Motion Picture Academy's Elders and Flacks Feel the Tug of the Rug at their Feet

Senior members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and members of its Public Relations Branch have reason to be concerned that the Academy glanced their way when looking for a quick fix to recent and on-going demands for a more representative voting membership.

The most recent Academy Awards occasioned a loud debate because, for the second year in a row, no actors of color were among the 20 performers nominated in the acting categories. That absence hadn't been the case in other recent years, but it was a consecutive exclusion that was significant and concerning in and of itself. The battle cry arose, change the rules and the demographics of the membership.

While all parties agree with that objective, it should not be overlooked that the truer root of the problem is an industry failure to bring minorities adequately or representationally into the general film-making process. The Academy, understandably, acceded to the need and the demand to achieve ethnic diversity and gender equality. Such things are not accomplished with the wave of a wand, but the Oscar show was coming up, and the heat was on and there was a scramble to implement change. Solutions were announced and disputed and remain a tug of war that greatly concerns an industry which understands that the Academy is its face every bit as much as are the films it makes. The kind of films Hollywood puts out there is the public face of its commerce. The Academy's awards program is the face of that too-often separate matter.. art and excellence. In the thunder of protest which preceded and attended it, the Oscar cast saw ratings diminish, jeopardizing the funding of an organization crucial to preserving and celebrating the art of film.

The need to secure diversity is inarguable, and witnessing forty Caucasian acting nominations in a row lent an element of ASAP to the institution of change. It should be borne in mind that a Latino was accorded the two most recent Best Director honors. And a few years back, a film about the oppression of Blacks and largely acted by Blacks won it all. Its key ad slogan was "It's time," an appeal to the voters' sense of fairness. A voting unit with a substantial component of older white males considered the excellence of the film and the importance of its issue and voted its victory. But membership diversity remained a goal to be accomplished quickly.

Initial acts by the Academy in this hurried attention called into question that body's unalloyed devotion to or respect for two of its voting components. A: older members and, B, its Public Relations branch, the first specific-skill branch whose members were challenged to evidence anew their qualification for continued voting status. The At Large Branch members also faced that request.. However that has since been walked-back, it remains that these three groups were targets of first convenience. Let's consider that.

Because of our stubborn longevity, we seniors do comprise a large portion of Academy membership. Many are artists and craftspeople who, absolutely not of their own choice, are less likely still to be active players in the making of films. That is especially true in the sweeping tide of comic book and electronic game movies, very few of which tend to be geriatric in subject, cast or crew. It is also true that the fastest growing demographic in America is seniors, so perhaps that perceived imbalance IS representational in one respect.

All members of the Academy have earned their way into it. What they best bring to the award voting process is their varied experience-based sense of what constitutes great film-making. Veteran members exercise in their Oscar voting a judgement honed in a time we acknowledge as the Golden Age of Hollywood. Any voting process benefits from a continuum of time-tested judgement and sensibility. Extraordinary films are still made, but not in the profusions of the past. There are lessons and perceptions of the past which enrich the vote.

Now for the publicists. When those dictatorial studio moguls-to-be first flickered moving images on the bedsheets of their storefront nickelodeons more than a century ago, they brought in the swift-minded carny barkers and ballyhoo guys to help carry their product onto bigger screens. Those initial film flacks dusted off an old trick called fame. Press agents constructed stardom and accelerated the movie-going habit with devices bright and sometimes nefarious. They helped build and glorify a business that soon entertained the world. They're still at it, having evolved this special brand of marketing into a science and, in many cases, an art. The Publicists Branch may be alone in that its members' talents are not evident on the screen. But even though they may not make the motor or the axles, the steering or the wheels, they DO provide the transmission, creating and shaping the awareness that sells the product.

Working so closely with the great artists and filmmakers, press agents certainly acquire judgement valuable to the determination of awards. Most are students of film. And yet in the rush to change, they were the first defined-function category asked to justify their membership and voting privilege, directed to squeeze their credits into a 1000 character email box that actually accepts only about a quarter of that volume. Members of that branch have each poured skills and strategies into scores and even hundreds of films. Some branch members I know, many of them longtime contributors to the success of movies, have despaired and declined to try to justify themselves. That discovery saddened me and motivated this dissertation. The Academy Awards started in some part as a publicity stunt, and it now constitutes the world's greatest spotlight for talent. The reach for diversity in our awards process has to concern itself with what goes out with the bathwater.