category.

The system, which is also known as instant-runoff voting, requires voters to rank the candidates in order of preference, and then narrows the field by eliminating the lowest-ranked contenders until one candidate has more than 50% of the votes. It is designed to allow voters to cast their ballots for their true favorites without worrying about wasting votes, and the process ensures that the winner will be a consensus favorite of the entire body of voters.

At the Oscars, this has allowed smaller movies like “Parasite” and “Moonlight” to win over flashier contenders like “1917” and “La La Land.” In the Board of Governors election, it could allow some dark-horse candidates to craft a consensus — but it seems likelier to benefit incumbents who have more name recognition and have appeared on the ballots many times before.

And it’s not as if incumbents need any extra help to prevail when the Academy members pick their board. The 17 branches of AMPAS are each represented by three governors, who serve three-year terms that are staggered so that one seat per branch is up for election each year. Academy rules say that a governor must take a hiatus from the board after serving three consecutive three-year terms, so every year a handful of governors are unable to run for re-election.

(In addition, one or two incumbents choose not to run again in a typical year.)

The incumbents who do run almost invariably succeed. Of the 85 governors elected over the last five years, 51 of them were either incumbents who were re-elected (42) or past governors returning to the board after a hiatus (9).

Only 11 times in those years did an incumbent governor run for re-election and lose. And only once, in 2017, did voters elect more first-time governors, 10, than returning incumbents, 6 — and that year, several incumbents who could have run chose not to do so, reducing the number of governors seeking re-election to only nine.

That 2017 election, by the way, was a historic one on several fronts: It saw the first-ever female governors elected by the Cinematographers and Sound Branches, Mandy Walker and Teri E. Dorman, as well as Whoopi Goldberg in the Actors Branch and a rare woman (and openly gay) governor in the Directors Branch, Kimberly Peirce. (All of them are eligible to run for re-election again this year.)

It might have been reasonable to expect a 2017-style overhaul of the board in 2019, when the Academy had just come through a disastrously rocky year that included the board voting for a series of widely criticized changes to the Oscar show: a “Popular Oscar” award that was tabled only a month after it was announced; a decision to move four awards into the commercial breaks on the Oscar telecast, which was reversed less than two weeks before the show; and a date change that moved the 2020 show to Feb. 9, an experiment that the board decided not to repeat well before the earlier show even took place.

But the board that voted for those ill-considered changes and then rolled them out with undue haste didn’t take the fall for those decisions: Of the 11 sitting governors who ran for re-election last year, 10 of them won back their seats, and the 11th went to a runoff before losing.

At a time when they might have been expected to hold the board responsible, Academy voters simply endorsed the status quo, and the governors then extended the contract of AMPAS CEO Dawn Hudson.

Things are rocky for the Academy again this year, as they are throughout the movie industry. The hugely expensive, often-delayed Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is due to open in December, but the pandemic has no doubt slowed both construction (which is largely finished) and fundraising, and big questions loom as to when crowds will feel comfortable returning to the kind of public spaces and theaters that the museum will offer.

If history is any indication, though, the voters, who will be able to cast ballots next week, will stick with the leadership that brought them this far. This year, 13 of the 17 governors whose terms are ending are runing for re-election, a group that includes Goldberg from the Actors Branch, Peirce from the Directors Branch, Charles Bernstein from the Music Branch and Larry Karaszewski from the Writers Branch.

Others running are cinematographer Walker, sound editor Dorman, costume designer Isis Mussenden, documentary editor Kate Amend, executive David Linde, public relations director Christina Kounelias, animator Tom Sito, production designer Wynn P. Thomas and VFX supervisor Richard Edlund.

Three governors can’t run: Michael Tronick from the Film Editors Branch, who has served the maximum three consecutive three-year terms, beginning in 2011; and Lora Kennedy from the Casting Directors Branch and Kathryn L. Blondell from the Makeup Artists and Hairstylists Branch, neither of whom has served the full nine years but both of whom are falling victim to a wrinkle in the rules.

The Casting Directors Branch was created in 2013, and Kennedy was elected to a one-year term in a special election that fall, and then re-elected to her first three-year term the following spring. The Makeup Artists and Hairstylists Branch was expanded from one to three governors in 2013, and Blondell also came on the board for a single year before winning a three-year term in 2014. So while both women have only served seven years on the board, a new term would put them at 10 years, one past the AMPAS limit; hence, they’ve termed out two years early.

One other governor, Albert Berger from the Producers Branch, could have run for what would have been his third term, but declined to do so because he supports a six-year term limit on Academy governors.

The election also has the potential to change the number of women and people of color on the board, which is currently at an all-time high of 25 women (compared to 29 men) and 11 people of color. Of the seats that will be up for grabs, nine currently belong to women and eight to men, while nonwhite board members whose seats are open include Goldberg and Thomas.

In a time of profound change in Hollywood and at the Oscars, which will consolidate the two sound categories and allow streaming premieres to compete for the first time, will the new rules help the Board of Governors undergo a transformation as well?

It’s possible, but history suggests otherwise. A longtime veteran of the Academy Awards telecast once told me that making changes in the Academy was like turning an aircraft carrier at sea — it doesn’t happen easily. And even if the new voting system streamlines the process of voting, it probably won’t change the result.

Steve Pond

Steve Pond

Awards Editor • [email protected] • Twitter: @stevepond


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