It’s mid-January, which means we’re smack in the middle of Oscar season. For the next few weeks, lasting until the Academy Award ceremony on February 26th, we film nuts will have to choose whether we will be mildly amused, blindingly annoyed, or willing to whimsically play along with the chunky tidal wave of Oscar glut pouring our way like so much fetid spaghetti sauce. It’s not until the ceremony is over, and the shock begins to wear off, that we’ll be able to look at movies clearly again. We’ll be able to take a deep breath, sober up, and judge whether or not the film awarded Best Picture the night before was really worthy of such an honor, or if we’ll have a crippling case of buyer’s remorse (Really? Crash? What were we thinking?). Your eyes will be sore from ogling your favorite actors and actresses in their finest (?) evening ware, and your brain will be sorely echoing with the phrase “I would like to thank the Academy.”
As a kid, I never knew what that last phrase meant. For a while, I suspected each actor went to an acting academy of some sort, and their acting school – in showbiz jargon – was always called “the academy.” It wasn’t until I was a teenager who actually bothered to pick up the occasional issue of Variety that I learned about The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, or AMPAS, as it’s commonly referred to in print.
Welcome, my dear students, to the latest installment of CraveOnline’s Free Film School, taught by me, your film-saturated professor, Witney Seibold. This week, in conjunction with all the Oscar hubbub, I have decided to give you and important history lesson, this time on the founding and the function of The Academy.
First off, AMPAS should not be confused with the Motion Picture Association of America. The MPAA is an autonomous body that is in charge of feature films’ content ratings. They’re the ones who approve previews. I have written about the MPAA rating system in the past, and I encourage you to look it over it.
The Academy is, by contrast, not run by consumer interest groups, but entirely manned by film professionals. It is, I suppose at its heart, a gigantic filmmakers’ union, that fights for and exhibits movies, and tries to extend a hand into the world to teach people about film, film preservation, and film history. They also explore new film technologies, and have some of the best screening rooms in the world. They don’t fund private filmmaking enterprises, they don’t directly teach any classes, and are not (at least on paper) associated with any major studios. They often have free exhibits and screenings at their offices in Beverly Hills, CA, where I have seen a few films (the screening of Tommy in the only-ever-used-once quintophonic sound was a particular delight). Their actual function is, I admit, a bit nebulous. They’re not exactly a film school, but they kind of are. They certainly aid students by giving various grants and other forms of student aid to promising filmmakers. They archive certain films, and keep prints in good condition. But they don’t actually physically restore films (a job usually handled by outside film labs). They’re a union, but also a kind of particularly ritzy private library.
The Academy is also, of course, responsible for The Academy Awards, held every year, and often called the Prom Night of the Film Industry. You’ve seen Academy Award telecasts, no doubt, and can probably name several films to have won the Oscar for Best Picture. There are various apocryphal stories as to why the statuettes are called “Oscars,” the most popular of which is that an executive secretary likened the statue to her uncle Oscar. No one knows for sure. The Academy, which consists of about 6,000 members these days, are the body who votes for the Oscars. Just about every member of The Academy is a film professional of some kind. Special effects people, composers, camera technicians, directors, and actors all take part.
As far as I know, there is no requirement to see all of the films in any given year in order to nominate them, or even to see a film that has been nominated. I like to give The Academy the benefit of the doubt, and assume they know what they’re voting for, and that they’ve seen all the required films, and that they are a discerning crowd. Although there is, as with anything this high-profiled and well-moneyed, a lot of politicking going on. I always follow The Oscars, but I still don’t honestly see the Academy Awards as any sort of serious gauge of a year’s outstanding films. I have my own lists for that.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a body that stretched back to 1927. Back then, films were produced in a factory-like setting, and labor disputes were common. Since the industry (as we see it) was still somewhat new in 1927 (the motion picture camera only came into vogue after 1900), it was seen as a kind of uncouth pile of hardworking technicians hooked on camera technology and melodrama. Enter an enterprising and already-successful film producer named Louis B. Mayer (1884 – 1957). Mayer ran MGM for many years, and is often credited for founding the “star system” we still see in place today (indeed, the most recent B-Movies Extended was about the way the star system has changed). Along with two other big-name associates, Mayer spitballed the idea of a filmmaker’s club, complete with fancy-dress banquets, award shows, and an exclusive membership of industry professionals. The story goes that Mayer held an expensive gala dinner for about 36 people, where he unveiled his idea of an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It was met with applause, making all the people in the room de facto co-founding members of The Academy.
Amongst the people in that room are some names you might recognize: Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. DeMille, Jack and Harry Warner (The Warner Bros.), Harold Lloyd, Sid Grauman, and Mary Pickford. It was Fairbanks who was elected as the first president of The Academy. From then on, high-profile industry professionals would take turns running the institution. Over the years, the presidency has rested in the hands of many people you may know well. Frank Capra, Bette Davis, Gregory Peck, Robert Wise, and George Stevens have all been Academy presidents at one time or another. Members can be accepted into The Academy at any time, but only by invitation. And you must work in the industry. Film buffs, film students, and even know-it-all film critics like me are not allowed to join. The actual list of Academy members is not a matter of public record.
Okay, I know the way I describe it, the Academy can look like an elite, secretive, Elk’s style club, wherein only the wealthiest and most famous people hang out and spend their days watching movies and going to fancy-dress balls (which sounds kind of awesome, doesn’t it?). While there may be a slight twinge of veracity to that, I would rather you consider the following: in 1929, the AMPAS paired up with the university of Southern California (USC), to form the very first film school, a film school still in operation today, and still considered to be one of the nation’s better ones (although, according to scuttlebutt, NYU is a little better. No wait… Wait…! Put down that folding chair!).
The Academy, then, along with some forward-thinking school board associates, made sure that film was a science and an art form that could be taught in schools. The first film school was not founded by hard-working film fans, but by the experts themselves. Ernst Lubitsch and D.W. Griffith helped start it up. If there was any doubt in the world’s mind that film wasn’t here to stay, this action certainly codified it. Since then, millions have gone to various film schools, and film has become essentially the dominant art form of generations.
AMPAS has some of the more beautiful theaters in the world (and, let me assure any cynics: the quality of the movie theater can indeed impact your film-going experience; maybe someday I’ll write a Free Film School article on the topic). If you live in L.A. or New York, I encourage you to track down one of their theaters. The rare special screenings are typically free, and in high demand. The screens are of the best quality, the film prints are impeccably restored, and the sound is perfectly attuned. In addition to the screening mentioned above, I have seen Chuck Jones cartoon shorts in that theater. Seeing Bug Bunny’s antics on the big screen will make your heart beat hard against your ribcage. What a delight.
These days, The Academy has become so large that they have several governing bodies to cover the 15 film branches that operate under their auspices (the 15 branches include such disciplines as writing, directing, animated shorts, acting, sound design, and even film PR guys). You can find the names of the Governors of the separate bodies online. Again, you’ll likely recognize some names.
The Academy seems to be genuinely concerned with film itself. Not industry dollars, the image of actors, or (most certainly not) quality content. They seem to be taking the long view of American film history. They want to have a codified system for the best films, the people who are becoming legitimate household names, and those who can constantly work in a high-profile environment. And they want a library of the best. That is what the Oscars are for: forming an industry-sanctioned film library. There are many other bodies who form similar lists (the British Film Institute runs the “Sight & Sound” poll every 10 years, polling hundreds of writers, professionals and critics; there is indeed a government-sponsored National Film Registry in the Library of Congress), but The Academy is the only one run by the American industry professionals.
Is this a self-indulgent practice? After all, The Academy is essentially giving awards to themselves. I would say that it is, to a degree. I think most audiences, though, openly acknowledge the often-obvious conflicts of interest within the body, and dismiss them with a cheerful wave of the hand. After all, we’re the ones who like to watch the Oscar telecast; it claims billions of viewers every year. Every year, I wake up at 5 a.m. to listen for the announced nominees, and then I gather in large groups to watch the telecast. I have a great time every year, and I love to gossip, and revel, ever so briefly, in the wonderfully gross opulence of one of the world’s biggest industries. For that, I’d like to thank The Academy.
HOMEWORK FOR THE WEEK: Go to the AMPAS website, and look around for a bit. What do you think of The Academy? What function do they serve? Who is a member? If you live in L.A., it’s likely that you know an Academy member. Ask around and see if you know any. Ask to see their membership card. How closely do you follow the Oscars? Have you seen many of the nominated pictures over the years? What is the true gauge of a film’s quality?