As words like film, negative, celluloid, unspool, and reel become increasingly archaic, even the venerable Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences realizes that it needs to evolve. At the Telluride Film Festival, I sat down with new Academy president John Bailey to discuss what he has in mind. Here’s what we can expect from the 75-year-old cinematographer of “The Big Chill” and “Groundhog Day,” who is proud to be the rare filmmaker representing the Academy board.
(Re)Define the motion picture
Bailey is a realist as much as a cineaste. At Telluride, he appreciated Paul Schrader’s well-reviewed “First Reformed” — but fully supported the possibility that the film would go to Netflix. “It’s very unlikely the studios would pick it up,” said Bailey. “In reality, Netflix and Amazon have now become the studios that have the courage to make the film nobody else would make.”
Similarly, while he enjoyed watching Errol Morris’s Netflix hybrid docudrama series “Wormwood” at Telluride, he recognizes that it reflects an inherent tension between 21st-century art and commerce. Netflix will pay for great filmmakers, whose work has the most impact inside a theater — but Netflix is not vested in that platform or its future.
“I liked to see it done in a single-strand story, sitting there in the dark, in a sold-out theater,” he said. “It will not be the same seeing it in episodes on Netflix, on demand. It’s a real quandary to get the full impact of this man who spent most of his life obsessed with trying to find out if and why his father was murdered by his employers the CIA. You are so drawn into it by virtue of sitting there for over four hours: the amount of cumulative commitment and emotional involvement you have with this story cannot be duplicated. But the film would never have been made without Netflix.”
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The rise of first-rate documentaries that weren’t produced for theatrical release has the Academy dancing around what to do with long-form nonfiction like last year’s Oscar winner, ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America.” If Netflix doesn’t give “Wormwood” a day-and-date, single-showing theatrical release, it won’t be Oscar eligible. “The appalling thing is it’s the most extraordinary docudrama,” said Bailey. “It has reinvented whatever he started doing with ‘The Thin Blue Line.'”
Producer Albert Berger is assembling a small group from many different branches to explore “what is a motion picture,” said Bailey, “in terms specifically of the narrow look at qualifying for an Academy Award. How do we define it in terms of what the Academy considers to be eligible? And the larger question is, what is a movie today?”
Does a movie have to be in theaters to be a movie? That’s one thing he’d like to know. “We’ve got to get into this,” he said. “Rules change from year to year. There hasn’t been an in-depth dive into this by the Academy. It’s all been done ad hoc, dealing with individual situations. This is high on my and [Academy CEO Dawn Hudson]’s list that we have to engage on what are the terms and definitions. How is the Academy going to move forward and deal with the reality of all these new platforms? So many more people are seeing these movies individually all over the world.”
Change the foreign-language voting process
Finally, there may be a way out of the labyrinth that is Oscar voting for Best Foreign Language Film. Bailey and his board member wife, editor Carol Littleton, have long been ardent foreign-language voters (he knows his Abbas Kiarostami). Bailey will meet with producer Mark Johnson, the Academy’s foreign-film wrangler, about finding ways to expand voting for the final five; currently, it’s limited to the three, hand-picked, 10-voter committees who attend screenings of the nine shortlisted films over a three-day weekend in three cities (Los Angeles, New York and London). Animation and documentary branch voters now get to pass judgment using screeners; the hope (assuming security concerns are met) is to add foreign voters around the world, via streaming links.
Aside from the Academy’s 20/20 diversity committee, Bailey asked all 17 branches to form official diversity sub-committees, three to five members each, who will actively look for qualified new members. Bailey spearheaded a similar process for the cinematographers branch.
“Now when they come to the membership executive committee to consider and vote on proposed new members, they will already have been vetted,” he said. “This is a very positive move in continuing with this whole initiative to bring in diverse and international members.”
While the Academy is also considering how to help distributors and producers reach their scattered and far-flung Academy members, just how they will do it is a ways off. Now, everybody is on their own, trying to match emails and addresses for new members. The Screen Actors Guild and other organizations send mailings out to their lists and act as a clearinghouse; why couldn’t the Academy as well? They will never give out emails and addresses, which are private. But just as they’ve announced new members, they may figure out a way of making the entire membership lists transparent to everyone — eventually.
Bailey already checked in on the Academy’s screening committee to see their process for booking their 14 monthly member screenings. Some 25 years ago, he was a member of that committee but resigned because it was “let’s see what studio movies are being promoted this month,” he said. “That’s not the case now. They show documentaries and foreign language.”
While there has been pressure to show movies that fill the Academy screening room, Bailey hopes committee members will send notes to the membership advocating for the smaller films, as he did with his Films on Films series.
Fend off financial pressures
While ongoing construction of the Academy’s $400 million Museum at LACMA creates severe financial pressures, and speculation is rampant about just how amicably Hudson and Bailey will navigate this perilous high wire, Bailey doesn’t see any cutbacks in the Academy’s historical preservation efforts, the Academy Film Archive, and the Margaret Herrick Library. “Budgets for preservation have kept in place for a year or two,” he said. “We are now talking about how to move forward with programs that fit the current confines of the budget.”
His Films on Films Series was “a way to bring the Academy’s resources together to create a screening program that was not just showing the movie but putting it in rich context,” he said. “I hope to do that at the Museum.”
(Maybe) get Agnes Varda an Honorary Oscar
Bailey’s first board meeting as the man in charge was Tuesday night’s Governors Awards vote on the next three or four Honorary Oscar winners. Any Academy member can send a nominating letter, which are posted on the Academy’s private sites. To win, honorees must win support from half the board.
With a record 21 women on the board, including new members Whoopi Goldberg and Kimberly Peirce, chances may have improved for candidate Agnes Varda, who came close last year. Bailey, then a board member, was among those who lobbied for the 89-year-old writer-director. (Many recent almost-winners often get more votes on the next round.)
This year, Varda could score either a documentary or foreign-language nomination (if France submits her film) for Cannes best documentary-winner “Faces, Places,” which she directed with French artist J.R.
Other possible candidates for Honorary Oscars include directors Werner Herzog, Stephen Frears, Michael Haneke, James Ivory, Richard Lester, David Lynch, Terrence Malick, Ridley Scott, Peter Weir and Lina Wertmuller; performers Ann-Margret, Doris Day, Leslie Caron, Glenn Close, Catherine Deneuve, Bruce Dern, Mia Farrow, Albert Finney, Harrison Ford, Hal Holbrook, Ian McKellen, Cicely Tyson, Liv Ullman, and Max Von Sydow; and such eminent craft non-winners as cinematographer Roger Deakins, composer Philip Glass, writer Elaine May, and VFX master Douglas Trumbull.