This election could change the Oscars: Spielberg and 103 others set out to woo an angry Academy

The election is around the corner, and just about everywhere you go in town, you’ll find pockets of disaffected voters angry that their representatives aren’t listening to them.

Only the names on this ballot aren’t Trump and Clinton. Instead, they’re Spielberg and Babyface.

Four months after the film academy enacted sweeping, controversial changes to its membership, the organization is having its first open election for its board of governors, and the results could affect everything from the makeup of Oscar categories to the makeup of the academy itself.

Before this year, candidates for the governors board had to be vetted by a committee to run. The academy’s changes now allow members to start a campaign with a mere mouse click, leading to a crush of contenders across its 17 branches.

Twelve directors, including Spielberg, are running for incumbent Kathryn Bigelow's spot in that branch. Thirty-two visual effects artists are vying for a seat, as are 21 musicians (including Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, producer of the "Waiting to Exhale" soundtrack) and 40 members of the public relations branch.

"You look at the numbers and you think, 'Well, this is either pent-up frustration with how the current group is running things or maybe just a lot of people who want to say they're an academy governor,' " says Bruce Feldman, a longtime member running for the public relations spot.

Feldman and several other candidates have criticized the way the academy's current board of governors responded to the #OscarsSoWhite backlash in January.

To recap: Shortly after the actors branch produced an all-white set of Oscar nominees for a second straight year, the academy announced sweeping changes designed to double the number of female and minority members by 2020 and take away voting rights from members who had not remained active in the film industry.

"It was somehow blaming the membership, making it seem as if we were racist," says filmmaker Stuart Gordon, a candidate for the directors branch. "The whole thing seemed to be based on fear and political correctness. That's why I'm running. I feel the academy is in a crisis situation now."

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Many academy members agree, believing the organization’s new initiatives are ill-conceived and ageist. Stripping longtime, qualified members of their voting privileges was, in the words of composer William Goldstein, a music branch member running for governor, "gutless and guilt-ridden, a capitulation to the PC police."

Since January, the academy's leadership has responded to the outcry by refining and clarifying what it means to be "active." Now, members who have worked in the last decade or at any point during three 10-year periods will retain their voting rights. And eligibility will begin with their first credit, not, as originally detailed, the year they joined the academy.

"One minute they're getting rid of the old members and the next they're back-pedaling," Feldman says. "They wouldn't have had to do that if they had just asked people what they thought in the first place."

With few now destined to lose their voting rights and most members on board with the academy's diversity initiative, the residual anger directed toward the current board seems to have subsided. However, one member, speaking off the record so as not to jeopardize working relationships, believes there is a significant number of people who still won't be satisfied until every member of the current board "has their heads lopped off."

That visceral figure of speech aside, most members guess that the incumbents from the academy's 17 branches -- one of whom comes up for election each year -- have the usual built-in advantage of winning re-election.

The 54 film academy governors -- three each from the group’s 17 branches, plus three at-large spots -- meet several times each year, directing, in the words of the academy’s website, “strategic vision.” In addition to voting for new members, which affects makeup of the academy, governors also are involved in things like expanding (and contracting) the size of the best picture Oscar category and planning for the ambitious academy movie museum.

 

On the academy's website, the scores of declared governors candidates have the option of providing qualifications and campaign statements. Many have done neither; fewer still have made any reference to the controversy of the preceding months.

"I really think most members are on board with the way the leadership is trying to make a difference," says composer Laura Karpman, who joined the academy last year and is running for governor.

Karpman, one of the few women in the music branch, which according to a 2016 Times analysis skews 92% male, believes the academy should be leading the way in promoting the profiles and opportunities for women and minorities in film.

"We should be all about changing perceptions," says Karpman, president of the Alliance for Women Film Composers.

Moving forward, academy members are now being asked to vote for four candidates within their own branch. The runoff results, which are not posted publicly, will be announced to members on June 17. From there, each branch will choose one of the remaining four candidates. The academy will reveal  the winners on July 21.

Candidates, including the likes of Laura Dern, James L. Brooks and Pixar and Disney Animation President Ed Catmull, won't be pounding the pavement like the current presidential contenders, though some aren't above making the kind of pie-in-the-sky promises that politicians adore. (PR branch candidate Santiago Pozo wants to add an Oscar category for marketing.)

Mostly, members say, prospective governors will be calling seven or eight friends, asking that they call seven or eight friends and so on. With so many names on most branches' ballots, rocking the vote will be key for candidates looking to make the final round of four.

"It's a little crazy, looking at all the names," Karpman says, "but I also think it's great that there's such an interest in getting involved. We're artists. The academy should be a vibrant place."

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