Being the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can be a perilous job. You get blamed for much of what’s wrong in Hollywood — like why the industry remains so white and male — and it’s not really that easy to reinvent the Oscars.
The new academy president is John Bailey. He’s a veteran cinematographer with credits on “As Good As It Gets,” “Ordinary People,” “Groundhog Day,” "Mishima," and many other films.
When we spoke with Bailey recently at the Telluride Film Festival, he discussed getting the academy’s nearly $400-million museum completed, and how he hopes to broaden the academy’s membership.
On whether he's concerned about plummeting attendance in theaters and more people watching films on streaming services:
Box office always waxes and wanes. We go through cycles and I think we're approaching a cycle now where maybe general audiences have had a surfeit of comic book movies. And digital video games are becoming so sophisticated and the resolution is so good now that the difference between what you can do interactively on your computer on a video game and what you actually watch in a movie has narrowed to quite an extent. We're also maybe in a transition period where audiences are now thinking about maybe more human relationship-oriented films. If you look at Netflix and Amazon, for example, as kind of flagships for what can happen in the future of exhibition — whether it's large screen, whether it's streaming or whatever — both Netflix and Amazon are very, very active in making motion pictures. I had a brief meeting the other day with [Netflix chief content officer] Ted Sarandos and one of the first things he told me was, "You know, Netflix is interested in big screen movies. Yes, we're going to be streaming them, but that doesn't mean we want to abandon or work around the large screen movies."
On why he wanted the job of academy president:
Well, I was drafted in a way. I had first been a governor back in '96, a year after my wife Carol Littleton had her first year as a governor. And I served for six years, then kind of got swept away for about eight or nine years of shooting two and three movies a year. And then found myself again in 2010 being elected as a governor. And then three years ago I became a VP and chair of preservation and history, which has been one of my longstanding obsessions. And then eventually a slow drafting process to become president.
On his top priorities as academy president:
The museum, obviously, is a very top priority because it's been a long-held dream for many generations of filmmakers. It's going to be really a very interactive space. It will represent international cinema as well as Hollywood cinema, and that is a very high priority and the fundraising has been very strong.
The other thing that's obviously very important is continuing, even expanding, the diversity initiative represented in the A2020 committee. And we are asking all 27 branches plus the members at large ... to form a diversity subcommittee and that subcommittee will essentially, during the entire year, look around, watch films, look for international filmmakers and filmmakers that are emerging who are truly qualified and artistic. They will then form a list so that when the executive committee for each of the branches comes together for the meeting where they consider new membership, a lot of those people will already be vetted.
And obviously the Herrick Library and the Academy Film Archive are great loves of mine. We are now trying to bring together programs that use them in a synergistic way because that will become very important for screening programs at the museum.
On broadening the Academy's membership, but still making sure new members have sufficient credits:
That's going to be one of the questions that's going to be discussed — what constitutes the sufficient level of experience? One case in point: I like talking about this cinematographer, Jose Luis Alcaine. He was born in Tangier. He's worked for many years in Spain. He's photographed a number of Pedro Almodóvar's films. He's now doing a film in Madrid with Asghar Farhadi, who won the Academy Award for his last film, "The Salesman." [Alcaine] is 79-years-old and has 155 credits if you look at IMDB. So on one hand you could say, Why wasn't this man in the Academy 40 years ago?
Another example is a younger cinematographer/documentarian named Ernesto Pardo ... I think he has fewer than a dozen credits and he's not at all know in this country. But he did photograph this amazing documentary about some Mexican women on a bus ride from Ciudad Juarez where they were essentially ransomed back to their home village. It's done very simply, but it's the most extraordinarily moving and beautiful trip through the heartland of Mexico. And a lot of us in the [American Society of Cinematographers] saw that film ... and became very curious about this beautiful documentarian. And his name came up when we were considering new membership.
So I think this diversity program, one of the keys to it, is the Academy itself reaching out. In the past, so many people, especially internationally, never became members because they had no idea that they could or how it could happen.
To hear John Horn's full interview with John Bailey, click on the player above.