Academy Chief on Woody Allen's Scandal, Host Ellen DeGeneres and the Diversity of This Year's Nominees (Q&A)

Cheryl Boone Isaacs
Cheryl Boone Isaacs
 Aaron Fallon

This story first appeared in the March 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made history July 30 when its board of governors elected Cheryl Boone Isaacs, 64, as the organization's 35th president. She's the first African-American and only the third woman (following Bette Davis and screenwriter Fay Kanin) to hold the nonsalaried position, providing direction for the 300-employee Academy while working alongside CEO Dawn Hudson, who handles its day-to-day operations.

A veteran Hollywood marketing executive who has held top jobs at Paramount and New Line Cinema, Boone Isaacs graduated from Whittier College. She worked as a Pan Am flight attendant before following her older brother Ashley Boone Jr. into entertainment. Ashley himself had broken barriers, rising to become president of marketing and distribution at Fox before his death at age 55 in 1994.

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Boone Isaacs, who lives in Hancock Park with her husband, producer Stanley Isaacs, and their 19-year-old son, Cooper, now oversees an organization with more than $100 million in annual revenue (mostly from ABC's Oscars deal) that supports a library and film preservation and is embarking on a major museum (see story, page 140) -- all while juggling the hoopla, and inevitable controversy, that swirls around the Oscar show. This year, the board of governors disqualified a nominated song after its co-writer violated campaign regulations. And up next, the board will have to decide whether to extend Hudson's contract, which is coming up for renewal.

In the midst of honors from the NAACP and Essence, Boone Isaacs invited THR to her office at the former May Co. building, where the Academy staff is temporarily located while its executive offices undergo renovations. She says she's ready for her first Academy Awards as president: "I've never been backstage at the Oscars; maybe I'll spend a little time there while it's all going on."

In the wake of the Woody Allen allegations and the song disqualification, has it been a rough Oscar season for you?

Oh man, no, I don't think it's been a rough year. There were a few rough patches, maybe, but overall, it's been a good year. Woody Allen -- that's a personal thing.

Will it have any impact on votes for Cate Blanchett or Sally Hawkins?

I believe our Academy members take voting seriously. They do their homework, they see the movies, they know quality when they see it, and they vote accordingly.

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The song was disqualified because its composer sent an email to members of the music branch. How is that different from studios staging concerts or a member tweeting how much he likes a movie?

We review our rules and regulations every year. It's delicate because when a film is in general release, the primary business of a studio or production company is to get the film out to general audiences in order to bring in box office. That is not the Academy's business. However, we frown on -- and this is why we have the rules -- any seemingly direct Academy-only appeal. The basis of the campaigns should just be to drive people to see the movie. You want the movies to be seen.

But how do you draw a line between recommending a movie to a friend and sending an email?

I would say, when in doubt, our website is very clear about what the rules and regulations are. Or pick up the phone and call me.

One thing we haven't heard much about this year is the electronic voting, which had problems last year.

We spent a lot of time going through the issues and correcting them without losing the all-important security, which is key to our success.

After the criticism of last year's host, Seth MacFarlane, did you and the producers choose Ellen DeGeneres to serve as an antidote to Seth?

No, not at all. Ellen is Ellen. And she is at the top of her game. She is a beloved host and comedian and entertainer.

What will the Oscars look like in five years? Is the tradition of handing out all 24 awards during the broadcast inviolate?

I can only address what's happening this year. It takes a lot of people to produce a motion picture, and every one of their skill sets is vital to the success of the final film. You really have to recognize the value, the contribution of all the departments, that make the final film what it is.

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Have you considered turning the nominations reveal into a primetime broadcast like the Grammys do?

Since its inception, it's been a press conference. The value to that is we have ownership of the entertainment business for a couple of days. And that is very important, especially as the interest from around the world grows. I'm not sure we'd want to change that.

How about the Oscar Concert, which you're introducing as a separate event Feb. 27. Is that something that could be broadcast?

Absolutely. We like thinking of new ways of recognizing talent, of producing entertainment based on our membership and our goals. The music concert is going to be terrific, and we'll see how we can grow it.

The Academy has invited more women and minorities to join. How much progress has it made?

In the 30-odd years I've been in this business, there have been many changes -- but not enough. But I think right now the collective consciousness is such that all folks are being much more open to bringing in new voices, different stories. When films are not segregated, if you will -- whether it's African-American, Chinese-American, Latino -- and have the ability to get made and then to be distributed to a wide audience, box office will increase. And therefore, more opportunities will be available. And that's how you grow this.

Do you think those efforts to develop a more diverse membership are reflected in this year's nominations?

Oh, absolutely. We have an African-American writer, 12 Years a Slave's John Ridley. Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron nominated for best director. And a good number of female producers. Every year we have foreign-language films, but this year we have a film from Cambodia, a film from Palestine. It wasn't that long ago that all the foreign-language films were European.

What's your working relationship with Dawn Hudson like? How do you divide things up?

The word "divide" is kind of bizarre because it's a partnership.

Dawn's contract is up for renewal this year …

Well, we both are. It's just the normal business process. Nothing new, not really.

But you'll run for another one-year term?

Not run. I don't really campaign, but it would be my honor to continue, and I certainly hope there will be an agreement by the board that they would like to see me continue.

You've been on the Academy's board of governors for a long time. Were there surprises when you stepped into the role of president?

Maybe the surprise was how deep the impact of my election has been. I certainly didn't expect the recognition from the NAACP and Essence.

STORY: Cheryl Boone Isaacs Elected President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

What has that meant to you?

The NAACP Hall of Fame was major. Even though I was born and raised in the North, the impact of the civil rights movement was all through my formative years, and the importance and prominence of the NAACP in the black community has been strong and dependable. Amazing, when I think of my name and my family name among those like Rosa Parks or women like Madame Walker, the first African-American female millionaire who made her money from hair products and legally changed her name to "Madame" so that every time somebody talked to her, they had to call her Madame. That is beyond fabulous.

How influential was your brother in bringing you to Hollywood?

It was very chic and hip in the early '60s, certainly in the African-American community, to have someone in the business. I would visit him in the summer. He'd invite me to screening rooms, and I'd sit in the back and watch films.

Here's a question your predecessors didn't have to answer. Do you know what you're wearing to the Oscars?

I do know. I actually went very early on to get that over with, and I'm glad I did.

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