On January 11, 1927, a hand-picked group of 36, a selection of the leading lights of the movie-making industry, met for dinner at the Ambassador Hotel, in Los Angeles, California. Out of that gathering was created the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, best known today for the annual presentation of the Academy Awards, the Oscars.
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The host that evening was Louis B. Mayer, chief of operations at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, and probably the most influential producer in town.
If workers demand rights
When Mayer convened his friends and colleagues, the idea of an awards-granting organization was not even on the agenda. Mayer was apparently looking for a way to minimize the role of organized labor in the studios. The principal mission of the Academy at first was to resolve disputes between the five branches of the film industry that comprised its membership: producers, directors, writers, technicians and actors.
In a 2014 article in Vanity Fair, film historian David Thomson suggests that Mayer (1884-1957), the Russian-born son of a scrap-metal dealer, who entered the business as a New England theater owner before moving to California and becoming a producer, began thinking about establishing the Academy while building a Santa Monica beach house in 1926.
Mayer had initially intended to use designers and craftsmen from MGM to build the house, but he wanted to get the job done within six weeks. He soon realized that the process would be prohibitively expensive.
At the time, the studios were deep into negotiations over the first contract, called the Studio Basic Agreement, to be signed with the labor unions representing all the technical professionals – such as carpenters and electricians – they employed. It was the end of a struggle that had begun a decade earlier.
Mayer ended up hiring far cheaper freelance laborers to build his house. But, according to Thomson, it got him thinking about how difficult his life as a manager would be if other classes of employees banded together in guilds and began to demand, for example, the right to collective bargaining.
Master of illusion
Of course, Mayer, one of America’s greatest image makers, knew better than to present his idea as a means of union busting. Instead, he proposed creation of a body that would bring together the various professions involved in filmmaking in a body that would allow them to resolve labor disputes without outside intervention, and promote the “arts and sciences” that were behind this rapidly advancing business, just at the moment that silent movies were becoming talkies. As the technology advanced, it was important to agree on standardized formats.
On Sunday evening, January 2, 1927, Mayer invited to his home actor Conrad Nagel, director Fred Niblo (maker of “Ben-Hur”), and the head of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, Fred Beetson, to discuss his idea.
Nagel and Niblo were both under contract to MGM, so their support was guaranteed, and Beetson quickly got on board too.
The dinner at the Ambassador, on Wilshire Boulevard, followed a mere nine days later.
The 36 guests present who would became the founding members of the International Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (it dropped the “International” from its name a short time later), included, in addition to the original four, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks (who became the Academy’s first president), Harold Lloyd, Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse Lasky, and two of the Warner Brothers.
By the time the group reconvened for another festive meal, this time at the Biltmore Hotel, on May 11, 1927, the newly incorporated Academy had 230 members, who almost without discussion accepted the idea that the organization should offer annual prizes in a number of categories for “distinctive achievement” in the year gone by. The first Academy Awards were presented two years later, on May 16, 1929.
The Oscars may not have been part of Louis B. Mayer’s original plan, but he was happy to go along with them. As he later explained his philosophy, “I found that the best way to handle [moviemakers] was to hang medals all over them. If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.”