‘Contagion’ Producer Michael Shamberg Urges Stronger Academy Crisis Response & Voices Concern Over Upcoming Oscar Ratings; Academy Responds
Editors’ Note: Michael Shamberg is a tenured AMPAS member whose name is often mentioned when it comes time to name a producer for the Oscarcast. His credits include Get Shorty, The Big Chill, Erin Brockovich, Out of Sight, Pulp Fiction, Gattaca, A Fish Called Wanda and many others. He has shared with Deadline an open letter he wrote the Academy to address several areas where he sees shortcomings. The Academy’s response appears below the letter. MF
WILL THE MOTION PICTURE ACADEMY SURVIVE COVID-19?
An open letter to the Academy Community
AMPAS is facing both a crisis of relevance and a financial crisis which threatens its survival. The Oscar ratings hit an all-time low this year (down 30% in 18-49 viewers) and the Academy’s annual budget is financed almost entirely by the Oscars license fee. Even if there is a truncated Oscars season, there may be no audience appetite next year for Hollywood to celebrate itself. At the same time, the Academy Museum is supposed to open in December when COVID-19 will reappear.
The movie and television industries are economically essential for 120,000 jobs in California and more across the country and around the world. Now is the time for the administration of the Academy to explain to us members their plans for the future and ask for our input.
The Academy has launched no initiatives to talk about critical industry issues since Covid-19 erupted.
1. How can production be done safely when Covid-19 is more manageable?
2. What kind of post-pandemic movies will people want?
3. How can we help jumpstart going to movie theaters again?
AMPAS has a Corporate Communications Strategy executive and pays for three outside PR firms but doesn’t have a Social Media Strategy executive. We are a community not a corporation. Communities connect online. The Academy is an epic fail as a 21st century social media institution. It doesn’t have a system to engage members in a two-way dialogue. Without a state of-the-art social media strategy, the Academy and its Awards have become irrelevant for the younger audience who stream movies and who are accustomed to daily online engagement with their Facebook feed and their favorite Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok accounts.
In fact, AMPAS has 78 members with social media followings of one million or more. Their combined audience is 1.2 billion! They’ve never been activated to communicate on behalf of the Academy.
The CEO, President and seven other officers of the Academy have a combined social media following of only 31,000. 83% of the most popular online Academy members are 40 and under. Only 6% of the Academy Board of Governors are 40 and under. (I’m 76 so I am not being ageist).
CEO’s of major brands have posted reassuring Covid-19 mission statement videos. Since the pandemic began, we members have gotten text-only emails without videos telling us “please know the work of the Academy and our agenda for the rest of the year continues” without explaining exactly what is that agenda during a once-in-a-century global pandemic? It can’t be business as usual. The Academy has launched no regular online inititiatives that speak to industry issues during our national emergency. Outside of a worthy $6,000,000 donation to local groups and one message of unity, the Academy has not organized any community dialogue using tools of the internet like member message boards, live streams, or an all member Zoom where we can ask questions of experts like a CNN Town Hall.
Just as there is a grammar of cinema there is a grammar of social media. That grammar is visual, two- way and personal. Sadly, the Academy’s social media is anodyne, stiff and institutional. During the pandemic, Academy posts have been lists of what movies to watch which is being done on dozens of other websites. Instagram posts are stills from old movies with no urgent connection to what’s happening now. They never get more than five figure “likes” which is trivial. Most Academy Tweets don’t even get a thousand likes. AMPAS has streamed only one movie (albeit a terrific one) – on Netflix – with no live host. No writer or director members have live streamed talks about their favorite films. The writer and director of my movie, Contagion, did an informational video about how to protect against Covid-19 (which I had nothing to do with) that was reposted by the Academy not initiated by it. Tom Hanks talked about recovering from the virus on SNL, not on AMPAS. The Academy never goes live on Instagram or does live AMA’s. The younger audience and their families are on TikTok but the Academy has never once posted on TikTok. Academy posts never go viral.
It is ironic that AMPAS doesn’t tell its own story very well because Academy members are the best storytellers in the world. The administration is like a hospital that doesn’t ask its own doctors for advice.
Here is what the Academy needs to do now:
1. Ask for help from members. Professionals from every branch can be organized into ad hoc committees to figure out how to reopen theaters, how to go safely back into production, how to communicate better. These meetings can be done on Zoom and open to the public.
2. Conduct a member survey. It’s time to ask all the members for ideas. If only 10% of the 9000+ members have a good idea that’s 900+ good ideas!
3. Announce a financial plan. What is sustainable AMPAS revenue in a troubled economy?
4. Appoint a Social Media Communication Strategy executive. Someone savvy about social media has to work fulltime to make the Academy a vital online destination.
5. Make the Academy Awards relevant again! Terrific Academy producers have been hamstrung by ABC’s control of the broadcast that prohibits streaming and second screen interaction.
Finally, why am I writing an open letter?
I’ve been an Academy member for 39 years and am proud of it. It’s an honor to be part of this
community. I want the Oscars and the Academy to still matter for the generations who have been
growing up online and streaming movies since the iPhone was introduced 13 years ago. I want AMPAS to still matter in the in the new decade, not just be a relic of the past which is where it’s headed.
I tried to work inside the Academy to affect change. In 2018 I was a member of the ad hoc Future of Film Committee that had a series of meetings to make recommendations. That year the Oscar ratings hit an all-time low and streaming movies were serious contenders for major awards for the first time. Bob Iger, Ted Sarandos, Chris Nolan, John Fithian and other industry experts met with the committee. The CEO and the then President of the Academy attended all the meetings. There was supposed to be a written report that included a social media strategy. For some unexplained reason, the administration killed the report and the membership was never told about what these prominent people had to say.
Right after the Oscar ratings hit another all-time low this year, I offered a simple plan to update the way the Academy communicates for the 21st century. The Academy Bylaws state that any member can propose a change to the Bylaws. I proposed that the Academy’s Mission Statement be updated to specifically mandate “state of the art social media” and “an annual member survey.”
The Bylaws state that an Amendment can be voted on either by the Board of Governors or the entire membership. First, I was told by a senior officer that “nobody reads the Bylaws” so don’t ask for a vote. When I persisted, the Board refused to let the members vote on it. Then in early March, the Board violated the Bylaws by refusing to vote on it themselves. After my proposal was shot down in secrecy, I got an email from the Academy’s lawyer admonishing me to not talk about it. But AMPAS isn’t Fight Club. This lack of transparency is the opposite of why the Academy was founded 93 years ago to connect and serve our community. To quote Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
“The Academy values and encourages all member input and we were happy to meet with Mr. Shamberg multiple times — including a meeting with the full Board of Governors — to discuss his ideas,” an Academy spokesperson said in a statement. “The Academy’s bylaws specify the process required to adopt a bylaw amendment, however a proposed bylaw amendment can only be voted on when a motion to vote is made by a board member. Following his proposal, no governor felt it appropriate to make a motion to vote on an amendment, so none did. As we told Mr. Shamberg, the Academy had already committed to the growth of its social media outreach, which is evident in the growing numbers of members and fans we see interacting with us every day, especially now in this current climate. For Mr. Shamberg to make this a topic of conversation during an unprecedented global crisis is beyond our comprehension. Our focus right now is on doing everything we can for our members, our staff, and the worldwide motion picture community. We will continue to work diligently to support them.”
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