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Stunt Organizations Turned Down by Academy

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At work, stuntpeople walk through walls of fire, leap off tall buildings, swerve cars around death-defying obstacles, so you’d think that nudging the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into giving stunt coordinators an Oscar for their cinematic contributions would be a cakewalk. But a demonstration in front of the Academy’s Beverly Hills offices and a petition signed by such heavyweights as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Jerry Bruckheimer, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Michael Douglas and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has not swayed the Academy.On June 22, AMPAS’ Board of Governors voted down the stunt community’s request, releasing a terse, three-paragraph statement, including a quote from Academy president Frank Pierson that the Academy is “trying to find ways to reduce the numbers of statuettes given out,” and is “simply not prepared to institute any new annual awards categories.”Speaking a couple of days after the Academy’s decision, Jack Gill is angry, disappointed and confused. The former president of Stunts Unlimited, the 28-year veteran stuntman, coordinator and director, whose credits include Rock and Roll High School, Pearl Harbor, Gone In 60 Seconds and Anchorman, has spearheaded the movement to get stunt coordinators their Oscar for the past 15 years. But in all that time, he says, the Academy has never given him a direct answer on the thinking behind their decision.“You’d think someone would come and say look, ‘you’re either this or you’re that, and that’s the reason why you’re not going to get a category.’ But nobody has ever done that.” At first, he says, the reason was that the Board didn’t think stunt people were artistic or technical, but they have rescinded that, and claim that was just a statement of one of the members and not of the Academy. He’s even willing to accept the excuse that they don’t want to make the show any longer, “but the whole idea behind the Academy is to reward outstanding performances in each of the classes, and they don’t think we belong there.”But the stunt community, he says, isn’t demanding a spot on the show. They’d be happy if the Academy announced the award the day before the ceremony, at the technical awards presentation, when the show’s over, or even during the commercial breaks. “They’ve got three minutes in a break,” he explains, “they could say, ‘hey let’s do stunt coordinator in the next two minutes,’ and we’d be fine with that.” But if they did have a stunt coordinator category, Gill is positive that the show’s director, Gil Cates, “would love to have us in there.”In the wake of the Board’s decision, the stunt groups are weighing their options. An appeal—which has never been attempted before—is being planned. Gill has gotten at least 10 celebrities—he declines to name them—to contact the Academy and “tell the Academy that they think stunt coordinators should be included in the Academy or ceremony and they definitely think there should be another vote.” California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man who knows how hard it is to get stunts right, released a statement in response to the Board’s decision, expressing his “deep disappointment” in the failure of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to “once again recognize stuntmen and women and their great contribution to the film industry.”One of the reasons why Gill thinks the Academy has been resistant to the stunt community is because they’ve never been able to appear at the Board of Governors’ meeting. “They go in there and one guy says here’s where they are and here’s what we should do. I’m not able to step in there and tell them what I think. There’s no way to go in there and state why you think you belong.”Although no one from the stunt community pled their case at the Governor’s meeting, they did make their opinions known on June 16. Boisterous but well-organized, some 50 stuntpeople, their friends and families walked along Wilshire Boulevard in front of the Academy’s headquarters, holding signs, chanting and getting loud, honking support from the cars passing by.Scott Waugh, the current president of Stunts Unlimited whose credits include xXx, Spider-Man and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, finds the Academy’s resistance “mind blowing.” Actors and directors have come on board, he says, because “we’re not after the guys who are doubling actors, we’re up for the stunt coordinator, the guy who choreographs and lays everything out for the actor.” He points to the Emmys, which have a category of best stunt coordinator. “It really pinpoints what we’re after and it’s really what it’s about. There is a best director category; the stunt coordinator is the director of action.”For Henry Kingi, whose 35-year career includes work on Cleopatra Jones, Uptown Saturday Night, The Italian Job and The Island, the Academy should think about the history of motion pictures before they deny the stunt community. “Stunt coordinators have been a part of movies since the beginning and it’s time they got recognized.” He points to silent film pioneers such as Buster Keaton as early stunt coordinators: “Look at comedy. The pratfalls? They’re stunts. It’s not as dramatic as when people get killed, but you can fall off a building in a comedy, and someone has to work it out.”He also repeats something of a mantra for the stunt community—that their work is what sells movies. “Anytime you see a trailer for a movie, what do they show? The action. Action drives the movie. Whatever it may be: car chases, fire, fights, shooting—it’s action.”DVDs are also using stunts as a draw, he says. “We’ve been quiet for so many years because peeking behind the mystique of stunts was our worry as well. But everything has been put out there now. DVDs—all the behind-the-scenes extras—they’re showing ‘how to’ everything. That helps sell the movie—you watch it, then want to find out how that was done.”If nothing happens in the next few months, Gill says a repeat demonstration at the Kodak Theater the day of the Oscar kudocast is a distinct possibility. But he’d rather not have to think about it. For now, he’s concentrating on getting the Board of Governors to change their mind. It’s harder than it looks, he says; even harder than some of the stunts he’s done. “When you walk through a wall of fire,” he says, “at least you know what you’re getting into. With the Academy, I have no idea how to convince them.”

Written by Steven Mirkin

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