“Below-the-line” trumping “above-the-line”? Was that the real story behind the story in this week’s historic election of Cheryl Boone Isaacs as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the first African American and only the third woman to win the prestigious post? I heard this theory from a very above-the-line member of the Academy’s Board Of Governors who suggests privately that it was the below-the-line Governors who made it happen. Of course, the Academy doesn’t reveal vote totals for any of their elections (including the Oscars). Nor demographic breakdowns of those votes. However, an electoral triumph powered by the below-the-line members of the Board would not be surprising.
The fact is the Motion Picture Academy’s Board Of Governors, along with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Board Of Governors, are in terms of sheer numbers dominated by what the industry fondly refers to as below-the-line Governors. Other than the marquee actors, writers, directors, producers and executive branches, the movie academy’s below-the-line representation on the board far outnumbers the above-the-liners by a margin of more than 3-to-1. And that will only increase once the three Governors for the newly approved Casting Directors branch are elected this Fall, bringing the total number of Govs to 51. Actors, directors and powerful executives (i.e. studio heads) may be higher profile, but their branch is given the exact same number of Governors – and votes – as any other. This is true democracy at work here, a shocker in showbiz.
Now, some media have speculated that Boone Isaacs, who has served in every elected office at the Academy in her two decades on the Board, won because she is a woman and/or African American. Particularly with the Academy’s very public move toward diversity and away from the “old white man’s club” image which has been changing at a faster pace in recent years with past-Presidents Sid Ganis, Tom Sherak and Hawk Koch and now also has a record 14 women on its Board. That’s a convenient way to characterize this election but it’s hardly the truth. The Academy doesn’t work that way. To that end I was struck by something Ganis told the media after this week’s results were known: “This Academy is now represented across the board. Both above-the-line people and below-the-line people are now running the organization. That’s how it should be. That’s what it takes to make a movie. (Like Boone Issaacs, marketing exec-turned-producer Ganis also rose from the PR branch to become President.)
At any rate the Academy’s election this week was, as Ganis suggests, a big triumph for the below-the-line side of the ledger as make-up artist Leonard Engelman and costume designer Jeffrey Kurland were both elected Vice Presidents of the organization, joining above-the-line officers John Lasseter (First VP), Dick Cook (Treasurer) and Phil Robinson (Secretary). And with the election of Boone Isaacs as President, that “line” has definitely been crossed. How can that not be a good thing for the industry?
Even though Boone Isaacs represented a below-the-line branch (Public Relations), she is the ultimate Academy insider and has diligently worked her way up through the ranks to the top job. Those who are against radical change know she is not likely to rock the boat. I don’t think her main rival for the job, Lionsgate movie chief Rob Friedman, would have rocked anything either. But below-the-line Governors who may have felt their position within the Oscarcast threatened could feel comfortable that Boone Isaacs would not be in favor of kicking their category off the telecast or presenting their Oscars in a much lower-profile manner - proposals always suggested every year but never gains traction on the Board.
There’s a simple fact for that: those Governors whose crafts would be the most endangered – set designers, cinematographers, costume designers, short film makers etc. – have an aggregated voting power that far outdistances the actors, writers, directors and producers whose categories would never be touched. And Boone Issacs has been vocal about keeping the status quo. When I brought up the possibility in our interview Wednesday, she didn’t hesitate to say that was a non-starter. “No. That’s a simple no,” she said, confirming that all 24 categories will continue to be presented on the Oscars as they always have.
Though Friedman is in a position to give many of these below-the-line Governors actual jobs, the perception might have been that someone with his level of power in the industry would be more open to pushing through changes unpopular with many on the Board. I don’t think he, nor anyone in his kind of job, would necessarily ever do that. Ironically though a studio head he’s a Governor for the PR branch, just like Boone Isaacs. One well-known producer I spoke with told me after the election: “I am very happy for Cheryl. I think it’s great. But I am really surprised it wasn’t Rob,” I also heard that from other members who just assumed the person with the more powerful job would win. But the times, they are a changin’ – and that obviously includes the Academy.