There will be no red carpet, no television cameras, no gold statuettes. But far from the spotlight, the motion picture academy will soon decide a contest as consequential in its own way as an Oscars race.
On Tuesday evening, the academy’s 54-member board of governors — including such boldfaced names as Steven Spielberg, Laura Dern and Whoopi Goldberg — will meet at the organization’s Beverly Hills headquarters to choose a new president from among its ranks to succeed cinematographer John Bailey, who has led the 91-year-old institution through two years of further transformation and occasional tumult.
For decades, the job of academy president — which has been held by prominent actors and filmmakers like Douglas Fairbanks, Bette Davis, Frank Capra and Gregory Peck as well as less well-known behind-the-scenes industry power players — was considered essentially honorific, a kind of ceremonial figurehead for Hollywood’s most prestigious institution. But whoever steps in to replace Bailey, who is stepping down due to term limits, will inherit a series of challenges facing the tradition-bound institution as it continues to diversify its historically white-male-dominated membership, prepares to open an ambitious and costly museum and tries to boost flagging public interest in its all important Oscars telecast.
Those efforts have not always proceeded smoothly, to put it mildly. During Bailey’s presidency — which followed a similarly turbulent tenure under his predecessor, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, as the academy weathered the #OscarsSoWhite controversy — the organization has been hamstrung at times by perceived missteps and public-relations crises.
Last year, in an effort to reverse the erosion in ratings for the Oscars, the group announced the creation of a “best popular film award,” only to scrap the idea weeks later amid criticism that it was pandering and half-baked. This year’s planned Oscars emcee, Kevin Hart, dropped out amid controversy over past homophobic jokes, leaving the telecast hostless for the first time in 30 years. A plan to move the presentation of several categories to commercial breaks stirred a widespread uproar among academy members and was scrapped just days before the show.
More personally for Bailey, the academy president faced a claim of sexual harassment against him, which was investigated and ultimately dismissed by the group in the first public test of a new code of conduct it adopted in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
For Bailey, who was unaccustomed to being in the spotlight and somewhat aloof with the press, being in the line of fire was not always comfortable. But he accepted that it went with the territory in today’s Hollywood. “The arts by their very nature tend to be polarizing and controversial, and unfortunately on top of it we are living in a society now where there has been a tremendous kind of political polarization grafted onto it,” he told The Times in September.
At the same time, the academy has had some successes under Bailey. The group has been widely celebrated for continuing to aggressively address inequities in its membership ranks and among its leadership. (The academy’s latest class of invitees, announced last month, was half-female for the first time, while the number of people of color within the group has more than doubled in three years.) The long-awaited museum is finally nearing completion, though its opening was recently pushed back again to sometime next year. And despite the drama leading up to the hostless Oscars — or perhaps because of it — ratings for the show rose 12% over the all-time low hit the previous year.
Still, some might wonder, who would want to take on what has come to be regarded as an increasingly difficult and somewhat thankless gig?
Though openly campaigning has traditionally been frowned upon, insiders say the two leading contenders to replace Bailey are governors Lois Burwell, who represents the makeup and hairstyling branch and currently serves as first vice-president of the academy, and David Rubin, who represents casting directors and and is now secretary on the board. Rubin was reportedly in the running for president in 2017 before Bailey emerged as a dark-horse candidate.
Other names that have been floated in recent months include past academy president Sid Ganis and Fox Searchlight co-president Nancy Utley, both of whom are governors representing the marketing and public relations branch. Some have quietly pushed for Dern to run, believing the group could benefit greatly from the two-time Oscar nominee’s charm and star power. But after much speculation that she would run in 2017, she ultimately decided not to and, given her busy schedule, the “Big Little Lies” Emmy winner is considered unlikely to throw her hat in the ring this time either.
The board choosing the new president has itself been reshaped in recent years. With the latest elections in June, the number of women serving increased from 22 to 24 and the number of people of color increased from 10 to 11. It’s unclear, however, whether the shifting makeup of the board will factor at all into Tuesday’s election.
Whoever assumes the job of president will have to work closely with academy CEO Dawn Hudson, who has herself been a lightning rod since being hired as the group’s chief executive in 2011 and whose contract runs through June 2020. In an interview with The Times last month, Hudson said she chooses to look on the bright side of even the controversies the group has faced in recent years. “The fact that the academy is seen as being so important to the cultural conversation is a big compliment,” she said.
Speaking to The Times last year, Bailey expressed a similar sentiment. “Look, for an organization that some people like to say is irrelevant and is out of touch with the times, there always seems to be a tremendous amount of interest in what is going on inside the academy,” he said. “My own feeling is, no matter what the academy does or says or determines as a course of action, there are going to be naysayers. It’s just the nature of it.”