When 76-year-old cinematographer John Bailey was elected to the presidency of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, he did so by promising to serve his supporters — the crafts. This week, they turned on him, which was the last thing he ever expected.
The AMPAS Board of Governors is a collection of three high-profile leaders from each of 17 branches, plus three more minority reps, Bailey, and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson. Put 54 voices in a room, and you’re herding cats. Many board members complain it’s impossible to make decisions with so many dissenting opinions. (Bill Mechanic, Kathleen Kennedy, and Cheryl Boone Isaacs are among past governors who have voluntarily stepped down.) Some have suggested a smaller board might help to solve the problem, reducing the reps to two for each branch.
In any case, Bailey didn’t know what he was stepping into when he took the job. An alpha male accustomed to walking onto a set with authority, he has tried to lead the Academy. But getting an unwieldy group to reach a consensus has proved to be a challenge. Bailey lacks media skills: An hour after a cordial interview in Telluride, Bailey walked by like he’d never met me.
A year later, in a phone interview, I congratulated him for backing down on his push for a Best Popular Film category; he responded by becoming apoplectic. He had not realized (until it was too late) that not defining it at the outset would prove hazardous, leaving everyone free to speculate and fear the worst. The membership pushback was intense. At a recent Academy Museum event, seething ex-Variety editor Peter Bart told Bailey in a crowded elevator that he was the rudest man he’d ever met. Bailey had no idea who he was.
“The concept of these awards is not an iconic ritual enacted year after year in the same way,” Bailey told me in September. “The history of the Academy and this award is a constantly moving entity, awards have been added and dropped, branches have been added and dropped. It’s a living entity, as is the entire concept of any art form, especially motion pictures, by virtue of being so technologically defined.”
Many of the 2019 Oscar producers’ attempts to modernize the show with a shorter three-hour program also proved short-lived. They suggested performing two out of the five songs (Lady Gaga turned that around), or not having last year’s acting winners present this year’s acting awards. It turns out there is respect for tradition, after all. Who could take that honor away from Allison Janney?
Each time, the incubator for dissent was Film Twitter, a place where diehard film and Oscar show fans debate, analyze and foment discord. Once something gets started there, it disseminates — fast. In the case of Kevin Hart, old offensive homophobic tweets were new again. In this case, Academy CEO Dawn Hudson made the phone call telling Hart to apologize or else, not realizing he would bail. (Some kind of arrangement might have been brokered.) What could be more important than hosting the Oscars? Hart’s fans, who had attracted the Academy in the first place.
Editing down many of the crafts acceptance speeches taped live during the commercial breaks, rotating the ones who get to accept live each year, was first floated back in August; back then, it was overshadowed by the Best Popular Film debate. Bailey, convinced he could lead by example, showed all the craft branches what the short clip of an acceptance speech would look like — and the governors all agreed to go along.
It was only when he named the actual categories (including his own Cinematography and his Governor wife Carol Littleton’s Editing) that the shit hit the fan. When last year’s Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro and this year’s Oscar nominee Alfonso Cuarón took to Twitter in protest, their followers took note. Russell Crowe weighed in to his millions of followers, thinking, as many did, that the categories were being excised altogether.
Again, messaging was the issue. The change wasn’t communicated properly, turning into a PR disaster that burgeoned out of control. A careful rolling out of the plan, with assistance from the press, might have provided a clear and soft landing for the shift. But Bailey just popped off an email to the members, which many didn’t understand. Often, once things start to go south, momentum continues downhill.
“This bad management team doesn’t handle anything well,” said one Academy crafts voter. “It’s really upsetting to me, they’re so incompetent about things like the emcee, how that was handled. Now we don’t have an emcee. Those musical numbers suck. Songs are not designed as musical numbers; they’re designed to show in a film. When you pluck it out of that context for a ridiculous song and dance routine, they drag the show down.”
Several Academy voters agreed that everyone was on board with the edited Oscar speech prototype shown to craft branches. They understood the need to shorten the show and boost ratings. The Cinematography and Editing branches took the lead in an effort to be magnanimous. The plan was to present the four awards during an early commercial break and broadcast the edited montage of the acceptance speeches (in their entirety) in the last third of the show. “You would barely notice,” said a costume designer.
But the metastasizing protest was not going to stop and a letter initially signed by top directors and cinematographers, including Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino and Roger Deakins, grew to more than 650 signatures as it was publicized. At that point, the Academy sent out an email laying out more details and insisting the crafts would be treated with respect — and blamed the press and social media for the PR problem. And producer Donna Gigliotti insisted that no speech would be cut if they stayed inside their 90-second lane.
What Bailey did not expect, I’m told, was dissension from his own branch. The cinematographers broke ranks under pressure from the ASC, which had given Bailey a Lifetime Achievement Award. Needless to say, this humiliation was more than Bailey ever bargained for. And he’s very upset. Academy insiders expected everyone to follow Bailey’s lead.
“He got beat up,” said one governor. “Who knows if the show will be three hours long? It’s the great movies, and the show Glenn Weiss and Donna Gigliotti are going to do, that matter.”
It’s doubtful that any heavy hitters threatened to pull out of the Oscar show, although plenty of members complained to the Academy, far and wide. The mounting pressure from the backlash persuaded the Academy to finally relent.
“It’s very gratifying to know that people who have devoted their entire adult lives to their crafts won’t be shunted aside,” said one grateful editor who was prepared to not vote for the Oscars in protest this year but will now.
One thing’s for certain: Bailey won’t be dealing with this next year, since the governor limits mean his term will be up this summer. The question now is, who wants to sign up for this nonsense going forward?
Bill Desowitz contributed to this story.