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

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.

[pagebreak]

3. NEW OUTDOOR THEATER

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?

4. DAWN HUDSON

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.

5. OSCAR SHOW

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.

6. NUMBER OF BEST PICTURE NOMINEES

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.

[pagebreak]

7. OSCAR HOST MUSICAL CHAIRS

THR: It must have been pretty traumatic when you had to replace the Oscar producer, Brett Ratner, and Oscar host Eddie Murphy last year?

Sherak: It wasn’t as difficult as people make it seem. I’ll tell you why. When he resigned, word got out right away and I started getting phone calls: “You need help; I’ll do it. If you need help, I’ll do it.” And I don’t even pick the host, the producer picks the host. But the bottom line was, I was getting calls from hosts saying if “you need me to fill in for Eddie Murphy I’m there for you, members of the Academy.”

I sat back, and I remember it was the first time in my career that I didn’t return a press call. The first time in all the years I’ve been out here, since ’83, the first time. ... If a press person calls me, I give them the respect of calling them back. I do. They’ve got a job to do. But for the first time I went into a complete press blackout. The reason was I knew if I could get this done quickly, the stories about Brett would stop faster because now you want to talk about the new people. So I didn’t panic. He resigned on Tuesday, and on Thursday we were introducing the new producers and the host. So what panic could I have had?

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And the other thing was, at the same time, which a lot of people seem to not remember, Brett Ratner was working on a movie, Tower Heist. So he was in postproduction, and he was selling the movie. Don Mischer, who had done it the year before as a director and producer, who had already been put on the show with Brett, had been doing all the heavy lifting already. So it wasn’t like we lost any time because Brett was out.

THR: Were you happy with the show Billy Crystal did as host?

Sherak: I was very happy with the show Brian [Grazer] and Don and Michael Rosenberg, who was an associate producer, did. I felt the four of them, with Billy, did a great job.

8. DIVERSITY

THR: One problem the Academy has not solved is how to be more diverse. What do you think?

Sherak: There’s only one way. This is another mission of Dawn. When Dawn spoke to the officers before we hired her, one of her things she talked about is diversity and how do we do that.

It took me a while to understand how the Academy can deal with diversity. The Academy is an organization of excellence, and that excellence comes from the people who make the movies. We don’t make movies. So if the industry is all white, then the people who are going to be members of the organization are going to be white. The bottom line is, and everybody know this, that the people who make movies have to bring people in people who are of color. But those people have to want to be in the industry; it’s a good industry to be in.

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How, as an Academy, can we help that happen? Well there’s only one way -- and that is to support schools, high schools and colleges, all over. Not just the big ones. And get people of color who want to be cinematographers, and get them to want to meet people who want them to be visual effects artists. How do you get them in the business? You try to give them the ability to learn about the business and give them jobs, figure out how to give them internships, how to give them scholarships to schools to learn how to be a cinematographer. That’s what we can do to help diversity. And once in, when they are good at what they do, they will rise to the top. And we have to help them get in.

The way to do that is by doing what we do now, to a lesser extent: We give scholarships to schools, we give fellowships to screenwriting, we give internships, we give grants for festivals. There’s so many things we do that people don’t even know about. We must support diversity underneath so that it grows into our industry. And when somebody goes out and they want to make a movie, they say, 'What about him?' and he’s a Latino -- and, by the way, he’s really good at what he does. That’s what we’re working on; that’s how you help diversity in our business. It’s the only way. We don’t control movies; that’s not who we are. We can help, and we’re going to help.

Email: Alex.Benblock@thr.com