A state-of-the-Oscars Q & A: Dawn Hudson and Cheryl Boone Isaacs
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Chief Executive Dawn Hudson and President Cheryl Boone Isaacs met with The Times in their offices in the historic Wilshire May Co. Building eight days before the March 2 Oscars for an interview about the sweeping changes underway in one of Hollywood’s most tradition-bound organizations.
Hudson, elected to the academy’s newly created executive position in 2011, and Isaacs, on the Board of Governors for 23 years before becoming the organization’s first black female president last July, discussed the progress of the academy’s ambitious, $300-million museum project underway at the May Co. building. They also shared their hopes for this year’s Oscar telecast, explained their controversial decision to revoke an original song nomination in January and described the academy’s efforts to diversify its membership.
What’s the status of the academy museum?
Cheryl Boone Isaacs: We are moving along, picking up speed. ... It’s taken us very far to have an actual physical space to discuss the future and the plans through the next four years. We’re still looking to start construction on the building by the end of the year and on schedule for opening at the end of 2017.
We’re here on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. What exactly is LACMA’s role going to be?
Dawn Hudson: One of the assets of having the museum here was the knowledge and expertise of [LACMA CEO] Michael Govan and LACMA. We’re a completely independent institution, and we have a 110-year lease that we signed in October 2012. So the content, the design, all of that is completely, independently the academy’s. We’ve never built anything before, but we have Michael and LACMA to lean on for management of a museum. Our conservators, our film restorers, our archivists know the archivists at LACMA, so there will be shared knowledge.
Let’s talk about the telecast. You brought back your producers from last year, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan. After years of changing producers, did you want continuity?
Isaacs: We love the idea of continuity. This is a huge show. We’re very lucky this year to have the benefit of veterans. The ratings were up last year. It was an entertaining show. There was a lot of discussion. But I have to tell you, I kind of love the discussion because it means people are invested. What would make me nuts is if nobody talked about it. And then we have a veteran with [host] Ellen [DeGeneres] coming back. She was fabulous the first time and now you think about her evolution, that skill set over these years of her daily show. We couldn’t be happier.
Many people, including at my newspaper, have written about the overwhelmingly white, male membership of the academy. And yet here I am talking to the two most powerful people at the academy, both women, one woman of color. What does that say, if anything, about the academy’s approach to this issue?
Hudson: I was hired by the board, and I’m a woman. That was not trying to make a statement ... but having the academy be representative of our industry, of our world at this time is really important to us. … We had meetings — much before your paper wrote about it, by the way — and a lot of board members felt we have missed a few beats sometimes; there are great people we haven’t invited in. We want to make sure we don’t do that in the future. We want to have our antennae up. We want to make sure that we’re leaders in this film industry in a way that is bringing in the most talented people of all races, genders and fields and geographically as well. I remember somebody saying, “Do you have something against New Yorkers?”
Isaacs: It’s not like people are walking around going, “I don’t want, I don’t want, I don’t want.” There’s kind of an impression of that and that’s not true.… But by lifting up and looking around and seeing a lot of new talent and diverse voices in storytelling, by encouraging our members to pay attention to the changing landscape, we’re going to have more and more representation.
Hudson: The board is wanting to move forward in a lot of ways; part of it is our membership but part of it is technology. The board supported online voting, which is a very big advancement for this organization, especially given the hurdles of security which no other arts organization faces in the way the academy does. There were a lot of ways the board wanted to bring the academy into the 21st century.
The academy revoked an Oscar nomination for best original song for “Alone Yet Not Alone,” citing improper campaigning. What kind of reaction did you get from members when you did that?
Hudson: I had a lot of people saying that was a very courageous and important decision. I had a lot of people write to me and call me and say that. It was a very difficult —
Isaacs: Very difficult —
Hudson: — and painful decision, but the right decision for the academy, because protecting the integrity of the process is the No. 1 priority.
Isaacs: There were conversations about, how did this happen? What was this? We got together, we talked about it, came to a decision and stood by it. Still stand by it. But it was a tough time.
Every year the issue of how to campaign during awards season seems fraught. There seems to be confusion about what is and isn’t acceptable. What are you doing about that?
Isaacs: It is a constant process, and it has been for years, and we review our rules, and each year there has been something that we need to address, because the goal is to make it a level playing field as much as we can. This year I think every single one of the nine films [nominated for best picture] were all released after Oct. 1. Now it’s this complicated landscape where you have studios rightfully who are going after their audience, and they’re promoting and marketing the movie the way they’re supposed to. And then it starts to fall into this period known as awards season, which is why we have our rules.
Hudson: The goal of the last few years has been, especially after the nominations come out, what can you do to minimize the corruptive processes of having parties and trying to gain people’s votes, as if the academy members are swayed by that.
Is that a faulty premise, that a party would sway people’s votes?
Hudson: I think it is. ...What we try to focus on during the nominations process is seeing the movies in the theater if possible. There’s very deliberate limitations on parties that are not attached to screenings but also encouraging members to go see the films in the theaters. So it’s trying to walk that fine line of, yes, please go see the movies in theaters, but no, none of the other hoopla around it is necessary, and it’s against the rules a lot of times.
What has surprised you since you took on your jobs?
Hudson: What has surprised me is how nimble this academy has been. … We have two new branches, a new museum. This board in three years committed to this museum after 20 years of talking around it. So they committed to this $300-million capital campaign. Committed to a member engagement beginning with online voting. It is a big organization, and we guard those traditions very closely, but at the same time it’s been willing to take risks to keep the academy relevant, contemporary and moving forward in a very considered and very responsible way.
Isaacs: I’ve been involved and on the board for a while, and involved in this process and change for the last three years or so. The goal is to continue it, to deepen it, to widen it.
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