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The Academy earlier announced a cohort of 683 prospective new members who had been invited to join the organisation. Among them is James Rupert Jacob Murdoch, son of Rupert Murdoch and now Chief Executive Officer of 21st Century Fox.

Your initial reaction to the prospect of another Murdoch being invited to join the Academy will make you want to gouge your eyes out in disbelief, and you may not be wrong to think that but maybe not for the reason you expect.

In some respects, his invitation can be entirely justified and those thinking it is just an unfair attempt to woo a powerful exec may, well, okay there is probably an element of that, but no more so than in any other executive invitation. The rules around membership for the executive branch are specific enough to exclude most, but still allow a large amount of discretion.

The first requirement, as outlined here on the Academy’s website, is that an individual must ‘have been functioning for at least five years at a senior executive level and be a driving force  in the creation of motion pictures at an organization producing and/or distributing theatrical motion pictures’. Since 2011 Murdoch has been in either a COO or CEO role at 21st Century Fox and therefore fills the basic job criteria. But here’s where it gets hazy…

As well as this, the following condition needs to met. Either:

  1. have standing in, and made contributions to, the motion picture industry that reflect the high standards of the Academy OR
  2. have, in the judgment of  2/3 of the Executives Branch Executive Committee, otherwise achieved unique distinction, earned special merit, made an outstanding contribution, or demonstrated exceptional promise as a motion picture executive.

In other words, if you have not done enough to warrant an invitation by your own merit, but you have enough friends in the branch willing to nominate you, it’s still possible to receive an invitation. Of course once nominated the Board of Governors still needs to approve this, but this would likely be a formality. In addition to the above, ‘the organization at which the candidate has achieved the qualifying position should be a company which has been producing and/ or releasing pictures for the most recent five years, and has released at least three theatrical features (two for Animated features) during that span’ – so at least he clearly ticks that box.

Eligibility based on the above, whether you agree with the criteria itself or not, is clearly ok, but when you begin looking at Murdoch’s professional background it’s easy to question exactly what discretion is being used to approve his invitation.

Here are just some of the excerpts on 21st Century Fox’s biography of James Murdoch, regarding his roles at the company:

  • he has been a key driver of the Company’s domestic and international expansion
  • His significant operational experience also includes tenures as CEO of both BSkyB and STAR, India’s number one entertainment broadcaster
  • Mr. Murdoch had a broad purview across the Company’s global portfolio of businesses, and direct responsibility for its cable and broadcasting networks and properties
  • played an integral role in a number of strategic transactions, including the separation of the former News Corp into two distinct Companies, the combination of the Endemol Shine Group joint venture, the acquisition of the YES Network, and, through the creation of Sky Deutschland and the combination of Sky Deutschland and Sky Italia and BSkyB, the creation of the European entertainment leader Sky plc.
  • co-founded and chaired Rawkus Entertainment, a seminal Hip Hop independent based in lower Manhattan

No doubt Murdoch has been a prolific businessman within the publishing and broadcast industries, but even on the company’s own website there is zero mention of his direct involvement in the production of theatrical motion pictures.

What about his IMDB filmography then? Take a look below at the complete filmography of prospective Academy member James Rupert Jacob Murdoch:

James Murdoch Filmography

You will not find anywhere an example of Murdoch being actively involved in the delivery of a single motion picture, and if both IMDB or even Fox’s own biography of their CEO has nothing to brag about, it seems quite absurd that he is being considered for membership to an organisation which is famously elitist towards those that have made a significant contribution to the motion picture industry.

There is obviously an argument that his contributions at an executive level shape the industry within which films can be funded, produced and distributed in the most effective way possible. Valid point, but the real question here is not whether he deserves to be recognised for what he has done, but whether he deserves to be recognising others for achievements he is not qualified to judge.

The absolute truth is, we do not know if James Murdoch can vote for an Academy Award. Details of exactly which branches, and who within those branches, are eligible to receive a ballot are not published and the Academy are notoriously secretive about such specifics.

What is most concerning here is the invitation system for an organisation claiming to promote, educate and acknowledge achievements in the motion picture industry is not appropriately defined to restrict membership to those who have made specific contributions to the motion picture industry. As such people like Murdoch, who run a company that has a motion picture division but has little to deal with it, is allowed to join and potentially vote on awards such as Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Original Song, Production Design – on what basis can he be justified to know anything about this, and how can his inclusion in the Academy in any way validate or contribute to their objectives?

Make no mistake, this is not an attack on the Murdochs but an example of how by 2020, even with an entirely diverse, semi-vaginal membership, the Academy could still potentially be comprised of voters who have never made a film in their life. In which case they still have a long way to go before criticism of the awards’ credibility and fairness can be finally put to rest.

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