Response to Last Night’s On-Air Disruption Again Reveals Inadequate Crisis Planning by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
3/28/22 – – It’s ironic how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gets into so much trouble on live television, the competitive entertainment medium that first challenged the dominance of the silver screen in the 1950s. Through the years, the annual Academy Awards, televised to an audience of tens of millions around the world, has created its own special drama. Last night’s broadcast of the 94th Academy Awards was no exception.
If you were watching, you witnessed actor Will Smith assault presenter Chris Rock after the comedian poked fun at Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. While the joke was inappropriately directed at Ms. Smith’s shaved head (she suffers from the hair-loss medical condition alopecia) it was a shock when Will Smith, who was seated in the front row of the Dolby Theatre, came on stage and slapped Rock across the face. Returning to his seat, Smith twice issued at the top of his lungs this warning: “Keep my wife’s name out of your f_ _ _ ing mouth.”
Adding to the real-time tension, Smith later returned triumphantly to the stage to accept the Best Actor Oscar for his role as the father of Serena and Venus Williams in “King Richard.” In tears, he apologized to the Academy, the audience and his fellow Oscar nominees for his earlier behavior. No “I’m sorry” was offered to Rock.
There were many players in last night’s drama, but let’s examine this reputational crisis from the point of view of the leadership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
What Has Been the Academy’s Response So Far?
After issuing a brief statement last evening condemning violence in general, Academy President David Ruben and CEO Dawn Hudson released this update today:
“The Academy condemns the actions of Mr. Smith at last night’s show. We have officially started a formal review around the incident and will explore further action and consequences in accordance with our Bylaws, Standards of Conduct and California law.”
What Authority Does the Academy Have to Take Action Against Smith?
The Academy’s Standards of Conduct, made clearer and tougher after the industry’s forced response a few years ago to the MeToo movement, emphasize, in the words of CEO Hudson, “respect for human dignity . . . and a supportive environment that fosters creativity.” Introducing the new rules, she told members this:
“There is no place in the Academy for people who abuse their status, power or influence in a manner that violates recognized standards of decency. The Academy is categorically opposed to any form of abuse, harassment or discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, disability, age, religion, or nationality. The Board of Governors believes that these standards are essential to the Academy’s mission and reflective of our values.”
There is precedent for the Academy suspending or permanently terminating membership, which Hudson described in a 2017 interview with Variety as, “a privilege offered to only a select few within the global community of filmmakers.” However, no Oscar recipient has ever had to return his/her statue. Even disgraced Oscar-winners Harvey Weinstein and Roman Polanski, who lost their memberships, have been allowed to keep their awards.
Most news sources are reporting that Chris Rock, not the Academy, would have to file a complaint with the Los Angeles Police Department to trigger a criminal investigation. So far, Rock (he’s considered the “victim”) has expressed no interest in taking that action.
Interestingly, in the 94 years of the Academy Awards, three Oscar recipients have refused to accept their awards: Screenwriter Dudley Nicholas for “The Informer” in 1936 protesting tensions between his Screenwriters Guild and the Academy; Marlon Brando in 1973 sent actress Sacheen Littlefeather to the program to turn down his Best Actor Oscar for “The Godfather” in protest of the motion picture industry’s negative portrayal and treatment of Native Americans; and George C. Scott said “no thanks” in 1971 to the Academy when he won Best Actor for his role in “Patton,” describing the annual awards ceremony as “a two-hour meat parade.”
Why Didn’t the Academy Respond to Smith’s Violence During the Awards Program?
According to “industry sources,” event organizers did consider removing Smith from the theatre, even though he was a favorite in the Best Actor category, at the first commercial break after his assault and profanity-laced verbal outburst. Here’s what PEOPLE learned about what contributed to the inaction:
“Basically there were just minutes to first figure out if it was a stunt and then try and get people on the same page — including the producers, ABC, the Academy, reps who were not all in the same place or all looking at their phones in real time, and even to see if Chris wanted to press charges. You can’t plan for something like this and make a split-second decision that needs everyone’s buy-in, and in any iteration that would have consequences.”
With all due respect to PEOPLE’s industry sources, you CAN and MUST plan for something like this.
Clearly, the Academy and broadcasters had not learned from disasters that disrupted past Academy Awards ceremonies. You may remember that in 2017, executives from the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (CwP) screwed up the evening’s most dramatic moment when presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced that La La Land had won the Oscar for Best Picture. Unfortunately, Moonlight was the actual winner. Mr. Beatty had been handed the wrong envelope by the PwC representative.
The chaos backstage last night and in 2017, what I call “the fog of crises,” was the result of bad planning. A dedicated crisis team of decision makers, representing the Academy, ABC, and the Dolby Theatre should have been empowered to respond immediately to problematic events during the broadcast. I’m not suggesting that it was an easy call, but that team should have had the responsibility — and authority — to remove Smith.
What Should the Academy Do Now?
The investigation announced today is a good start. But the clock is ticking. The longer no decision on Smith’s fate is made, the more toxic the public debate will become.
From my read of the Academy’s Standards of Conduct and a review of past disciplinary action, the Academy must suspend Smith’s membership and ban him from attending Academy Awards ceremonies for a number of years. He can be given the opportunity to reapply for membership — he’s no Weinstein or Polanski —at the end of that period. And he can keep his Oscar.
Earlier this evening, Smith issued a very conciliatory apology on Instagram that should help him with Academy leadership and the public. Here’s his statement in full:
Violence in all its forms is poisonous and destructive. My behavior at last night’s Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable. Jokes at my expense are a part of the job, but a joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally.
I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris. I was out of line and I was wrong. I am embarrassed and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be. There is no place for violence in a world of love and kindness.
I would also like to apologize to the Academy, the producers of the show, all the attendees and everyone watching around the world. I would like to apologize to the Williams Family and my King Richard Family. I deeply regret that my behavior has stained what has been an otherwise gorgeous journey for all of us.
I am a work in progress.
Let’s hope the Academy’s investigative “work in progress” doesn’t take too long. Justice delayed is justice (and effective crisis response) denied.
UPDATE: 3/30/22 – – The Academy has sent a letter to all members expressing the organization’s outrage over Will Smith’s conduct and hinting at a timetable for a decision regarding disciplinary action:
As outlined in our bylaws, the Academy’s Board of Governors will now make a determination on appropriate action for Mr. Smith. As governed by California law regarding members of nonprofit organizations like the Academy, and set forth in our Standards of Conduct, this must follow an official process that will take a few weeks.
We will continue to update you on any developments, but we also ask that you respect your Board, Academy staff and the process as this unfolds so it can work in the considered way it was intended and mandated.
UPDATE: 3/31/22 – – The Academy confirmed that Will Smith was asked to leave the Academy Awards ceremony after his violent outburst, but refused to go. And Chris Rock says he has not talked with Smith and will address the episode at a later time.
UPDATE: 4/8/22 – – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences today announced that Will Smith has been banned from attending Academy Award ceremonies for 10 years.