Pete Hammond

The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is still basking in the glow of its successful Academy general membership meeting on Saturday in LA and NY. So Academy President Hawk Koch and CEO Dawn Hudson sent out a letter summarizing the event to the Acad’s nearly 6,000-person membership Tuesday night. They noted it was a ”first” in the Academy’s 85 years and indicated the “positive response” may indeed make this an “annual event”. The email recounted some of the “highlights” of the meeting  for ”those of you unable to attend”. This included the decision to send DVDs of nominated Foreign Films and Doc Shorts  to all members, an unprecedented move enabling everyone in the Academy to vote on all 24 categories for the first time ever. It also detailed  lifting numerical quotas for bringing in new members  while not relaxing critieria for membership. And it recounted numerous activities at the Academy including (in just ”the last two weeks”)  film festival grants, fresh collections for its archives, and seminars on new technology and educational programs “to inspire our next generation of filmmakers”. Oddly, the email made no mention of the Academy’s most ambitious activity: the building of a museum, which was a major point of discussion (by Governor Kathleen Kennedy) at the weekend meeting.

Also not mentioned at all in the letter – which came on the eve of the opening of the Cannes Film Festival – was the contentious exchange about the way the Foreign Language film judging process is conducted. One LA member during the Q&A period took longtime former head of the Foreign Language committee Mark Johnson to task for instigating “secrecy” about which committee members choose some of the final contenders and final nominees for the award. But Johnson disputed that accusation in his remarks on Saturday by pointedly saying the process was more open than ever - especially now that the entire Academy has the opportunity to vote on the final winner via DVD screeners. Of course I and others recall the reason for the whole controversial change in the Foreign Language process (allowing  the small Executive Committee to have greater say about some eventual nominees). It came about when the larger general committee, reputed to be heavily populated by “retired” members with more time on their hands to view the many entries from around the world, ignored such acclaimed international sensations as 2002′s  City Of God  (which was snubbed then became eligible the next year for other categories and went on to win four key Oscar nominations) and 2007′s Cannes Palme d’Or winner Four Months, Three Weeks And Two Days. Instead these films were snubbed in favor of more accessible fare like the 2002-nominated Belgium comedy Zus And Zo which got a slot over the aforementioned City Of God. The back and forth comments provided for Saturday’s testiest moments.

Whatever controversial scabs may have been inadvertently scratched on Saturday, they occurred near the end of what generally was described as a “lovefest” among members and their leadership. The Tuesday evening email also closed on a very positive note. “We want to continue to build the sense of community that was felt on Saturday. We hope  you will be advocates  and evangelists for all the great work the Academy is doing. We so appreciate your support.”  It was signed “Hawk Koch and Dawn Hudson”.

Naturally Tuesday night letter contained a ”money” line, explaining how the Academy plans to foot the bill for all these activities outlined. “We pay for them through the revenues generated by our Oscar telecast.” The underlying message was clear: in my words, not theirs, let’s not rock the boat. Explanation: producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron delivered younger demos including more men and bigger ratings so we invited them back again. Seth MacFarland was a plus by bringing in new viewers. And AMPAS knows not all the viewers inside and outside the Academy loved the  show  but you can’t please everyone and it was a hit no matter.

The email went on to say that the questions and comments solicited before the meeting ”was a great way to set the agenda” and urged members to continue to communicate via a specific email address aimed at extending the dialogue begun at Saturday’s bicoastal meeting. The Academy leadership indicated they hope the branch Governors and the Board in general  will have a more open dialogue with the membership. Considering the closed-door policies of the very tight-lipped Board-controlled Academy in the past, this can only be considered a plus to engage the entire membership. And taking into account the wildly divergent group that comprises the Academy at any given time, this is an ambitious new endeavor of transparency and will be an interesting process to watch.

Saturday’s meeting  at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre at the Academy’s headquarters was nearly full, and the e-mail confirmed that ”over a thousand members showed up in Los Angeles, New York, and the Bay Area”. But I am told the New York venue at the Lighthouse screening room only had about 100 members present,  fewer even than many popular screenings draw. I was also told some of the Big Apple contingent felt “left out” although their questions were beamed by satellite to the LA crowd. I heard the food served at the NY pre-reception was merely ’so-so’ but ‘delicious’ in LA. Hope that doesn’t mean even smaller NY attendance next time around, but the brutal truth is what you serve up at the reception is as is important as what you serve up on stage at these things.

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