Q&A: Motion Picture Academy CEO opens up on #OscarsSoWhite, museum costs, that envelope snafu and more

Dawn Hudson arrives on the red carpet for the 89th Oscars on Feb. 26 in Hollywood.
(Valerie Macon / AFP/Getty Images)

The weeks and months after the Oscars are normally a time for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to decompress and reorganize after the pressure cooker of awards season.

But for academy CEO Dawn Hudson, these have not been normal times.

Since the Feb. 26 Oscars ceremony — and the stunning snafu in which “La La Land” was initially named best picture instead of actual winner “Moonlight” — Hudson and her fellow academy leaders have wrestled with knotty issues behind the scenes, as the proudly tradition-bound institution continues to remake itself.

The #OscarsSoWhite furor has abated with the academy’s dramatic and widely praised steps to diversify its overwhelmingly white and male membership. But Hudson, the academy’s chief executive since 2011, finds herself grappling with other, no less difficult challenges.

An effort to build an ambitious, Renzo Piano-designed academy museum has run into cost overruns and delays that have stoked concerns about the academy’s finances among some within the organization. Ratings for the Oscar telecast — from which the academy derives the bulk of its revenue — have slid in recent years. Some fret that the movies themselves are losing their cultural primacy in an era of peak TV, posing an existential threat to an institution that is proudly synonymous with the cinematic art form.

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On a recent afternoon, Hudson, whose contract was recently renewed through June 2020, sat down in her office at the academy’s headquarters in Beverly Hills to talk about the challenges of leading the nearly 90-year-old institution through a period of unprecedented change.

In leading the academy through tremendous change, you have been something of a lightning rod. What has it been like to navigate through this transformation?

First of all, yes, I think I was brought in to bring the organization forward in its business practices, technologically, with the museum and in terms of more collaboration among our departments and more engagement with members. All of that was really important to the board when I was hired.

But you’re right: There’s an idea of change and then there’s actually going through change. And sometimes it’s harder to go through it. That’s human. I think there’s a natural instinct to resist change. Even if you want it, it can still feel a little scary.

But I think overall people see the strides we’ve made. They see the institution having more connection with our members, more engagement with our film community, being more public with the great work that the academy has been doing for 90 years. What gives me heart is seeing all the progress we’ve made.

Well ahead of the usual schedule, the academy announced that this year’s Oscars host, Jimmy Kimmel, and producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd will return for next year’s show. How did that come together so quickly?

Jimmy is the embodiment of what we dream of for an Academy Awards host. Mike and Jen were fantastic producers who are also such cinephiles and such students of the awards themselves. They were true fans who had the expertise to execute in all areas. All of us — the board, our members, the public — we thought it was a home run. To have them back was an easy decision.

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Of course, this year’s show ended in the best-picture envelope snafu heard around the world. How did that moment and the ensuing fallout play out for you?

I was like the audience in the moment — there was just that slow awareness that something is wrong, and how bad is it? You see the stagehands go onstage and everything goes through your mind: What is this? As soon as the cameras were off, we went up on stage to see what really happened. People were in shock.

I think afterward it was hard for the press or even our board to understand, why isn’t there an answer right away? Why don’t the [PricewaterhouseCoopers] accountants remember exactly what happened? But the truth is, they were also in shock. So it took a long time for even them to understand what happened, let alone for us to understand from them what had happened.

I felt terrible for the producers and for “Moonlight’s” fantastic team. And yet, as many people have written, it gave way to such an incredible moment onstage. The people onstage handled it the best they possibly could have. It showed that grace that exists in artists. It was beautiful.

For the awards, nothing ever goes how you think it will go. You might trip on the way up there, you might forget to thank your wife — something happens that you don’t expect, which is what makes it a unique experience for the winners and for the viewers. And this just ratcheted up that unexpectedness.

There’s an idea of change and then there’s actually going through change — and sometimes it’s harder to go through it.

— Motion Picture Academy CEO Dawn Hudson

After two consecutive years of #OscarsSoWhite controversy, what did the win for “Moonlight” mean for you – and what do you think it says about the academy as a whole?

Justin Chang wrote a really lovely piece in your paper and he said that “Moonlight” was the most extraordinary film and it should win. But there were these predictions that the academy would not vote for it – they were not sophisticated enough, not broad-minded enough. And then we did.

I think it just showed what every best picture winner shows: a love of talent, a love of the art of looking at something in a new way. But that particular film being made for such a small budget with such heart from a filmmaker I’ve personally known since his [debut feature] “Medicine for Melancholy” — for me to see [director] Barry [Jenkins] on that stage was really a special moment.

What does it symbolize? On one hand, it just symbolizes a great film winning best picture. On another hand, it’s a triumph for art.

The telecast got generally good reviews, but ratings were down for the third year in a row. When you look at the fragmentation of the entertainment landscape, how concerned are you about the show’s declining viewership?

There’s an overall trend in television: It’s much more fractured, much more niche viewing. But I do think it’s what makes live events stand out even more. And our show is still by far the largest entertainment show on television. We’re proud of it. Given all of the trends about television watching, the fact that the Oscars still commands that kind of audience and that kind of conversation during and after the show bodes well for us.

Still, there is anxiety that movies don’t hold the same place in the culture they once did. With the rise of streaming, and the blurring between film and TV, how can the academy hold the line on what a movie is and why it’s important?

The fact that other forms of entertainment are thriving doesn’t take away from movies. More is more. But I still think making a movie, with all of the arts that have to be at their best — the production design, the costume design, the music, the acting, the editing, the cinematography — when all of that works together, I don’t think there’s a comparison.

Is a movie defined by different distribution platforms? No, I don’t think it is. But a movie is best seen and appreciated in that gorgeous theatrical setting that I think every filmmaker aspires to — and that’s what we stand for. Will you see those movies in other forms, on other platforms? Of course you will. But we still feel the ideal experience is sitting in a theater with great picture quality and great sound, with a community of film lovers, experiencing that art form.

The challenges with the academy museum have stirred up friction behind the scenes among the leadership. A recent Variety piece compared the project to “Heaven’s Gate” and “Cleopatra.” Have these negative stories frustrated you?

It’s just wasted energy. With any great projects there will be a lot of chatter. And then we’ll walk in that door [of the museum] and there will still be chatter — and that will be OK, because people will be lining up to learn about movies for the first time in Los Angeles.

Still, as the budget for the museum has grown and its construction has hit repeated delays, there’s a sense out there that the academy may have bitten off more than it can chew. Or at least more than it originally anticipated.

We didn’t go into this with an arrogance, like, “We know exactly how this is going to go.” We had an awareness that we would have to gain expertise. So we tried hiring best-in-class wherever we were, and we methodically put that expertise into place. But I don’t think anything ever goes exactly as you think.

Our ambitions increased as soon as we started talking about it. We started out with a smaller project and it went through different iterations that have demanded a different budget. We now have an entirely renovated May Co. Building and an entirely separate, beautiful 1,000-seat theater housed in a glass sphere floating above the ground behind it. So this iteration is a little different than the original concept.

But it is befitting our aspirations for the academy. We wanted great exhibition space — and a lot of it — because this will be the definitive movie museum. I think in the same ways the Museum of Modern Art defined modern art, this museum will define motion pictures.

There have been concerns that the pace of fundraising for the museum has lagged and that it is draining resources from other academy programs. Are you confident that the capital campaign is now on track?

Yes. Look, we had a fantastic head of fundraising, Bill Kramer, and when he left [in October 2015] there was a gap in hiring someone else because it’s a highly skilled, highly sought-after position. During that time, there was definitely not the level of fundraising that there was when Bill was here.

But Kathy DeShaw is our new head of advancement and she has really picked up speed very quickly. I have no worries. As Renzo Piano says, it’s a very photogenic project and it attracts a lot of people. I really have found that you just have to ask. Once you ask, people get on board.

Is the museum going to cannibalize the other programs? It certainly hasn’t. We just took in 100 new collections for the library. We restored over 50 films last year. We have expanded our education programs with our Academy Gold internship and mentoring program. We continue to do more and more every year with every goal of the academy.

The work is not just steady, it’s expanding in its scope and its effectiveness, while we are also taking on this museum that will be a public showcase for the ongoing work of our academy. So I can say most emphatically that we are fulfilling our mission and we will continue to fulfill our mission as broadly and effectively as we ever have, if not more so.

Last year, the academy took in its largest, most diverse class of new members ever. As the academy works toward doubling the number of women and minorities in its ranks by 2020, with the deep inequities that exist in the industry, do you feel certain you can meet that goal without changing the standards for academy membership?

There are so many artists who were not admitted in the past because we had a limit on how many new members we invited each year. So with the elimination of those [quotas] and the aggressive pursuit of excellence by all of our members, I think we will be able to expand in a more inclusive way for several years.

But the academy is not letting it go at that. We’re expanding our internship programs and our initiatives to identify young, upcoming artists and mentor them and give them opportunities to grow. And we have also focused our grants program, our Student Academy Awards, our Nicholl Fellowship [in screenwriting] — we have a lot of programs that help to support young artists, and those are more robust and popular than ever.

That commitment [to diversity] has not waned and will not wane for many years to come. Because I don’t see this industry getting a lot more diverse or having more gender parity any time real soon. So this work will be ongoing for the academy. And I know that it has inspired others to follow suit.


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