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.


THR:  How is the outdoor movie venue in Hollywood working out?

Sherak: I go there and I’m amazed watching the faces of the people who haven’t seen some of the movies we’ve shown and those of people who remember seeing them. It’s incredible. I’ve made some recommendations for the next year of movies that I know I want to see again. Although I couldn’t do it this year, I’m sure some of them will show up next year. It’s something else. It really is. It’s so much fun: you’re outdoors and you’re in L.A. and it’s safe. You just stare at the screen. It’s a big screen, and we have two statuettes like at an outdoor Goldwyn [theater] almost. I mean it’s great, just great.

THR:  How is the attendance?

Sherak: Everything’s sold out. It only seats right now about 400.  But you know, it sells out. And then we’ve got food trucks. And I was thinking the other day, wouldn’t be great if we could sell the naming rights for it?


THR: How did you come to choose former Film Independent chief Dawn Hudson as executive director?

Sherak: We went to a headhunter, and they brought in people. One of the things that the board and the officers felt was important after 22 years being led by someone who built the foundation for that place, which was Bruce Davis, was to grow the Academy -- not just the prestige of the Academy, but how do we grow it? How do we move forward? We knew we had to do some things differently, we knew we needed to be more involved in certain things, and we knew that we’d have to have more staffing to do that.

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When Bruce took that place over and ran it, he built it into the organization that it is now. We now have 250 people and four locations. It is a big company. We sit on a lot of money. It’s a well-financed organization. Bruce built a strong foundation, but we needed to grow. ... We interviewed a number of very talented people. Dawn was the most impressive and got the job. Like anything else, especially for somebody from outside the Academy, there’s a huge learning curve. It is not always easy to deal with. One of the biggest things was don’t fix what’s not broken, but get it current. That’s what’s been going on. She and Ric [Robertson] formed a team, which is great.

When she came in, she saw things that needed to be changed, and she changed them. Some people didn’t like it, and some people resigned; some people left and were replaced. That’s what happens in business. It’s not that the people aren’t nice; they’re all nice. Most of them left because there was a change, and they have a right to do that; it’s their lives. But the bottom line is, that’s the way business is.


THR: Some think the Oscar show still needs to be fixed, but you don’t?

Sherak: I think that the Oscar show is what it is. It's about giving out 24 awards to those people who put movies together. That’s what that show is. It isn’t the Grammys, it isn’t the Tonys, it isn’t the Emmys. It isn’t any of those shows. It’s rewarding excellence first, not entertaining first. ... The first goal of that show is to give out awards.

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When you give out 24 awards, and you have commercials that pay for the show, there isn’t a lot of time to entertain. And the entertainment somehow has to fit in with who we are as an Academy, dealing with excellence. I think that is difficult to do. But I don’t think it’s impossible. I think some of the shows we’ve put on have been brilliant over the years, and that doesn’t always make them the most-watched shows. One of the things that becomes important to any Academy show is the movies! And the movies that get nominated and the connection that people have with those movies. And more people watch the show when there are movies they’re connected with by seeing them. That doesn’t mean that if we don’t have a $700 billion movie nominated that show’s not going to go on, it just means that maybe less people will care about watching the show. But the show is what the show is: giving out awards to excellence in 24 categories.


THR: When you took over, the Academy was involved in an experiment which was to have 10 best picture nominees. You helped modify that. Why?

Sherak: Having 10 best picture nominees started under Sid Ganis’ reign. I was very much for going for 10, to try to get the members to look at some of the other movies out there, some of which might be more accessible to the public. Well, it is no different than when they introduced the American League designated hitter, where the purists felt that baseball was destroyed by it. Some felt we made a mistake in doing that, that it somehow was taking away from the five that were nominated.

I got plenty of calls about it and would we ever consider going back to five? We were just finishing our second year of 10, and we had agreed as a board that we would let it go for three years to see what would happen and then talk about it again. But I brought it back up to make sure the second year that they wanted to do it again. Then I went up to Bruce Davis and said, “Bruce, there’s got to be something that we could do between five and 10 movies. What is it, Bruce?” And Bruce said to me: “Tom, let me think about it. I’ve got an idea.”

And then Bruce said, a couple of days later, “I spoke to PriceWaterhouse; it can be done.” What is it? "There’s a system of voting where we can let the members, the voting members, decide between a minimum of five and a maximum of 10." And he explained the preferential voting system to me. I said, “Bruce, this can be done?” And he laughed and goes, “OK, I see I’m getting nowhere with explaining this to you; yes, it can be done.” From there I went to the board and said "Here’s what we’d like to do," and the board talked about it. ... and they agreed to try it.

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I felt that it worked out great this year, and I’m looking forward to doing it again next year. And we’ll see what happens. But the good thing about it is that if there’s a mistake in anything that we do, we change it. To me, the key was not being afraid to make mistakes. But you know, when you make a mistake at the Academy, you read about it for months. You know people love to talk. By the way, if we didn’t make mistakes, we’d never move forward. It’s OK to make a mistake. You know the rules, every time we change a rule about the Academy Award, the pre-award things, everybody says why’d you do this?!? Why’d you do that?!? I can’t believe you did this! Well, if it works great, if it doesn’t the following year we’ll change it. I don’t see anything wrong with that, personally. I think you have to take chances.

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