Tom Sherak on His 8 Biggest Challenges as Academy President (Q&A)

5:00 AM PST 07/31/2012 by Alex Ben Block
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On his last day as AMPAS chief, the veteran executive reflects on how to fix the Oscars, the hiring of Dawn Hudson, the new movie museum and more.

On Tuesday night, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will elect a new president for the first time since 2009, when Tom Sherak was a surprise choice for the high-profile unpaid position at the organization that bestows the Oscars. Sherak has proved to be a strong leader but one capable of compromise, who has had to navigate through major changes in the long history of the tradition-bound nonprofit organization.

He negotiated a new TV contract with ABC, a new deal for the Oscar venue at the Hollywood & Highland complex, brought aboard a new executive director in Dawn Hudson, changed the way best pictures nominees are picked (again) and launched what will become a major museum about the movies. None of these moves was without controversy or opposition, but Sherak managed to keep his head, build a consensus and get the job done. He talked candidly with The Hollywood Reporter about his biggest challenges during his three years on the job.

1. OSCAR'S HOME

THR: The Academy threatened to move the Academy Awards out of Hollywood even before Kodak went bankrupt and decided to take its name off the theater. In the end, the Oscars remained there and the theater got a new name courtesy of Dolby. The Academy had the right to stop that naming rights sale but didn’t. What is the backstory?

Sherak: Yes, we had the right to stop a naming if we felt it was not good for the Academy Awards show. Now, what does that mean? You want to name that theater Hooterville or the Topless Theater at Hollywood & Highland? That wasn’t going to happen. But you know, if a name came up that was a solid name, a solid company, then we wouldn’t have stopped that.

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What happened [with the theater renewal] was somebody came to me and said we have an out if we want it. We had the right to terminate and look elsewhere if we want to, otherwise we have to stay another eight years. I said: "Well, wouldn’t it make sense to terminate and renegotiate? It is the Super Bowl event of movie entertainment." And they said, "Well, you know, you have to find someplace else to go." And I said, "Well, let me think about it."

Three times a year, I have had lunch with past presidents. There were seven, now there are six past living presidents [Frank Pierson died July 23]. We’d get together after the Oscars and after the Governors Awards and one time in between that. I would discuss with them what was going on at the Academy and get their input on things. So I brought up at this lunch -- this was in November, right after the Governors Awards -- that we could renegotiate but were concerned about where we [could] go and who would want us. And I’ll never forget, it was Walter Mirisch -- who was the oldest president in the group and as vital as he was 20 years ago -- who looked at me and said: “Tom, listen to me. It’s the Academy Awards. You’ll find a place to go. Renegotiate, Tom. Trust me.” And that’s when I went to exercise our right to renegotiate.

Then right away we started getting offers. We stayed there because that’s where we belonged. So it was Walter Mirisch who gave me the go-ahead in his own way to say go do it; somebody will want us, don’t worry. And he was right on. ... I never told anybody that story, by the way. But that’s exactly what happened. I said OK, and all of the sudden, I started finding myself in a negotiation that I said, "Wow, this is going to be good for us." It wasn’t an easy negotiation, it was hard; but you know, I enjoyed it, and it was fun.

2. NEW MUSEUM

THR: You inherited a mess in Hollywood. The Academy had bought land but then couldn’t raise money to build a museum due to the recession. How did that lead to a new museum at LACMA on Wilshire Boulevard and an outdoor theater in Hollywood?

Sherak: When we wanted to do this, there were people in Hollywood who were upset we were not going to build our museum on that property but instead were going to join with LACMA to put the museum in the [former] May Co. We tried to explain to them, in the nicest way, that we didn’t want to abandon them because we have a building there. We have the Pickford Center, and we’re very proud of it. It wasn’t about abandoning them.

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We didn’t think we’d ever be able to have a museum because of economic conditions, which made it difficult to raise the kind of money you’d need to build there. So the idea of going into an existing building came up. LACMA’s so vital to the city, and we saw what the museum would mean to the city as a whole. People inside the city would go, and also people from out of town would go. And basically the people on the board wanted to see a museum built in our lifetime.

So the idea was, What could we do to make them realize that we’re not a landlord; we want to do what’s right. And the idea of building an outdoor theater was something that I’d dreamed about since I’d been on the board. How do you do that? I’m an also exhibitor at heart, besides being a distributor. I actually started in distribution but I spent most of my life in exhibition. I thought that having an outdoor theater -- showing films that only we could show, that we all grew up with, that made an impression on our lives -- in an area where you could go with a family and be able to afford to do it -- was a good one. ... It was really important to the Academy to make sure the people in that neighborhood knew we weren’t deserting them.  

Our intent was to see a museum in our lifetime. And that all came about, by the way, because one day Sid Ganis came to me -- I’m very friendly with him, and he’s a mentor of mine -- and said: “Tom, you’ve got to meet this gentleman by the name of Michael Govan. You’ve got to meet him. He runs LACMA.” I said: "OK, Sid. If want me to do it, I will."

And Sid and I and Bruce Davis went to have lunch at LACMA with Michael Govan. I sat for the next hour, just listening to him, listening to his dream and listening to his vision of what bringing a museum to that corner would mean to the city of Los Angeles and to art, all kinds of art in one place. It would be something that existed nowhere else in the world. I listened to him, and I realized his dreams and aspirations related to what we wanted to do.

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The next thing was getting the board to agree. We did it the right way, the way you want to do it. We had them come see, feel, look and listen. Then the board voted to let us go ahead and see if we could do it. That’s where we are now. ... it’s going to happen, by the way. It is going to happen.

THR:  Is there a timetable on when it’s going to happen?

Sherak: Well, of course. We signed an MOU (memo of understanding). We need to raise X amount of dollars by this year to get to sign a lease. We’re getting close to doing that now, so that we can start construction. We would like to see that built within three to five years.

THR: How is the fundraising for the museum going?

Sherak: It’s going really well. Dawn Hudson put that on as a mantra. ... she truly believes in it. And we hired a fellow by the name of Bill Kramer, a development person who’s done an incredible job at different places. We got [Disney chairman Bob] Iger to be the chair of it, Tom Hanks and Annette Bening are co-chairs, and they’re out raising money. Now that we have [architects] Renzo Plano and Zoltan [Pali] showing us the first designs, it’s unbelievable.

So it was a little bit of putting the cart before the horse because normally you have your architectural vision of it, and you take that around and show people. But we started asking for donations before we had it, and we started getting them. The studios started to come in, and then people who love the Academy because it’s been part of their lives and careers and families’ careers started donating. Now we have our first look at what it’s going to look like. Everybody they show it to says the same thing, “Let me figure out how much I’m giving you.”

It’s going to be a real cultural place to be. It’s going to be a feely-touchy kind of museum. It’s going to be an interactive place. I have a word that nobody really likes when I use it, but I use it because it describes to me the Academy -- we’ve got so much stuff to show -- they don’t like when I say stuff. But let me tell you something, we got more stuff in more places, more storage places than we can show now.

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The other thing is, we’ve never really had a place to display major, major things that people have given us. We now have that. So hopefully, we’ll get even more stuff. And we have all these branches and people who are part of our business who have so much stuff to give us to tell people how movies are made. And it’s the one thing that we all have in common, wherever we are around the world -- the movies. And you’re going to get to be inside of it. It’s going to be a lot of fun to put together, and I can hear the arguments now: No, put this here! No, put this here! I was thinking of maybe volunteering; I have a referee shirt at home and a whistle. ... They’ll figure it all out, I’m sure.

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