When producer and former studio executive Bill Mechanic resigned from his position on the motion picture academy’s 54-member board of governors last week, he didn’t exactly go quietly.
Instead, he laid out what he sees as the organization’s leadership failures in a blistering letter addressed to academy president John Bailey. When that letter subsequently was leaked to the press yesterday, it revealed deep cracks that lie hidden behind the glittering facade of the movie industry’s most venerable organization.
In his letter, Mechanic, 67, took aim at some of the most sensitive issues the academy faces. The producer of films including “Coraline” and “Hacksaw Ridge” questioned the group’s ongoing campaign to diversify its ranks in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, saying it has “settled on numeric answers to the problem of inclusion.” He criticized its handling of the response to the wave of sexual harassment scandals that have rocked the industry, arguing the academy “decided to play Moral Police.”
“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),” he wrote.
Mechanic also highlighted the well-documented problems with the academy’s museum project, which has gone over budget and over schedule. He argued the group has “failed to move the Oscars into the modern age,” calling the annual telecast — which he himself co-produced in 2010 — “long and boring.” And he urged the board to “change the leadership” if the group’s members share his views.
How the academy chooses to respond to Mechanic’s criticism remains to be seen. In a statement on Tuesday, the academy thanked him for his five years of service on the board representing the executive branch. On Wednesday, it announced his seat would be filled by former Warner Bros. distribution executive Daniel Fellman.
The Times spoke with Mechanic by phone on Wednesday afternoon to further explore both his criticisms of and his hopes for an organization for which, as he wrote in his letter, he still has “great love and respect.”
I imagine it’s been an interesting couple of days for you.
It’s been maybe a week of it. I essentially resigned on Monday the 9th, and they asked me to cool off. So it’s been a little crazy, but mostly today it’s just emails and stuff from people.
Were you surprised that your resignation letter leaked out? And do you have any idea how that happened?
I have a high level of curiosity of who did that. It’s inappropriate. But am I completely surprised? No. There are way too many leaks from the academy, both on good things and bad things. It wasn’t beyond the pale that that would happen.
What was the straw that broke the camel’s back for you? What was it that made you decide to go ahead and resign from the board?
I think it’s all in there [in the letter]. I didn’t shy away from saying why. Everything in there, I have raised and been shut down on.
But was there one final thing that pushed you over the edge?
The final thing that pushed me over the edge is I went back to incite change and to get a better academy, and I did not feel like I was successful at all.
What kind of response did you get to your resignation from the academy’s president, John Bailey, CEO Dawn Hudson and other board members?
Well, I didn’t hear from the people who hate me so I don’t know. From the people who tolerate me, I think there is either sadness, regret or they wanted me to not do it.
But some of those things that I disagreed with — they represent my point of view. They don’t represent everyone else’s.
Did you get a direct response from Bailey or Hudson?
I haven’t spoken to Dawn. I have spoken to John. There are a lot of people inside and outside who think that the issues are reasonable issues, that the academy is not being well run. It’s a bit knee-jerk, and it’s trying to figure out what it wants to be.
I talk to members — if I voiced my dissatisfaction inside the board, I certainly have voiced it outside, too. I had to limit it, which is one of the reasons I left, because I’m not a governor now and I don’t have to protect what I’m saying. But the members that I spoke to are ignored. It’s an organization that is not run for its membership.
You also refer in your letter to frustration among the academy’s staff and you say that the leadership has failed them.
Well, half of it’s gone because half of the people have been pushed out or left. When you’re rebuilding, sometimes old organizations need to be refreshed, so there’s no question that sometimes there has to be movement to move ahead. It’s the same as in sports — you can’t be the same team every year. But there’s also institutional memory, and there are people whose loyalty and skill set are matched. Those are people who you want to keep.
Given who’s on the board now, what’s your sense of how many people feel the same level of frustration that you do?
That I don’t know. I don’t know.
I’ve seen some reactions to your letter on social media that essentially say, “Bill Mechanic seems to want the academy to go backward” because of what you wrote about the academy’s diversity campaign and its reaction to the #MeToo movement.
No, no. I got asked by somebody from the press before the letter got out, did I resign because of the #MeToo thing, and I’m like, “Are you nuts?” So no. I probably did as much hiring of women — when I was at Disney [where Mechanic was an executive from 1984 to 1994], I had 50% female executives. I probably have had as many female directors, made female-based movies, black movies. … My record is public.
It’s not like I’m against inclusion or I’m against diversity or I’m against having movies reflect the culture. Actually, I think they should. The biggest moviegoing audiences are Hispanic and black and Asian more than white.
What I was against was this pendulum. Sometimes in Hollywood people want to do good things, and sometimes if you’re not watching what you’re doing, good things can become bad things.
When it comes to the diversity issue, you argue in the letter that “it’s the industry’s problem far, far more than it is the academy’s.”
Right. When you’re hiring and firing and you have a chance to make a difference, if you’re not making a difference, then you’re part of the problem. But the academy doesn’t have that chance. There are programs that the academy can help foster to provide leadership in hiring and training. But it doesn’t make movies.
And in your view, when it comes to the harassment issue, it shouldn’t be policing its members’ behavior. Why not?
The academy has no right to be in people’s lives. It’s not its role and it has no skill in it and it’s not set up for it. And then the first time they even do anything [with an allegation that surfaced against Bailey, which was ultimately dismissed], they not only stub their toe, they allowed somebody to weaponize it.
That’s what I’m against. I’m against bad behavior of any kind. But I’m definitely not trying to go backwards.
Still, there is obviously a lot of sensitivity around these issues, and there are many people both within the academy and outside of it who actually think the academy needs to be doing even more, not less, to address them.
Right, there is definitely. I understand that. And there are people who should be informed people who still believe that.
Maybe a parallel is baseball in 1947 broke the color barrier. Until 1947 that meant there were no black or Hispanic players in the Hall of Fame. Is the Hall of Fame prejudiced, or was baseball prejudiced and racist? I would say it’s major league baseball that was racist. And how did it change? Major league baseball changed their rules. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. But you can’t undo pre-1947, and you can’t blame the Hall for not inviting in players because there were no players.
It’s a little different with the academy, but it’s the same sort of thing. You want to change the industry.
The academy is very protective of its image and its traditions, and that’s reflected in the Oscar telecast. You said in your letter that the show has become “long and boring.” With the ratings hitting an all-time low this year, do you think there’s a recognition among the leadership that there’s a fundamental problem with the Oscars?
I think there is a partial recognition. Do I think it’s 100%? No. Will anybody do anything about it? I don’t know. There’s a lot of resistance to change.
In 1927, I think there were like four awards or something. But each time something is added, you almost never see anything subtracted. The only thing I remember that was subtracted was the award for color when color [became standard] . Some of the awards probably should either go away or not be done on the air, because, having produced [the Oscars telecast], you can’t have a three-and-a-half-hour show that is two things: boring and political.
A lot of the issues you raise in your letter ultimately rest at Dawn Hudson’s feet as CEO of the academy. You stop just short in your letter of calling for her to be replaced, and she has two years left on her current contract. But do you think that her leadership should be openly questioned at this point?
That’s not my job now.
What about John Bailey? Do you think he has his arms around these issues?
I think there’s a learning curve and John is in that learning curve. But I think he has the mission of the academy in his heart, so that’s a good start.
So how do you feel about the fact that this letter is public now? Many of these issues have been raised before but rarely if ever so bluntly by someone on the inside.
I don’t know. I think being honest is a good thing. It’s sometimes a difficult thing. I have personally paid a price sometimes for being too honest. But I also just think that that’s the right thing to do. The country would be better if the president wasn’t lying all the time, you know?
I think the fact that you have problems doesn’t mean that you’re an idiot. It doesn’t mean that you have to fail. It means you have something you have to fix. And if you don’t even address your problems, you’re not fixing them. I would say I’m diametrically opposed to the position of not owning up to where there’s issues.