The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, known to most as simply “The Academy,” was founded in 1927 by studio mogul Louis B. Mayer, who was the head of MGM for 27 years (that second “M” stands for “Mayer”) and who was recently played by Arliss Howard in the David Fincher biopic “Mank.” But the Academy wasn’t founded out of the goodness of Mayer’s heart, or out of a fervent desire to reward the finest artistry in the industry. It was founded out of a fervent desire to keep studio talent from unionizing.
As Vanity Fair tells it, Mayer wanted to build a house on Santa Monica beach, and quickly, and he wanted to use round-the-clock studio labor to build it. But under new union contracts — which gave workers set rates and overtime — his plan would have cost a fortune, so he wound up outsourcing most of the work, and also wound up getting worried about how much unions were going to cost the industry over time. If costly above-the-line talent got involved and, you know, got paid what they deserved, Mayer’s empire could crumble.
So Mayer spearheaded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to manage disputes within the industry. And since the studios created it, this gave them outsized power to control those negotiations and stave off meaningful changes that would benefit studio employees. So, as Scott Eyman wrote in “Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer,” the Academy Awards were originally intended to be little more than a distraction, to keep the talent’s focus off of their paychecks.