Oscar: Academy–Functions beyond Oscar

In its first years, the Academy regarded itself as a labor organization that represented the interests of all talent groups. As such, it was neither limited to the production studios nor to any particular creative group. However, since the studios were instrumental in creating the Academy, film artists feared that the Academy would become the studios’ stronghold and thus control and restrict the other talent groups.

Most people relate to the Oscar Awards and to the Oscar show interchangeably. For them, the Academy’s raison d’etre is to bestow the Oscars. The Academy is deemed an organization that “comes to life” once a year for the “Oscar season.” Few are aware of the Academy’s other functions, which ambitiously included conducting cooperative research; providing common meeting grounds for the various film arts and crafts; serving as an impartial clearing house of records and statistics; cooperating in educational activities between the public and the film industry.

The AMPAS has always emphasized its public and cultural roles. One important goal was to create a forum in which artists of various expertises would exchange ideas. In the 1929 show, a Stanford University professor invited Academy members to visit the school. Then, long before film studies became a discipline, Dean of USC enthused about the school’s relatively new course, titled “Introduction to Photoplay.”

The Academy would not let the public forget its aims aside from “recognizing outstanding achievements.” The board reminded the public that the Academy was conceived as “an honorary association,” whose “prime object is to advance the arts and sciences of motion pictures and to foster cooperation among the creative leadership of the industry for cultural, educational, and technological progress.”

Publications

The Academy publishes “The Players Directory,” a major casting tool with lists of actors and actresses. The Players Directory, the casting bible of the industry since its inception in 1937, moved its offices in January 2002 from the AMPAS’s headquarters in Beverly Hills to Vine Street in Hollywood. There’s also an online version of “The Players Directory.” Taking full advantage of the Internet’s immediacy, enlisted actors now have the ability to update virtually all of their contacts, credits, representation and union affiliation information on a daily basis. As a result of the increased tendency of casting people to use the Internet-based version, the printed version of the Directory is now published only twice (instead of three times) each year.

Other publications include “The Screen Achievement Records Bulletin,” which serves as a guide for individuals and organizations, and “Who Wrote the Movie,” which enlists screenwriters and screenplays, and is prepared in collaboration with the Writers Guild.

Academy Foundation

Affiliated with the Academy of Motion Pictures is the Academy Foundation, which sponsors educational and cultural activities, including scholarship programs, student film awards, and film preservation.

That the functions of the Academy were not entirely clear to its founders is apparent from the power struggle between the Academy and the Actors Equity Association (founded in 1911) over the issue of representation. The matter was unclear, because many players came from the New York stage and thus were Equity members. The Academy won the battle in 1929, when it announced a contract for freelance actors, the first standardized contract to arbitrate disagreements.

The Academy managed, as Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund have observed, “to forestall serious labor organizing among the Hollywood artists for five years,” up to the creation of the various screen guilds. AMPAS was a strange association: on the one hand, it lacked enforcement procedures for its labor code, but on the other, of all talent groups, it represented best the interests of the production companies. Even so, as a labor organization, the Academy was innovative in structure and ambition, aiming to give equal representation to both employers (studio executives) and employees (artists and craftsmen).

Major Crisis

The AMPAS faced a major crisis in 1933, when President Roosevelt signed the National Industry Recovery Act, which suspended antitrust laws and allowed industries to regulate themselves through “fair competition.” The talent groups were concerned that the code would increase the studio’s control over them, which it did. The studios used the Recovery Act as an excuse to reduce salaries. The Academy attempted to mediate, but the resulting compromise, which stipulated that the reductions would be temporary, pleased no one. The studios withdrew their support from the Academy, and, as a counter-measure, the talent groups–writers, actors, directors–formed their own guilds.

SAG: Screen Actors Guild

In October 1933, Several Hollywood stars–James Cagney, Jeanette MacDonald, Gary Cooper, Paul Muni–met at the house of Frank Morgan and founded the Screen Actors Guild. Like the writers before them, the actors resigned from the Academy. Fredric March, winner of Best Actor, was elected one of the Guild’s vice presidents, and two former acting nominees were also selected: V.P. Adolphe Menjou and third v.p. Ann Harding.

The SAG President Eddie Cantor spent Thanksgiving with President Franklin Roosevelt and persuaded him to remove some of the anti-labor provisions from the producers’ code via executive order. Cantor calmed down the creative community, but members continued to regard the producer-dominated Academy with suspicion.

Large numbers of the talent groups left the Academy in protest. The main dispute was over the authority to represent talent groups in their labor negotiations with the studios. The SAG accused the AMPAS of trying to jeopardize the possibility of an organization representing the interests of actors. As a result, Academy membership was reduced dramatically, and its very existence threatened. Those remaining were described by Frank Capra, then AMPAS President, as “very staunch Academy-oriented visionaries, dedicated to the cultural recognition and preservation that has become the Academy’s strong card.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bank holiday, on March 5, 1933, was a severe blow to Hollywood, as most of the studios were operating on credit alone. The AMPAS’s labor-negotiating wing formed an Emergency Committee, which recommended a 50 percent pay cut for all studio employees for two months.

AMPAS revised its recommendations so that a sliding percentage of cuts would spare the lower-income employees, but the deal didn’t satisfy writers. In retaliation, the scribes formed the Screen Writers Guild on April 6, 1933. The writer-members all resigned from AMPAS. But other groups decided to try the Academy’s pay cut.

When Sam Goldwyn and Jack Warner refused to restore full salaries at the end of the two months period, the Academy audited their books and showed solvency, which led to more resignations.

Conrad Nagel resigned as Academy’s president, to be replaced by J. Theodore Reed, an assistant director at Paramount. Under Reed’s leadership, AMPAS adopted a new policy: “The Academy as a whole will be free from politics, and any taint of self-preservation in office.”

In October 1933, the Motion Picture Committee, of which the Academy president was a member, announced its new regulatory code, approved by the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The code put a ceiling on the salaries of writers, actors, directors, though not on studio executives. It stated, among other things, that artists could not accept bids from other studios when their contract were up for renewal until the original studio had definitely decided not to renew them.

Neither SAG nor WGA had forgiven the Academy for siding with the producers over the NRA controversy the year before. SAG’s bulletin, Screen Player, denounced the Academy as “policing the industry by an oligarchy. Membership in SAG, which required resignation from the AMPAS, had increased. As a result, the Acting Branch was reduced substantially: It’s estimated that in 1934, less than 100 actors made the nominations.

On May 27, 1935, the Supreme Court declared Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act unconstitutional. The SAG asked its members to boycott the eighth banquet, on March 5, 1936, and indeed, only a few members attended the awards ceremonies. But despite conflicts and resignations that have shaken the Academy during past year, celebrities attended the show. Several of the guilds’ members were nominated, despite the resignations: Writer Frances Marion for Original Story for The Prizefighter and the Lady, and actor Paul Muni for I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.

Labor strikes continued, but under Capra’s leadership, the Academy survived. In 1939, the Guilds won the battle, and Academy membership began to grow under a newly structured Constitution, which was “noneconomic and nonpolitical in theory and in fact.” From then on, the focus of the Academy became cultural and educational–not always by choice.

The debate over AMPAS’s historical significance continues. Some critics think that the Academy was a major force in industrial relations, because it helped artists to obtain standard contracts. They emphasize that, while AMPAS was not exactly a labor union (as some wished it to be), it introduced the principle of collective bargaining, which was later adopted by the Guilds.

Needless to say, the Academy didn’t fulfill all of its original targets. And it’s doubtful whether the Academy Awards have contributed “to raising the standard of production,” as intended. But the Academy succeeded in elevating the status of film as a medium among the more respected arts, which was a major goal.