Why Producer Michael Shamberg Sued the Oscars Academy: ‘They Don’t Want to Listen to Anybody’

“They have both a failing business model and a failing management structure because they won’t ask for help,” the “Erin Brockovich” producer tells TheWrap

Michael Shamberg Academy
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Why would anyone during a global pandemic take the time to file a lawsuit against the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? “Erin Brockovich” and “Contagion” producer Michael Shamberg said the pandemic has made him feel not only unheard by the Academy but concerned about its future. In an interview, Shamberg recounted his two-year effort to get AMPAS to formally recognize what he feels are “pretty innocuous” ways the Oscars can become more relevant. He escalated that battle when he filed a lawsuit last week accusing the Academy’s board of violating its own bylaws by refusing to vote on his proposals to implement a new social media policy and survey members — a charge that the Academy disputes. He’s for a judge to rule that all AMPAS members should be able to vote on his bylaw amendments. Shamberg’s lawsuit points to numerous examples where he feels the Academy’s social media presence has missed the mark and failed to tap into the massive followings of its members. But in speaking with TheWrap, he said the problems go deeper than a few bad tweets. “It’s like going from silents to talkies. There’s a new grammar of how the culture operates, and they don’t want to adopt it, because they don’t want to listen to anybody,” said Shamberg, who unsuccessfully ran for a board seat last month. “They have both a failing business model and a failing management structure because they won’t ask for help. They have nobody who speaks for them, and they don’t have an equivalent of a shareholder meeting.” Since Academy CEO Dawn Hudson took over in 2011, he said, members have fewer opportunities to provide input even as ratings for the annual Oscars telecast have continued to decline. While many awards shows have suffered declining ratings, this year’s Oscars saw a record low and 31% dip in ratings from the key demographic of adults 18-49. “No major consumer brand can defend its management if they’re losing a 30% market share. They would have to be publicly called to task to ask for a plan to make things better if you were a publicly held corporation,” he said. “And in fact, we are stakeholders in the Academy, and they owe us an explanation. And I’m going, ‘You have a crisis with the Oscars, and you don’t want to speak to it.’” Shamberg said his campaign began when he worked on an Academy committee report in 2018 to improve the organization’s social media presence. But the efforts went nowhere, much to his frustration. “They had all these smart people talking to them; they’re going to issue a report, and they never did it,” he said. “So, I’m going, They need to hear fresh ideas for the place.” Shamberg, who has a Twitter account that’s largely dormant, then drafted his own proposals for developing “state-of-the-art social media” and a “member survey” that would address the glaring gap he found between members’ online engagement and similar posts shared directly to Academy feeds. The Academy declined to comment for this story. However, the Academy does have 2.6 million followers on Instagram, 3.6 million on Twitter and nearly 3 million on Facebook — all of which surpass those of rival awards shows like the Emmys, Tonys or Grammys. And the organization, which recently hired Warner Bros. and Annapurna Pictures alum Meryl Johnson as director of digital marketing, has also hosted #WatchWiththeAcademy livestream events during the coronavirus pandemic, inviting creatives to tweet along with fan screenings of movies like “Booksmart” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” The Academy’s legal counsel has also previously said that Shamberg was given “abundant consideration” to present his proposals. “The fact that Mr. Shamberg disagrees with the Academy’s social media strategy does not mean the board has failed to exercise reasonable business judgment in that area,” Scott Miller wrote in a letter Shamberg shared in his lawsuit. “And it does not mean Mr. Shamberg is entitled to supplant their judgment with his.” Shamberg said he is suing for declarative and injunctive relief, and not for monetary damages or personal gain. But one veteran media lawyer told TheWrap that what Shamberg really wants is “procedural justice,” for a judge to provide an advisory opinion on whether the Academy complied with its own bylaws. “It seems like kind of a philosophical battle, but the lawsuit is not really about social media or how they go about social media or liken themselves to the Golden Globes to become more relevant, the lawsuit is about: Has the procedure been followed and can Michael force them to follow the procedure?” said James Sammataro, a partner at Pryor Cashman and co-chair of the firm’s media and entertainment practice. Sammataro said at first glance it felt “tone deaf” to file such a complaint during a pandemic, but he saw things differently upon reading it. “Here’s a guy who really cares about the declining Academy that in his mind is losing touch, is not connecting with audiences,” Sammataro said. “He seems genuinely concerned with the vitality and relevance of the Academy, and it sounds like he had no other option but to go out on the front lawn and scream his concerns.” In recent weeks, Shamberg has extended his criticism beyond the Academy’s social media efforts to the organization’s response to the pandemic, the shutdown of film production and the delayed reopening of movie theaters. And he added that if his lawsuit is successful, it will open the door to other members to make the Academy far more inclusive and democratic. “They completely dropped the ball on promoting theatrical filmgoing because they don’t know how to connect with the audience. It’s just outrageous,” he said. “They need to be telling the audience why it’s valuable; they need to be telling people why it’s safe again. That’s their bread and butter.”