Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences leader is under fire


Dawn Hudson, the chief executive who was hired last year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and promised to “chart the new path” for the 84-year-old institution that awards the Oscars, has stirred up enough controversy within the organization that some leaders are talking about replacing her.

The academy’s board of governors held a closed-door session Dec. 6 to discuss the job performance of Hudson. At least one member raised the possibility of buying out the remainder of her three-year contract, according to half a dozen academy insiders familiar with the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity because board deliberations are supposed to be confidential and because some feared reprisals.

Hudson, 55, who was named in April and started work in July, continues to have the backing of academy President Tom Sherak, who was instrumental in bringing her to the academy from Film Independent, which she headed for 20 years, as well as many members of the executive committee. It appears to be a minority of the 43-member board that is unhappy with her performance.


Neither Hudson nor Sherak would comment for this article.

The selection of Hudson to replace the retiring Bruce Davis came as a surprise to many inside the organization who believed Davis’ top lieutenant, Ric Robertson, would land the job. Since Hudson’s arrival, the academy has announced several major new initiatives, including partnering with the L.A. County Museum of Art to establish a film museum and developing a parcel of land in Hollywood into an outdoor screening venue. But the group also endured a public relations nightmare this fall when Oscar telecast producer Brett Ratner made an anti-gay slur and the institution had to scramble to replace him, along with host Eddie Murphy, for the Feb. 26 show.

Those frustrated with Hudson’s leadership say she has not done enough to get to know the intricacies of the academy, including its 250 employees, and has made decisions without consulting others, including the board. In addition, some members and staff have been upset by her moves to bring in well-paid management consultants and headhunters, public relations specialists and speech writers while docking long-term employees’ overtime pay; her removal of long-term committee members from their posts; and her proposal to hire superstar architect Thom Mayne to refurbish the fourth-floor offices of the academy’s headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard.

“The biggest problem is she is operating from a zero base of knowledge. She hasn’t been in some of the facilities. She doesn’t know who her staff is or what they do. She came in like a bull in a china shop and did a lot of stuff that put a lot of the members — and the staff — out of joint,” said one insider, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution.

The selection of Hudson to replace Davis, who was the academy CEO for 30 years, was a surprise in part because Film Independent and the academy are in many ways a study in opposites. Film Independent champions movies made outside the studio system, has a rather small budget and sponsors the Independent Spirit Awards, which are handed out the day before the Oscars at an informal, cheeky ceremony that studiously avoids the portentousness associated with the Academy Awards. The 6,000-member academy, on the other hand, is the embodiment of the Hollywood establishment, wealthy (thanks to the fees received for the annual Oscar telecast), slow to change, with power entrenched in its board of governors. It is also responsible for a vast library and archive and takes its role as Hollywood’s elder statesman very seriously.

Hudson’s outsider status was a significant reason for her appointment — though when she was first presented to the board as the search committee’s choice for CEO, she didn’t receive enough votes to be hired. (She came back for another shot, “like a house on fire,” said one person who was there, and she convinced enough governors that she was the appropriate choice.)

Hudson has made diversifying the 6,000-member organization, which is largely white and male, a primary objective. And some members and governors say the academy is overdue for change. But critics complain that while she’s instructed middle management to hire minorities for entry-level jobs, she’s made pricey additions to her own staff, in particular a speech writer and a social media executive — both white men.


In addition, sources say Hudson has inserted herself into the process of member nominations — a procedure that historically has been determined solely by each branch. (The academy has 15 branches for different fields, including actors, directors and producers.) According to two people with knowledge of her actions, Hudson is now meeting with the membership department herself and coming up with her own shortlist of people.

Other controversial and divisive decisions include her replacing Andrew Marlowe as the longtime volunteer chairman of the academy’s grants committee. According to multiple sources with inside knowledge of the academy, Hudson removed Marlowe, a screenwriter and producer of the television series “Castle,” from his role because she didn’t like the way he ran a meeting, having attended one meeting for less than 30 minutes, according to a person who was there. The sources say she made the decision with little consultation from committee members, and had one of her employees deliver the news to Marlowe, rather than tell him herself.

“The academy, of course, has the right to make whatever leadership changes it wishes,” Marlowe said. “But it was perplexing to me that it was done so cavalierly by new leadership, against the recommendations of the staff and without any understanding of the complex work of the committee.”

Hudson’s request for $4 million to remodel one floor of offices at the academy headquarters raised the ire of many board members, sources say. The request was made at the end of a long meeting with what sources say was an assumption that the board would approve the funds without discussion. Her argument for the expensive construction project was that it would improve staff communication.

According to two people with knowledge of the meeting, when the remodeling proposal was tabled, one board member told Hudson she should simply start talking more with the staff to improve communication.

With the late hiring of Brian Grazer to produce the Oscar show and veteran Billy Crystal returning as host, insiders have been concerned about whether the academy has enough time to put together a successful broadcast. Those worries were compounded after two employees with longtime responsibility for Oscar logistics — publicity head Leslie Unger and associate operating officer Mikel Gordon — left after their roles were marginalized as part of Hudson’s reorganizing moves.


Since the Dec. 6 meeting, some academy insiders say Hudson has made a more concerted effort to engage with her staff and the board.

Staff writer John Horn contributed to this report.