September 18, 2019

Sid Ganis, former academy president, dishes on the reason to diversify

Sid Ganis is a veteran film producer and longtime member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), for which he served four consecutive yearlong terms as president, from 2004-2009. At 76, he has had a long and illustrious career serving as a film executive at major studios including Sony Pictures, Lucasfilm, Warner Bros. and Paramount. As an independent producer, his list of credits includes “Big Daddy,” “Deuce Bigalow” and “Akeelah and the Bee.” Most recently, Ganis has been working extensively with China to further develop its film industry. I caught up with him soon after the academy announced in January it would be pursuing new measures to diversify its membership. 

HOLLYWOOD JEW: A week after this year’s Oscar nominations were announced, and there was public outcry that not a single person of color was among the 20 acting nominees, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced she would implement sweeping changes to diversify the academy. How did you react when you first heard about this?

SID GANIS: It was a Friday morning. I picked up my paper, or my cellphone, and saw a story in The Hollywood Reporter: “Academy to trim its roles,” that people would be leaving because of age! And I said, ‘Whaaat?’ It didn’t sound right to me, but that’s what I read at first blush. As time has gone by, I’ve talked to [people] and seen letters and editorials communicating the fact that some members don’t like it; some members think it’s a horrible thing to do. But I believe those members don’t understand that what the academy is doing is to the benefit of the academy. 

HJ: It seems that people are most upset over the change affecting voting status, which says that voting rights will now be renewed every 10 years only for those who have worked on a film within the last decade. Do you think this marginalizes older people who are retired?

SG: I support that the rolls of the academy membership are being [adjusted] for those who are no longer working in the business and who haven’t been working in the business for quite a long time. They are being asked to become — not nonmembers, but emeritus members, which in my opinion is a title of distinction. But this has to be done in a sensitive and decent and thoughtful way by people who understand all the crafts of the academy. 

HJ: Some people argue that these rules are creating, in effect, a kind of quota system, where diversity is prioritized over excellence. Do you think promoting diversity for diversity’s sake could alter the premise that the Oscars, first and foremost, reflect a certain artistic standard?

SG: We are seeking diversity, but not at all at the expense of the qualifying rules for each of the crafts. You cannot get into [any branch of the academy] under any circumstances unless you are excellent at your work. And now, if you happen to be a minority or a woman who is excellent at your work, you have a pretty damn good shot.

HJ: In some sense, these new rules assume that diversifying membership will ultimately also diversify the films and performances that are nominated. But doesn’t that also assume each diverse group will vote for their own group, and therefore not necessarily for the highest achievement?

SG: The reason to diversify — it’s not to influence the nomination process. It enhances the nomination process, that’s all. It’s hard to understand why our industry, which has made many movies that have been in the forefront of diversity and inclusion, is being punched and chastised the way it is. It may be a bigger problem in our world these days and in the country, but we [the film industry] have been there since [1915’s] “Birth of a Nation,” haven’t we? We’ve been interested in telling stories about being a Black man in this world and in this country, and being a Native American in this world and in this country, forever! Through the ’50s, through McCarthy, though all the stuff that’s happened. We’ve been there as storytellers. And now we’re the focus of getting hammered for not doing the right thing. We need to do more, and we’re going to do more, but I guess I wanted to say that, because I am feeling as though you and your readers need to know that without making excuses for us, and saying [yes], we have work to do, we are being pummeled in a way that might not be 100 percent fair. But we reacted, and we’re taking it seriously, and the academy is doing something about it. 

HJ: I can tell you’re in the public relations branch of the academy…

SG: In a certain way I feel like I know you a little bit, but I’m not spinning it, kiddo. I’m telling you the way I feel. 

HJ: A friend of mine who is an academy member likes to say that the Oscars are “rude with injustice every year” since excellent films and performances are sometimes overlooked, and mediocre ones are rewarded. How do you make the system work so that it represents what it purports to represent and isn’t based on which film has the biggest marketing budget?

SG: Sometimes performances that are beyond belief are overlooked. It’s an inexact science. I do not think it’s about marketing; I think it’s about the ability of people to see the work. For example, I only want to see what I vote for in the movie [theater], but guess what? I can’t do it. I don’t have the time. So therefore, the DVD [sent by the marketing team] at 3 in the morning when I can’t sleep is a luxury and a good one, and one I try not to take advantage of. From time to time — not often — I see something that I absolutely love, and I see it a second time, and this is not a nominated film at all, so I might be able to say this to you: I happened to love the movie “Suffragette.” I saw it, twice.

HJ: Halle Berry, the first African-American woman to win the best actress Oscar, argued for more diversity in Hollywood by saying, “The films that are coming out of Hollywood aren’t truthful; and the reason they’re not truthful these days is that they’re not really depicting the importance and the involvement and the participation of people of color in our American culture.” A fair point, but I wonder, how do you quantify truthfulness? Should the academy parallel the exact gender and racial demographics of America? Because minorities would still be in the minority … 

SG: It’s a very interesting and complicated statement [Halle Berry] has made, but I have to tell you I understand it completely. If in our art form, which is an art form devoted to stories, we wish to tell true stories, then it’s absolutely important to have those who understand that truth better than others tell those stories. I totally appreciate the fact that others can tell stories about Muslims better than I can; others can tell stories about African-Americans better than I can; because I am not one of either of those. Now, it is the avowed quest of the academy to expand the membership.

HJ: How come Jews don’t count as a minority group within the filmmaking community? Do you think Jewish-themed films and performances get enough acknowledgment from the academy? The last Jewish-themed film to win the Oscar for best picture was “Schindler’s List,” 22 years ago.

SG: Here’s my specific and direct answer, and you can print every word: This year, I made and submitted to the academy in the short-subject area, a live-action short about World War II, set in Shanghai. Shanghai was the only place on Earth that took in Jewish refugees from Europe. So I submitted it, I met all the deadlines, we had to do a number of things. … And guess what? I didn’t get shortlisted.

HJ: Is that because it is Jewish-themed or because it isn’t excellent?

SG: I would say it is excellent, but it’s not excellent enough!