Tom Sherak never forgets that movies are for the masses. The veteran marketer turned new president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences started in showbiz driving around states like Maryland and West Virginia, persuading ordinary people to book such Paramount movies as "The Godfather" and "Love Story" into their small-town movie houses. "They were all real people, postal workers or sanitation workers who also owned the one theater in town. I'd go and meet them at their lunch hour and tell them about the movies."
Forty years later, Sherak's taste still tilts to the broadly popular. Last year, he voted for "The Dark Knight" for best picture. And now he's bringing his populist instincts to the most august institution in Hollywood, the academy.
His main goal for next year's show -- which he reiterates frequently and enthusiastically at his new digs at the academy's Wilshire headquarters -- is to make the March 7 Oscar telecast fun, not just for tuxedoed stars but for the folks at home.
"We're putting on a show, and that has to translate to millions and millions of people. I think what happened last year is that the show inside the Oscars, inside the Kodak, was incredible, but at home it played differently. We have to make it more fun," says the 64-year-old Sherak, the former chairman of the 20th Century Fox domestic group and a one-time partner at Revolution Studios.
Even before becoming chairman in August, as head of the awards review committee he was a prime mover behind the bold decision to open the best picture race from five nominees to 10.
To many, the overhaul plays like a naked bid to make room for the blockbuster (or, specifically, comic-book fare) that has been largely shut out of academy consideration. More important, the more popular Oscar nominees tend to bring a bigger viewership to the Academy Awards broadcast, whose ratings have been declining for the last 20 years. Last year's show did bump up 13%, but that still made it the third-lowest-rated show in Oscar history.
The decision to open up the race comes on the heels of another Sherak imperative -- he was a vocal supporter of the academy's 2008 move to air film advertising during the event. The Oscar telecast provides the vast majority of the academy's budget, some $73.7 million in the 2007-08 period, according to its records.
Sherak insists that broadening the Oscar race was nothing more than a gambit to shake up the status quo. "The point of it was to do something," he says. "We need to not be afraid to try things. We need to be positive. The people who are against the idea say, 'What if it doesn't work?' Then we won't do it again."
Becoming in sync with the changing world of cinema is a priority. "The world has changed. That statuette means a lot. It is the granddaddy of all the other shows, but people are now seeing stars and celebrities every day of the week on television or dressed up. It used to be a reason why you waited for the Academy Awards. We have to come up with a way to make that night fun for people of all ages -- those who have been watching it for 30 years and those who have been watching it for five years. We have a different committee studying how people are seeing movies, how they're Twittering and texting each other. We're trying to figure out how to be relevant."
"The academy is in a mood for change," agrees former president Sid Ganis, who remains an academy officer. "The academy has not always been in the mood for change. The academy has been austere, but it's not these days. It wants to change. It's time. The industry is changing. The economics of the business are changing."
Despite the gray in his hair and his strait-laced Brooks Brothers-like attire, Sherak exudes a bouncy, irrepressible air, especially when discussing the academy. Ganis says a week after Sherak took over, "he said to me, in a very quiet way, 'This is the best thing that ever happened to me.' "
"What I like about him is he seems to be excited about everything," says producer Mark Johnson, the academy governor in charge of the foreign language category. "He's not afraid to speak out on the board, and he has huge enthusiasm."
In his new role, Sherak played matchmaker for the Oscar producers, Bill Mechanic, one of Sherak's former bosses at Fox, and director Adam Shankman, whom he knew only through his movies, such as "Hairspray" and "Bedtime Stories." After meeting for lunch, the unlikely duo agreed to join forces. Sherak in turn urged Mechanic and Shankman to consider hiring two hosts for the show, so each could play to different constituents. Mechanic and Shankman ultimately settled on comedy veterans Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, promising a renewed emphasis on comedy after last year's song-and-dance turn led by Hugh Jackman.
Another planned change is moving the honorary Irving Thalberg award off the telecast to a special nontelevised dinner (which was scheduled for Saturday) at the ballroom at the Hollywood & Highland complex. The banquet was to feature three new honorary awards, called the Governors Awards, to be given for lifetime achievement this year to Lauren Bacall, cinematographer Gordon Willis ("The Godfather")and B movie impresario Roger Corman. John Calley, who ran Sony Pictures Entertainment and produced such films as "Closer" and "The Da Vinci Code," received the Thalberg, given to producers for consistent quality work.
Sherak has been a member of the academy for the last two decades and on the board of governors for the last six years, including a stint as treasurer. Yet he initially nominated Tom Hanks to replace outgoing president Ganis. "[Hanks] said he didn't have time, so he withdrew his name. Then an ex-president nominated me," Sherak says. He thought about withdrawing, but his wife convinced him that he needed a new "challenge." "Like most things in my life, it just happened. Most of them happened for good."
An honest man
Indeed, Sherak tells his life story as if he were born under a lucky star. The Brooklyn native was drafted for Vietnam, but he ended up spending two years at Ft. Monrovia, Va., as a personnel specialist. He worked on Wall Street, but when he got bored, he found a sales job at Paramount.
He quickly moved up the ranks until he switched to exhibition and ultimately became the main film buyer for General Cinema, then the largest theater circuit in the world. In 1983, then-Fox chairman Norman Levy called to offer Sherak the job as president of marketing and distribution for the studio.
It's a testament to his people and political skills that he stayed at Fox 19 years, through 10 regime changes. Sherak, who once decorated his Fox executive bathroom with the name plaques of his departed bosses, says the secret to corporate longevity is "Honesty. Honesty. Honesty. You've got to be honest. You also have to have an opinion. It doesn't matter if it's the only opinion in the room. You just need an opinion, and you need to be able to support the final decision."
Sherak's aesthetic does seem formed by his many years spent in the blockbuster end of the business, most recently as a consultant to Marvel Studios, the comic-book juggernaut. "That's a good thing to have as president of the academy. Nothing wrong with that," Ganis says. "He was at the beginning of his career in exhibition. Exhibition is about jamming as many people in the theater as possible. He is from that school, but he's matured into a more complete film guy. Show him a good dramatic film, and he's all appreciation."
Sherak is also well known for his charity fundraising prowess for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. His daughter Melissa has MS.
Yet that magic touch is not going to be employed any time soon for the academy, which has put on hold its plans to build a $400-million Academy Museum on land it owns on Vine Street in Hollywood, because of the worldwide economic downturn. "Right now, we're just going to sit tight," Sherak says. "We haven't forgotten about it."
Sherak points out that the academy is more than just the show but also provides grants to film festivals, educational institutions and scholars to support film education. "We need to become more relevant to the industry that we're so lucky to be in, whether it's technically or scientifically.
"A lot of people think we're dinosaurs," he says with brio. "The academy is not a dinosaur."