About to end his tenure as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this summer, Sid Ganis made quite the mark on his legacy this afternoon. In a move he considers among the greatest accomplishments of his four year run, Ganis presided over the Academy’s decision to expand the best picture category to ten nominations. In the hours that followed since today’s announcement, there’s been an eclectic variety of reactions and opinions from the industry, many wondering what was behind the surprise move.
A few years back, I had dinner in New York with Ganis and his wife Nancy, at a Peggy Siegal event in honor of “Akeelah and the Bee”, which they produced together. While we talked a bit about “Akeelah” as well as his wife’s work in documentary film, we spent much of that night talking about the Oscars and Ganis’ determination to change the show.
The move by the Academy today, though, is not something anyone was talking about a few years ago. At least not publicly. But, when I spent some time on the phone with Ganis tonight, it seems this new change may have been on his mind for some time.
The following transcript of the conversation with Sid Ganis has been edited and in some cases shortened for clarity and brevity.
Eugene Hernandez: So, back at that dinner a few years back, you said you wanted to shake things up. Wow!
Sid Ganis: Any organization can’t sit back and just relax. You’ve got to keep evolving. I guess it’s a pretty big deal…
EH: Did you realize how big a deal?
SG: I knew it was going to be important. It turns out that everybody’s interested… I’ve decided not to dwell on the negative.
EH: So, what was the process by which this all came about? And how long ago did this idea first come up?
SG: Well, we have a Board of Governors, 43 governors. Each of the branches of the Academy are represented, approximately 3 Governors from each of the 15 branches. We started talking about it awhile ago, a couple of years ago. But, more recently since the show. The last four months, or so.
EH: And, I have to ask, what did you think when you first heard the idea. I have to admit that when I first heard the news today I was stunned, but it’s setting in a bit better now…
SG: That’s a good way to look at it. At first, I thought, well do we really want to do that? And then I thought it out with my colleagues and with the Board of Governors of the Academy and we agreed that it would be a really good thing to do for film for the Academy and for the Oscars.
EH: OK, I want to get back to that in a moment, but am also wondering, why this and why now?
SG: To broaden the possibilities for this very important award. A film winning an Oscar for best picture is the greatest award that a film can get – that a piece of film art can get. Five nominations are good, but over the years, over the last number of years, it became apparent that there were more possibilites for the best picture nominations.
To widen the net now would be appropriate and would work and would be good for the Oscars and good for the show and good for the art of film.
EH: Well, obviously I, and my colleagues and friends are hoping that it will be good for indie films, specialty films, documentaries, foreign films…
SG: Yes. I made a point earlier that maybe a foreign film or a documentary, add to that an indie [could get nominated]. That’s where I was coming from. It doesn’t have to be a big gigantic studio film, like the wonderful ‘Iron Man’ or the wonderful ‘The Dark Knight’. It could be an indie. I am thinking as much in that direction as I am in the big gigantic [studio direction].
EH: Fair enough, I know that it’s hard for me to create my own ten best list every year…
SG: Imagine as an Academy voter… with those five lines [on the ballot]. The hearts and minds of Academy members are known unto themselves.
EH: …and I know you can’t legislate that a certain number of each type of film be included, but people are wondering whether this decision is catering to the studios or the indies. And how this will affect Oscar campaigning, a lot of money is spent…
SG: We must remember that ‘The Reader’ was nominated and it didn’t have any gigantic campaign. It’s specifically why I phrased it that way, in [today’s announcement]. A little indie film has the possibility of being nominated.
But, I wasn’t coming at this, nor was the Board of Governors, from that point of view. What we were thinking of, maybe naively, was the best of what is available that would include everybody. Anything that is eligible.
I was just in China and saw an excellent Chinese film. The point is that all over the world there are really fine films being made. So, it just opens the door, well, for double the number of best picture nominees.
Academy members have minds of their own and you never know what they are going to come up with. A great film reaches the hearts of Academy members, I don’t know how. I think it’s more word of mouth and our screenings…
EH: Well, some are saying this is a bailout for the Trades.
SG: It’s not about the Trades, we love them.
EH: So, i have to ask, did you go back and look at past nominations or balloting from previous years, to see how they might have been affected — or what the results would have been — had their been ten nominees for best picture?
SG: I am not sure if you are asking this, but I will try to answer it anyway. Price Waterhouse does not come into the picture here. [He’s referring to the Academy’s accounting firm that handles the confidential balloting process.]
What we did do is look at the list of other nominees in other categories and the films that won in those other categories. In other words, I am picking “Iron Man” [as an example]. If “Iron Man” had six other nominations here, there would be an indication there that it might have fit into the category of the big ones. There were some films that did not get a best picture nomination that [received nominations in other categories].
EH: So, will the voting process change?
SG: It stays exactly the same. It doesn’t have to change. We have a preferential ballot. That process remains the same.
EH: And, what sort of feedback did you get in advance from the studios or from the indies, before making this decision. Also, what sort of feedback have you received since making this announcement earlier today?
SG:: Answering the first part of your question: N-O-N-E.
We love them, we work with them. Those who are Academy members [had a voice], but in their capacities as Academy board members.
[And part two,] I’ve been on the phone all day. I hear that that on the whole, the idea has been accepted pretty well.
EH: Wrapping up, your time as president is ending pretty soon…
SG: It ends in August…
EH: What are some of the achievements that you are most proud of when you look back?
SG: This is one of them I must say, moving the Academy along, keeping it as contemporary as possible to make sure the world knows that this is a worldwide organization. It’s not a Hollywood group. I think I have been able to do some good work.
It’s a worldwide organization for filmmakers all over the world, we have members around the world.
EH: And what will you do now?
SG: My wife and I have an active production company, I am going to devote all my time to it now.
EH: One more thing. I imagine you will say you are optimistic about the future for the Academy and the Oscars, but assuming that’s the case, why are you?
SG: It still is what it is. The toughest job is to keep that Oscar as important as it always has been, since the 1920s. This year was good proof of that, we brought it home in a great way. And, the ratings were up… worldwide.
EH: Well, I hadn’t asked but I imagine you had to think about TV ratings?
SG: Ratings are a consideration. It’s my consideration, it’s not the considerion of the Academy constituency. I am representing my fellow artists, so I also have to worry about the buoyancy.
EH: Well, soon you won’t have to worry about that.
SG: But, I will continue to share my opinions with them!