A Little Transparency Would Clear Up A Lot At Hollywood’s Film Academy

When Wenting Xu and Diedrik van Hoogstraten sent their omnibus resignation letter to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in mid-June, I had to look twice at the sixth bullet point. It’s the one that begins: “Internal transparency, never great to begin with, has actually decreased since February, so members don’t know details about the financials anymore.”

The plaint could as easily have been addressed to another awards-granting Hollywood nonprofit: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

As of Monday, June 28, the film Academy — with 9,000-plus members and hundreds of millions of dollars in assets — still had not provided its membership or the general public with its annual report for the fiscal year that closed 12 months earlier, on June 30, 2020. In other words, an interested party couldn’t readily track financial performance tied to the Oscars-before-last, when Parasite was Best Picture, never mind the little-viewed show in April, when Nomadland won.

To be clear, the numbers are discoverable, if you’re sophisticated enough to get at least six clicks into the website of the Electronic Municipal Marketing Access service, which tracks bond offerings organized by certain public entities. For those who lack the time and patience, the 2020 financials are here. As reported, they were disclosed to bondholders last Christmas Eve, which, counting on my fingers, appeared to be the last business day in the 180-day disclosure window specified in the bond agreement.

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As of Monday, however, the Academy’s public website, at Oscars.org, only displayed the 2019 report, from back when Green Book was a winner. A couple of astute members who kindly checked Academy’s members-only portal were unable to find any trace of the 2020 report. Historically, the financials for the old Oscar cycle were distributed before the next show, sometimes in the preceding fall.

But this year, nothing–or, at least, nothing that smart, interested members could readily find.

An Academy spokesperson declined to comment.

Of course, a new fiscal year comes to a close on Wednesday, posing questions perhaps more pressing than in the previous two years, when revenue under the Academy’s television contract with ABC—the institution’s major income stream—slipped slightly to something in the range of $105 million, after years of steady increase.

Are the numbers down again this year, in the wake of a disastrously low-rated telecast, watched by only about 10.4 million viewers? By a little? By a lot? Not at all? Who would know? Academy officials have offered no public comment or member communication about the numbers, even as the group elected its new Board of Governors this month; and full disclosure doesn’t appear likely until the next bond deadline, in late December.

But, given the Academy’s responsibility for about $488 million in debt related to its yet-to-open movie museum, the questions aren’t incidental. So maybe the new board should give thought to reforms aimed at increasing institutional transparency, with a close eye on fiscal issues.

It could start by requiring distribution of the audited financials within, say, 90 days after the close of the fiscal year. And if it’s really serious about member engagement, the board might even consider requiring quarterly reports, just like public corporations.

Going a step further, the board could distribute the agenda for its periodic meetings to members. If the governors are feeling wild and crazy, they might even allow members to attend, via video link if not in person.

That would probably require them to rescind a confidentiality stricture that was added to the bylaws in the last decade. But it doesn’t seem outrageous that governors should be allowed to discuss issues with those who elected them.

In fact, an annual members meeting wouldn’t be a bad idea. If nothing else, it would ward off the kind of transparency complaint that, among many other things, just hit the HFPA.

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