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Academy Board Member Bill Mechanic Quit With a Scorched-Earth Letter, and Hollywood’s Paying Attention

As Hollywood navigates its own future, the Academy struggles to keep up.

ExclusiveMandatory Credit: Photo by Eric Charbonneau/REX/Shutterstock (8436652ay)Bill Mechanic, Mel GibsonLionsgate's Oscar Celebration, presented by Bulleit Frontier Whiskey, Los Angeles, USA - 27 Feb 2017

Bill Mechanic, Mel Gibson

Eric Charbonneau/REX/Shutterstock

If you want to understand the myriad problems facing the Academy, just ask former board member Bill Mechanic. In a blistering resignation letter addressed to Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences president John Bailey, the producer and former studio head lays it bare: Oscars are long and boring. The Academy Museum is a mess. Academy leadership is consumed by politics.

Mechanic’s frustration cements his reputation as a straight shooter:

You can’t hide the drainage of employees, the cataclysmic decline in the Oscar ratings, the fact that no popular film has won in over a decade; that we decided to play Moral Police and most probably someone inside the Academy leaked confidential information in order to compromise the President; that the Board doesn’t feel their voice is being heard with regard to the Museum; that we have allowed the Academy to be blamed for things way beyond our control and then try to do things which are not in our purview (sexual harassment, discrimination in the Industry).

However, this scorched-earth missive isn’t telling tales out of school. In speaking truth to power, his bullet points crystallize what everyone already suspected: The Academy is struggling to take on the challenges of the 21st century.

Read More: 5 Questions for the Academy as President John Bailey Faces His #MeToo Challenge

Of course, many of these pain points aren’t unique to the Academy. #OscarsSoWhite may have started with the Academy, but it became a movement that forced the entire entertainment industry to face long-term issues of representation. #MeToo and #TimesUp are seismic faults that impact every aspect of our culture, the Academy included.

However, there are many snafus closer to home. Last year, a PriceWaterhouseCoopers mistake allowed the wrong Best Picture ballot to reach the stage. Although the 2018 Oscars proceeded without a glitch, mainstream America is no longer as focused on the Oscar spotlight as they once were; the show drew 26.5 million viewers, the lowest ratings in its history.

And then there’s the Academy museum: It’s wildly over budget and blowing deadlines, faces a significant funding gap — and, for what? The recent hard-hat tour presented a magnificent Renzo Piano building, but Bailey also formed an Academy committee to formulate exactly what a “motion picture” means in today’s world. (In a brave new Hollywood dominated by Netflix, that answer will likely please no one.) As they invest nearly a half-billion into a temple honoring the Academy’s raison d’être, it demands a basic question familiar to even the lowest-level production exec: Who is it for? Do they know their audience?

Credibly, AMPAS responded to some of these issues by increasing membership ranks to include more women and people of color; there’s also been significant expansion of the board. A few years ago, the board had about 30 representatives from the Academy’s branches; today, there’s 54. However, when too many voices want to be heard, factions develop. (Ex-Warner Bros. distribution executive Dan Fellman, who came in second to Mechanic in the board elections, will serve out the rest of the departing producer’s board term.)

Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy leads the members who back divisive CEO Dawn Hudson, who just endured her second six-month performance review. The results of the second review are unknown, but her contract runs through 2020.

Kathleen Kennedy and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson

The crafts back Bailey, a respected cinematographer who earned the ignoble distinction of becoming the first Academy member investigated under the Academy’s new Standard of Conduct guidelines. He kept his job, but the sexual harassment complaint leaked to the press when it should have been conducted behind closed doors. The Academy hired outside lawyers to find the source, but leaks may be a symptom of deeper dysfunction.

Not everyone thinks Mechanic is on the right track. Journalist and film historian Mark Harris took to Twitter Tuesday night to declare good riddance.

Mechanic filed his letter on April 12, after the March 27 meeting of the full board — the same meeting where the Board of Governors decided not to pursue harassment claims against Bailey. While Mechanic’s exit stands alone in its drama, five-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and outgoing AMPAS president and marketing executive Cheryl Boone Isaacs chose not to run for the board again. One thing’s for sure: Hudson and Bailey have their hands full.

You can read the letter in full on the next page.

John Bailey
President, AMPAS

Dear John:

There’s a moment when if you fail to make an impact, the right thing to do is make for the exits. After Saturday’s meeting, I’m at that moment and I respectfully must resign from the Board of Governors.

I have a great love and respect for the Academy. I grew up loving movies and watching the Academy Awards, never dreaming of being a nominee, producing the show, and certainly not becoming a Governor. Eventually all of these things actually came to pass and it was exciting when I was originally elected to the Board, serving with so many distinguished legends side-by-side in a non-hierarchical environment.

I left the Board after one term, but decided to run again a couple of years ago when many of the decisions of the Board seemed to me to be reactive rather than considered. I felt I could help provide some perspective and guidance.

But it’s exceedingly clear to me since returning to the Board that things have changed and there is now a fractured environment which does not allow for a unified, strategically sound, vision. I haven’t had any real impact, so now it’s time to leave.

I feel I have failed the organization. I feel we have failed the organization.

We have settled on numeric answers to the problem of inclusion, barely recognizing that this is the Industry’s problem far, far more than it is the Academy’s. Instead we react to pressure. One Governor even went as far as suggesting we don’t admit a single white male to the Academy, regardless of merit!

We have failed to the move the Oscars into the modern age, despite decades of increased competition and declining ratings. Instead we have kept to the same number of awards, which inherently means a long and boring show, and over the past decade we have nominated so many smaller independent films that the Oscars feel like they should be handed out in a tent. Big is not inherently bad and small is not inherently good. Moving into the modern age does not mean competing with the Emmys for non-theatrical features.

We have failed to solve the problems of the Museum, which is ridiculously over its initial budget and way past its original opening date. Despite having the best of the best inside the Academy membership, we have ignored the input of our Governors and our members.

We have failed our employees. Over the past seven years, we have watched dedicated employees of the Academy be driven out or leave out of frustration. Certainly, some freshening of an organization is a good thing, but that doesn’t seem the case here; this seems more like a “purge” to stifle debate and support management as opposed to the needs of the Academy.

We have failed to provide leadership. Yes, that includes the Presidency, which with a one year term creates instability, but moreover the CEO role has become much broader and far-reaching, and the results are erratic at best. It also includes 54 Board of Governors, which is so large it makes decision-making difficult and makes it way too easy for the silent majority to stay silent.

Many of the problems I’m talking about come not from malfeasance but rather from the silence of too many Governors. A vocal few people are insistent that the problems are not really problems or would be too damaging to the Academy to admit. Not facing your problems means you are not addressing those issues and, guess what, problems don’t go away — they simmer under the surface and, if anything, get worse.

You can’t hide the drainage of employees, the cataclysmic decline in the Oscar ratings, the fact that no popular film has won in over a decade; that we decided to play Moral Police and most probably someone inside the Academy leaked confidential information in order to compromise the President; that the Board doesn’t feel their voice is being heard with regard to the Museum; that we have allowed the Academy to be blamed for things way beyond our control and then try to do things which are not in our purview (sexual harassment, discrimination in the Industry).

Perhaps I’m wrong about all of this and if so my resignation will simply make things better. If that’s the case, so be it. If it’s not, then I truly hope the majority of Governors will take action. Check in with our membership and get their input. If they respond as many have with me, then change the leadership of the Academy and put the Academy’s interests above any personal likes or dislikes.

Respectfully,

Bill Mechanic

IndieWire has reached out to the Academy for comment.

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