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Did departing academy chief Dawn Hudson ruin the Oscars — or save them?

Dawn Hudson smiles with her arms crossed while standing on a rooftop terrace
Dawn Hudson, who just stepped down as chief executive of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, photographed on the rooftop terrace of the organization’s new museum.
(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Dawn Hudson led the film academy through the most transformational — and tumultuous — period in its history, leaving insiders to fiercely debate her legacy.

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When Dawn Hudson stood before the board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in spring 2011 to make her pitch for the newly created job of chief executive, the organization appeared to be operating on cruise control.

Ratings for the Oscars remained robust, with the previous year’s telecast watched by more than 40 million viewers. The academy’s TV deal with ABC guaranteed that a billion dollars in revenue would pump into the group’s already ample coffers over the next decade. The closest thing to recent Oscar controversies centered on taste — the much-maligned “Crash” winning best picture over “Brokeback Mountain” in 2006 — and whether James Franco was stoned when he co-hosted the show with Anne Hathaway in 2011.

Feeling secure in the group’s status as the prestigious, enduring face of Hollywood, some on the 43-member board believed the academy simply needed a caretaker to maintain the course set by retiring Executive Director Bruce Davis, who had held the position for 30 years.

Hudson — an academy outsider, originally from Hot Springs, Ark., who had spent the previous two decades running the far smaller nonprofit Film Independent — saw things differently, and she told the board so in plain terms. It would take two presentations to persuade the academy’s governors to hire her.

“There wasn’t an obvious crisis that said, ‘You’re heading for the iceberg,’ but I felt we were,” Hudson, 65, says over Zoom from her Los Angeles home, just days after officially ending her tenure as the academy’s leader on July 1. “We couldn’t continue being this exclusionary kind of ivory-tower academy and be successful, be relevant, be the leaders we wanted to be. I perceived a crisis in the making, and so did a majority of the board, which is why I was hired. Not everyone had that same perception.”

Eleven years later, not everyone has the same perception of Hudson or her transformative and often tumultuous tenure as chief executive. And as the academy begins a new chapter under Chief Executive Bill Kramer and a soon-to-be elected new president, the organization’s leaders and members are left to argue over Hudson’s complicated legacy.

Under Hudson’s leadership, the academy remade itself inside and out to become more inclusive and diverse, expanded its membership around the world and celebrated the long-dreamed-of opening of a film museum in Los Angeles. At the same time, the academy also suffered through an unprecedented string of controversies and crises that at times bitterly divided the group’s members and damaged the Oscars brand.

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Through it all, Hudson remained a lightning rod, drawing fire internally and externally for every perceived misstep and polarizing initiative. Academy members contacted for this story mostly declined to comment, echoing a refrain offered by veteran marketing exec Terry Press via email: “My mother always taught me that if I have nothing nice to say, better to say nothing.”

Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman and Dawn Hudson talking at the 2017 Oscar nominees luncheon
Laura Dern, left, with Nicole Kidman and film academy CEO Dawn Hudson during the Oscar nominees luncheon in Beverly Hills in 2017.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

“What surprised me wasn’t how Dawn, or anyone in a leadership role with that organization, would be blamed for myriad issues,” says Laura Dern, a former academy governor, an Academy Museum trustee and a longtime friend of Hudson. “What surprised me, from 2011 to 2022, was the level of discord, scrutiny and challenge that someone would come up against for backing positive change in an organization. I guess I was really naive.”

Hudson’s detractors point to the public-relations fiascos the group suffered under her watch, from #OscarsSoWhite to the “Moonlight”/“La La Land” envelope snafu to the Will Smith Slap. They argue that she allowed the museum project to bog down in budget overruns and delays and let the academy’s crown jewel, the Oscars, become increasingly irrelevant. Decisions to create a new Oscar to honor blockbusters — a ratings-seeking gambit that was reversed after a backlash — and to remove some categories from the live ceremony drew protests from members angry as much over the lack of consultation and communication as the moves themselves.

“With Dawn and the academy leadership, there have been a lot of good intentions, but the decisions weren’t thought through and were often poorly executed,” says producer and former studio exec Bill Mechanic, who resigned from the academy’s board in 2018 and issued a blistering letter calling for the remaining members to “change the leadership” of the institution.

Cast and crew of "Moonlight" and "La La Land" mix onstage at the 2017 Oscars after the wrong film was named best picture.
Warren Beatty stands at the Oscars microphone in 2017, when the casts and creatives of “Moonlight” and “La La Land” both gathered onstage to accept best picture in an infamous bit of Academy Awards history.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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“I came to realize the board didn’t give a s— about what its membership wants,” Mechanic adds. “You don’t have to do what everybody wants, but you should at least listen and not run it as an elitist organization.”

In the eyes of Hudson’s allies, however, she was exactly the sort of bold leader the organization needed to bring it fully into the 21st century, opening up a white-male-dominated membership to more women and people of color, bringing the museum to life after decades of failure and shaking up outdated Oscar traditions.

“Dawn has been extremely successful in getting an organization that has been around for almost 100 years to think differently about many things,” says Kramer, who served as the Academy Museum’s director before succeeding Hudson. “We are now an institution that’s much more open to new ideas.”

“For an organization that was founded in the 1920s, change can be painful, but it was time,” adds outgoing academy President David Rubin. “The bright spotlight is inevitable. And for the press, it’s incredibly entertaining to write about. To withstand that kind of scrutiny takes a particular strength. I credit Dawn for being able to weather it all.”

Hudson was embattled from the start. Within a few months of taking charge in June 2011, she faced stiff internal criticism for launching new initiatives and making key staff changes with what some deemed to be insufficient input from other academy leaders. That fall, the academy endured the first in a string of public-relations nightmares to come during Hudson’s tenure when director Brett Ratner, who had been hired to produce the next year’s Oscars, was quoted making an antigay slur, leaving the organization scrambling to replace him and his hand-picked host, Eddie Murphy.

In a closed-door meeting of the academy’s board in December 2011, some lobbied to buy out the remainder of Hudson’s three-year contract and throw her overboard.

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“Dawn was taking some hits,” says former academy President Sid Ganis, who helped recruit Hudson for the job. “She came to the academy when it was this kind of wealthy, club-like organization that was used to doing things a certain way and reluctant to change much, and she dug in and grabbed the bull by the horns. And when you do that, there are people who can’t handle it — or don’t wish to handle it.”

“She should have been fired then when we had the chance,” says a former governor, who requested anonymity to protect current working relationships. “She was clearly in over her head.”

Hudson not only kept her job but also won new three-year contracts in 2014, 2017 and 2020.

“She’s a survivor,” says a former academy official. “She knew how to form alliances on the board that pretty much made her bulletproof, even with all the criticism.”

Asked about her critics, Hudson, who has been described more than once as a “steel magnolia” for her blend of Southern charm and grit, says that throughout her tenure, she was guided by a drive to do whatever she believed was necessary to safeguard the future of film and the academy.

“I’m motivated by a mission for this art form that I love,” Hudson says. “When you have that in the forefront of your mind, I think it’s easier to take chances or move forward and take criticism.”

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The quest for inclusion

One of Hudson’s top priorities was to make the academy more inclusive. She saw diversifying the organization that was supposed to represent Hollywood’s best and brightest as not only the right thing to do but also critical to the academy’s survival. Hudson immediately launched an internal survey of the demographics of the academy’s staff, committees and membership, something that the organization had never undertaken.

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Not everyone on the board at the time shared Hudson’s sense of urgency.

“Everybody called us a bunch of old white guys ... well, it wasn’t true, but it was pretty close to true,” says Ganis. “And Dawn came in and Day 1 she said ‘diversity’ — and she did it in every direction…. There were board members who said, ‘We have to change,’ and I must say I was one of them. But I don’t think the board was looking for somebody to remake the organization.”

Six days after starting the job, Hudson and then-academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs convened an unpublicized meeting with Spike Lee and other academy members and leaders to discuss how the organization could be made more welcoming to underrepresented communities.

As a woman taking the reins of a group that was, according to a 2012 Times study, more than three-quarters male, Hudson personally felt the organization’s skewed demographics. “When I first came, there were very few women on the board,” she says. “I felt acutely that I was one of the few female voices in that room. It was sort of a boys club.”

Elected to the board in July 2016, Dern says she was surprised at how resistant some in the group were to Hudson’s efforts to modernize the institution and how entrenched some of its leaders were in “an old-school ritual of how certain things were considered.”

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“Literally every meeting where Dawn would bring up something that sounded, you know, 50 years behind its time — not cutting-edge, just catching up with a lot of other organizations throughout the world that were attempting the same goals — that there would be any resistance did always shock me,” Dern says.

In 2016, after incremental efforts to boost the organization’s diversity, the academy’s inequities exploded into public view. Two consecutive years of all-white acting nominees sparked the #OscarsSoWhite controversy with outrage on social media and within the industry.

At an event honoring Boone Isaacs that January, amid growing talk of a potential Oscar boycott, “Selma” star David Oyelowo became one of the first prominent figures in Hollywood to publicly blast the academy, telling the crowd, “I am an academy member, and it doesn’t reflect me, and it doesn’t reflect this nation.” After he spoke, Hudson and Boone Isaacs pulled the actor aside to discuss their response to the crisis.

“I remember the three of us huddling while people were chomping on their rubber chicken, trying to figure out how we could address what was becoming a bit of an outcry,” Oyelowo says. “Here were these two women who were caring about the likes of myself and other marginalized voices, saying: ‘What can we say to show that we want to change?’ I watched them both navigate that, and I thought Dawn’s thoughtfulness, her ability to listen and her desire to put in place things that were actionable despite the political nature of the academy, was really exemplary.”

Dawn Hudson and David Oyelowo attend the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Scientific and Technical Awards in 2019
Dawn Hudson and David Oyelowo in 2019.
(Rodin Eckenroth / FilmMagic via Getty Images)

Hoping to quell the firestorm, the academy announced a plan, dubbed A2020, to double the number of women and minorities in the group within five years. With thousands of new members from around the world, membership grew by nearly 80% to more than 10,000, and the goals were achieved in 2020. Today, the academy says 34% of its members identify as female, while 19% are from underrepresented ethnic/racial communities.

Many cheered the aggressive effort to diversify the organization, but some older academy members balked at the notion that its ranks needed a radical overhaul, arguing that they were being unfairly scapegoated for industry- and society-wide problems and that the bar for membership was being lowered.

“The academy may not have been a complete hall of fame, but it used to take some artistic achievement to become a member,” Mechanic says. “Now all you have to do is buy a movie ticket.”

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Looking back, Hudson wishes she had done more to convey the importance of taking such dramatic steps.

“It’s hard to change what you have for breakfast, much less change a 90-year-old institution,” she says. “People want it in theory, but in practice it creates a sense of loss. I feel more compassion now, I guess, toward that kind of resistance. If I were doing this all over again, I would communicate even more what the academy must do to stay relevant, how the academy must reflect our filmgoing audience and our film industry talent that we had unintentionally but in our complacency not included before. I feel like we’re a much stronger academy now.”

During Hudson’s tenure, the academy also significantly diversified its leadership. For the first time in the group’s history, the board, which has expanded to 54 governors, now includes more women than men. In the most recent board elections, the number of members from underrepresented racial/ethnic communities rose to 15 from 12. In 2020, the academy announced a new initiative, Aperture 2025, geared at further increasing representation in the organization’s governance, membership and workplace culture as well as instituting new inclusion standards for Oscars eligibility.

Even as the group was giving its membership a makeover, Hudson was engaged in another ambitious and high-stakes project: building a major movie museum in the heart of Los Angeles. Announced in 2012 with an initial budget of $250 million, the project was soon beset by delays and construction snags.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures has opened as the ultimate celebration of Hollywood history, Oscar lore and today’s movie makers.

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As the budget swelled, eventually nearly doubling, and fundraising slowed, tensions among board members rose and Hudson’s leadership again came into question. Despite the setbacks and hand-wringing, Hudson insists she maintained a firm grasp on the museum project.

“Yes, of course, there were challenges,” Hudson says. “But once we started demolition, I thought, ‘There’s no going back now.’ We had Tom Hanks, Bob Iger and Annette Bening leading our capital campaign. We weren’t going to lose.”

The stakes of the museum project, in terms of both the nonprofit organization’s brand and its bottom line, are enormous. During Hudson’s tenure, the academy’s net assets grew from $289 million in 2011 to $894 million in 2021, according to the group’s most recent financial report. But in a potentially worrying sign for its long-term health, awards revenue, after rising for decades, has leveled off in recent years, declining more than 10% in the fiscal year ending July 2021. The academy’s current contract with ABC ends in 2028. Beyond that, the broadcast — or streaming — future of the Oscars is an open question.

In September, after a reconsideration of the exhibitions to showcase underrepresented voices in Hollywood history, the $480-million museum finally opened. Though the fanfare was muted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the museum sold more than 550,000 tickets in its first nine months, according to the academy.

“We would not have a museum if it wasn’t for Dawn and her vision and her commitment to the civic and cultural life of the city and the industry,” Kramer says. “She saw the need for this.”

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An awards empire in decline

Even within the academy, however, excitement over the museum’s opening has been dampened by deep anxiety over the state of the film industry. And for a large segment of the public, the Oscars appear to have lost some of their luster. Viewership for this year’s Oscars rebounded from the disastrous 2021 pandemic ceremony held at Union Station. But at 16.6 million viewers, it was still the second-lowest-rated Oscars in history, a precipitous decline from a decade ago, when the telecast — from which the academy derives the bulk of its revenue — routinely pulled in around 40 million viewers.

Changes in the way people consume media explain much of the collapse. But critics say the academy’s response — announcing (and then immediately dropping) the “best popular film” Oscar, removing categories from the live broadcast (a move revived this year after bitter protests squashed a plan in 2019), adding two unofficial “fan favorite” awards — have been ill-considered and demeaning to the Oscars’ reputation.

For many academy members and viewers alike, this year’s Oscars telecast proved a particularly low point.

Already marred by controversy over the academy’s decision to move eight below-the-line and short film categories out of the live televised ceremony, the evening went off the rails when Smith struck Chris Rock onstage over a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. In the aftermath of the shocking incident, Hudson and Rubin acknowledged in a letter to members that they “did not adequately address” it in the moment.

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Will Smith stands onstage holding his Oscar award
A tearful Will Smith gives his Oscars acceptance speech not long after “the Slap.”
(Myung Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Producer Michael Shamberg, who sued the academy in 2020, claiming the group violated its bylaws by not allowing members to vote on his proposal for a revised social media strategy, believes the organization’s leadership has failed to live up to the academy’s mission.

“I have praise for what Dawn did accomplish, but ... the academy dropped the ball on defining and promoting cinema as an art form to the younger audience growing up in the streaming era,” Shamberg says. “As a result, the Oscars aren’t relevant to kids growing up today and they’ve lost their status as the pinnacle of pop culture.”

Davis, Hudson’s predecessor as academy leader, attributes the ratings slide to the academy “hurting itself by doing its job: honoring the best movies each year.” As studios have abdicated making serious commercial films in favor of IP-oriented popcorn fare, Oscar voters have been rewarding increasingly smaller-scale indie movies, including “Nomadland” and the Apple TV+ release “CODA.”

“That huge audience that used to turn out every year for the Oscars doesn’t know these movies as well,” Davis says, “so the show’s appeal has become more limited.” He adds that it’s easy to imagine a future in which the Oscars become something akin to the National Book Awards, only with “way more glamorous presenters.”

Actor Song Kang Ho hugs director Bong Joon Ho while an audience gives a standing ovation
Actor Song Kang Ho hugs director Bong Joon Ho (back to the camera) after “Parasite” wins best picture at the Oscars in 2020.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

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Others, however, argue that as the academy’s membership has grown more diverse and expansive under Hudson, the types of films that can be honored have expanded as well. “The possibility of ‘Parasite’ winning best picture ... that didn’t happen without Dawn Hudson,” says Dern. “That would have never happened on an international level, on a diversity level, on an independent film level.”

Hudson says she isn’t surprised that changes to the Oscar ceremony have received fierce pushback, attributing it to an “attachment to this brand” and a “sign of the importance of the institution.”

The challenge, she says, is in staying connected to the core audience of movie lovers. While praising the board’s willingness to try new ideas, including the audience award, she acknowledges that “some things work better than others. It’s not a simple formula.”

For the first time in a decade, cracking that elusive formula won’t be on Hudson to solve.

“I feel very confident in the academy’s future,” she says. “I set out to do the things that were most important to me. We really modernized this academy and its position in the world, and I feel so excited about the museum and about our leadership in inclusion and diversity. And for me, I’m excited to take a breath, look around and see how else I can grow and contribute.”

 Dawn Hudson
“I set out to do the things that were most important to me,” Dawn Hudson says. “We really modernized this academy and its position in the world.”
(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

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