At Hollywood’s Film Academy, Secrecy Crept In Through The Years

Pop Oscars. Off-screen awards. A host-free ceremony. What will they think of next at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?

In truth, it’s hard to know, because the Academy has been fairly successful in dropping a veil of secrecy over its internal deliberations. The next agenda, who backs whom, and who supports what are all treated as confidential matters by the 57-member Board of Governors, and its large staff of helpers. What passes for transparency is the occasional “Dear Member” email, usually sent after a policy has been set. Committee debates are closely held. Missteps, as with the abortive push to move some Oscar awards off the live telecast, only become apparent when members protest a change that’s already on the way.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t always so—at least, not officially. A bit of research at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick library makes clear that administrative secrecy was not part of the original Academy set-up. Rather, it crept in through the years as successive generations of officials found it prudent to tell members, and the public, less about their internal affairs.

As nearly as I can tell, the earliest Academy by-laws on file at the library, from 1927, don’t say a word about confidentiality. Instead, with an openness that seems remarkable for secret-prone Hollywood, they mandate an annual membership meeting, to be held at 8 p.m. on the fourth Saturday of October, with an order of business that could actually be “changed by a vote of the majority of the active and associate members present.”

Even more fascinating than that wide-open approach to institutional democracy were the workings of what the early Academy called its “Conciliation Committee.” The panel was charged with hearing “all complaints which may be made to it against members of the Academy,” and was also empowered to “hear complaints against other members of the motion picture industry.” Strange though it seems to imagine the Academy fielding gripes against non-members, it’s interesting that the goal was not—as with the current abuse hearings—to rule on expulsion, but, instead, to effect conciliation. Decisions, the by-laws noted, were not compulsory. But, the rules said, “it is the full expectation and belief of the charter members of the Academy that, having in mind the ideals upon which the Academy is founded, all members of the Academy as well as members of the motion picture industry in general will cooperate in showing allegiance to the spirit of arbitration.”

Apparently, however, it was through the conciliation mechanism that confidentiality first worked its way into the by-laws. By 1930, an amended version, citing libel concerns, declared that all communications with that particular committee would be “privileged.”

Based on the record at the Herrick, it was not until a Nov. 15, 1940, revision of the 1939 by-laws that confidentiality was mandated for Academy elections. Article V, Section 2, of the by-laws now bluntly declared: “All voting in Academy elections shall be by secret ballot.”

Given the hard feelings that can be triggered by an election among peers at close quarters, the rule made sense, and it has remained in effect ever since. But as late as the 2011 by-laws revision, there was still no clear rule forbidding governors to tell outsiders what they were doing in the board room. That appears to have come only on July 30, 2013, on the same day that Cheryl Boone Isaacs was elected to the Academy presidency. Under amended by-laws approved on that date, a new Article 4, Section 4, said: “In accepting membership on the board, each member shall accept responsibility for maintaining the confidentiality of Board matters and acting in an appropriate manner to prevent the unauthorized disclosure of information. In the event of a violation of this obligation, the Board shall have the right to impose such sanctions as it deems appropriate.”

The prohibition was broad. Who might do the authorizing was unclear. The penalties were open-ended. And the effect, as felt by those of us who for years had reported on the Academy, was immediate. Those candid, thoughtful conversations with the likes of Tom Sherak, Sidney Ganis, and Hawk Koch—all past Academy presidents—were at an end. Boone Isaacs, a publicity and marketing executive by trade, was not unwilling to communicate. But she was far more careful, apparently making sure not to commit a now-forbidden “unauthorized disclosure.”

Her successor, John Bailey, was more careful still. And that’s where things stand today. According to the latest available by-laws, dated June 23, 2018, the prohibition remains.

But it needn’t last forever.

In the coming weeks a new board will elect a new president.  Maybe they should take a hard look at Article IV, Section 4. Maybe, just maybe, the Academy’s fast-growing roster of members—paying ever-higher dues, and facing ever more complicated industry issues– is entitled to an openness they enjoyed not so long ago.

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