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THB #12: How Can The Academy Save Itself?
I could not be less happy to say it, but yes, The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences is at a crossroads and could well become a minor, marginalized institution by the time my 11-year-old graduates college.
The problem is not diversity, accomplished or sought. The problem is not streaming. The problem is not the quality of the Oscar show. The problem is not money.
The problem, dare I say it, is not Dawn Hudson. She is, however, the embodiment of the problem. She has taken every interesting idea within The Academy and found a way to do it the wrong way. She has build consensus… only consensus that already agrees with her. She has promoted inclusivity… but only inclusivity that empowers her. She led the building of what is surely one of, if not the most, expensive museum(s) in history measured against square feet of exhibition space open to the paid public visitors and not a thing in it feels permanent or of major importance to the arts.
But she hasn’t been the problem that created the serious troubles of the last decade. She has just been the very wrong person taking charge at the worst possible time.
The Problem is that The Academy has lost its idea of itself.
For the last decade, it seems like The Academy’s primary focus has been self-preservation, not any clear idea of its own purpose.
It’s a hard truth that The Oscars have eaten The Academy. Aside from membership dues, which continue to increase annually even though the membership has grown by about 50% in recent years, Oscar pays for the existence of AMPAS.
How is that Oscar money spent? Roughly $125 million from ABC to license the show. $40 million on the show. $45 million on Academy staff. $7 million to grants. The Academy nets about $33 million a year to invest and cover other expenses.
Disney’s ABC was just on the edge of profitability on the show in recent years. Even though they said they sold out April’s show, you can be sure they were doing makegoods and may have even discounted after the fact, losing money on that viewership, which was less than half any other Oscar show in modern history. Now add the exit of Bob “The Smoothy” Iger and the entrance of Bob “The Butcher” Chapek and leadership at The Academy is understandably nervous.
But here we are again, discussing Oscar and business… too easy to fall into the trap… or maybe that is all that The Academy can be in 2021.
If 100% of your income and 70% of your spending is based around 3 hours that occur once a year, can anyone expect The Academy to be anything but a one-trick-pony?
And if we admit that The Academy has become almost completely about being a conduit to this event that funds the good deeds and amusements of the organization (about 15% of the ebb and flow), shouldn’t the frontperson for the organization be really really good with a whip, chair, and gun, skilled at making the circus the very best in the world?
This was the irony of hiring Dawn Hudson, whose history was dismantling the Independent Film Project (the exit of “West,” unhappy sharing their TV wealth, was the beginning of the end for the whole organization nationally), spending 6 figures on a consultant to land on the terrible “Film Independent” name, and taking the successful award show from live TV to a taped mid-afternoon weekend event during her tenure.
Her tenure at The Academy has been a natural continuation of that record.
It isn’t that she’s not whip smart or charming or as good at managing up as anyone ever or brilliant in building loyalists. She is all of that. But she left FIND at a moment of struggle, not a high. And 10 years later, she is doing the same at The Academy.
But again, I digress…
What is The Academy meant to be? Right this minute?
On some level, this is an unanswerable question. With over 9000 members of The Academy now, there have to be at least 4 or 5 distinct groups of significant populace size that represent what members think the group should be.
The Academy should be The Oscar place and focus on being the best at that, whether that means removing the boundaries between theatrical releases and releases to television/streaming platforms or tightening them.
The Academy should act as the industry leader in the cause of inclusion in the film/television industry.
The Academy should use its leadership position to help grow a new generation of film and television makers.
The Academy should focus on the future and past of theatrical films at home and across the globe, celebrating the communal experience of cinema.
The Academy should focus more on younger and more popular voices in the industry, encouraging and supporting the latest technologies and distribution methods.
Of course, within those 5 notions, there are a lot of potential combinations and crossovers. The more detailed the preference, the smaller the constituency.
But somehow, The Academy has to make a decision about what it wants to be in the next 5 - 10 years. Because right now, it is trying to do all of these and is doing every one of them quite badly.
Make The Academy an Oscar-giving machine. Stop pretending to be high-minded and maximize the opportunity. Or conversely, ramp up the high-mindedness and maximize the opportunity that way. Right now, Oscar is neither fish nor foul, which is a big part of why no one is watching. What does the overall audience want? When do they want it? What is fresh? What becomes stale? Throw it all up in the air. Don’t worry about the idiotic bleating about doing a 2-hour, 6-award show. That is a guaranteed nothing. Will people tune in to see trailers and exclusive footage? Is there a system that isn’t just a year end nomination process followed by a show 5 weeks later? Put all the rules and all the history aside for a minute. Wide open conversation. Anything goes. Should Carrot Top host? No! But any other ideas!
If the direction is all about inclusion and correcting the failures of the past, time to cut the staff budget by $10 million and make that money into an annual fund to bring 100 unincluded young talent from around the country to sets around the world, to pay them a living stipend or wage, and to have every studio and every streamer put them to work below the line for a year. Then take another $5 million a year to pay for 25 graduating business school kids from your target groups and start them at $200k a year in every studio and every streamer and seed the damned executive suites.
Do this for 5 years and you will change the face - literally - of Hollywood. Many will fail. But enough will succeed and be on their way to long careers in the industry. In 5 years of 2020, The Academy didn’t add this many (625) American members of color. Time to shit or get off the pot.
Want to encourage young people of all ages to get into the industry in a wide range of jobs? Multiply the Nichols scholarship program to a bunch more specialties. Put your money where your mouth is. Make short films about how exciting the world of production is and put some on your TV show. Focus the incredible mentoring power of your membership.
You want to encourage the ongoing life of theatrical exhibition? Stop pissing on your own history! Put some theater-sized screens up in your museum… and project on them digitally. If you aren’t going to expand theatrical requirements for the films in contention for Best Picture and the other broad categories, eliminate the joke boundaries that currently exist. If you can fix something like qualifying by throwing a little money at it, it’s broken. I have said this a hundred times. If you make streamers jump through some real theatrical hoops to participate in Oscar, they will or they won’t. If they won’t, why are they part of Oscar in the first place? And why are you penalizing the legacy companies that have been part of the Oscar family for decades because streamers are willing to light their cigars with (non-existent) thousand dollar bills? The Academy is not Wall Street. It is a place of cinematic history. If the organization thinks the future of cinema is best viewed on your couch, do be it. It’s been 8 years since 40 million+ Americans watched Oscar. It’s been 6 years since Netflix campaigned its first streaming film. 7.8 million people watched the Emmys this year. If you want to be the dog that catches that tire, go for it. I say, embrace the traditional… then take some chances.
Also, you have expanded your international membership to about 1/3 of the total membership. How about fixing the International rules for participation. Is this organization a representative of American cinema or world cinema? If the answer is the latter, do something about it. Because until this moment, you have done nothing but invite in (often wonderful) international members to pad your inclusion figures.
But you know… Netflix is so popular. And they spend more than anyone on original programming. And they are really making the world smaller, popularizing television series from the entire globe. America still can’t make a hit worldwide phenom from an Asian country into a box office smash at the American box office. But you can’t avoid Squid Game masks for Halloween. And like everyone else, Netflix is working with the best effects houses and tech houses across the globe, pushing the boundaries of technology, even if they have never really been part of a tech breakthrough in the creation of a film or TV show, they are the bleeding edge of subtitling and dubbing, bringing new interest to country after country. If you believe watching stuff on your TV is The Future, go!!!
My #1 message today is… make up your mind. And then be as transparent as you can be. Don’t lie to the world, trying to save face. Be the organization you say you want to be. Turn the Oscar show into a delivery system for that philosophy, whatever that philosophy is. Cut that 450 person staff down. Get that investment in the industry up. Take a bunch of your crankiest members and figure out how to make the museum experience at least 3x more fun. Membership dues now bring in $4 million a year. Earmark that clearly for member benefits or to go to people who need it. Gouging your members when you net $85 million from Oscar is gross.
But again… stand for something! And then execute it like no group can do any better than the AMPAS membership. No more trying to clean up messes. Be bigger than the messes. Stop acting like your friends in streaming won’t like you anymore if you put up an ounce of resistance.
You’re 93 years old. Time to grow up.