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A Brief History of the Academy's Fear of Unions

When Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), set out to create what would become the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he wasn’t thinking of an awards ceremony celebrating the hard work of the people who made Hollywood.

The reason for the creation of the Academy was a more nefarious one. Mayer had two goals in mind…

  1. Restore the image of Hollywood to the public.
    At the time, public perception of Hollywood was at a low. Scandals were running wild as stories of drug-fueled parties, sexual escapades, and cold-blooded murder were constantly being printed in the media. Mayer and his colleagues wanted the Academy to act as a sort of public relations organization that would constantly send the message to the public that Hollywood was a wholesome place where dreams were coming true, and everyone was having a great time.
  2. Block the need for “talent” (the actors, directors, and writers) to unionize after studio laborers and the studios were about to sign the first Studio Basic Agreement with IATSE and other unions in 1926.

To the studio heads and producers, the business was running like a well-oiled machine. The studios would have talent sign a standard contract, talent would do exactly as told, the movies were made, put into the market, and the revenue and profits belonged solely to the studios. The idea that talent could ask for pensions, health benefits, or a cut of profits shook them to their core.

Thus, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was born in January of 1927 (at the time called the International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). The Academy, acting as a company-controlled union, was now the organization that would handle all labor problems and negotiations at the studios.

However, this plan to block the unionization of talent didn’t last long. During the Labor Movement of the 1930s, the Screen Actors Guild and Screen Writers Guild were established as direct opposition to the Academy. These new Guilds urged their members to not only boycott the Oscars, now a prestigious ceremony hosted by the Academy, but to resign from the Academy completely.

This boycott from the unions was nearly the collapse of the Academy. To save the organization, then-president of the Academy, director Frank Capra, announced that the Academy would no longer handle any union business, including negotiations, and that would now be the responsibility of the unions. This made it so that the Academy’s biggest duty was the Oscars.

In true Hollywood happy ending fashion, company-controlled unions were outlawed in 1935 and talent was unionized by the later part of the 1930s.

A Brief History of the Academy's Fear of Unions

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