Oscars: The Race to Succeed Cheryl Boone Isaacs as Academy President Takes Shape (Exclusive)

Oscar-nominated actress Laura Dern, Oscar-nominated documentarian Rory Kennedy and casting director David Rubin are expected to face off.
From left: Laura Dern, David Rubin, Rory Kennedy

At 6 p.m. on Aug. 8, exactly four weeks from Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' 54-person board of governors, which represents the organization's roughly 7,500 members, will convene for its first meeting since last month's annual board elections. Most governors will participate from inside the regal board room on the seventh floor of the Academy's Beverly Hills headquarters; others, who are based or traveling outside of Los Angeles, will be piped in via telephone or video-conference. Few ever skip the board's monthly meetings, but it's doubtful that any will miss this one, not only because it is the first one that newly elected board members will be attending, but also because of the main item on the agenda: choosing who will succeed Cheryl Boone Isaacs as Academy president.

Boone Isaacs is retiring from the board after a quarter-century of service, the last four years of which she spent as the Academy's leader. Only the third woman and first person of color ever elected to the top job, she held power during one of the most controversial and consequential periods in the organization's history — a time dominated by fiery debates about diversity and inclusion, a bumpy campaign to build the $400 million Academy Museum and a perfect storm that led to the biggest debacle ever to occur on an Oscars telecast as the wrong best picture winner was announced.

Now, as Boone Isaacs steps aside, her headaches are about to become someone else's. And though governors are asked not to discuss board matters outside of their meetings, The Hollywood Reporter has learned exactly who that "someone else" might be: Oscar-nominated actress Laura Dern, Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy or casting director David Rubin.

The Academy and Kennedy declined to comment for this story; Dern and Rubin could not be reached.

At the Aug. 8 meeting, the governors will weigh candidates for all officer positions, but the position of president will come up first. There is no advance campaigning for the job, in the conventional sense. Any governor who wishes to nominate any other governor for the top post will have the opportunity to do so, and once one does, a call will go out for another governor to second the nomination. If the nom is seconded, then that candidate will be added to a list, and other governors will have the opportunity to nominate and second others.

A nom sometimes comes as a surprise — in 2009, Tom Sherak went into one of these meetings planning to back someone else, only to leave as president — but usually there has been some quiet, behind-the scenes coordination between a governor interested in the post and supportive colleagues. Once the window for nominations has closed at the meeting, the nominees each will be invited to make a statement before the full board; those interested in the position usually lay out an overarching agenda, while those who are not tend to beg off, as Tom Hanks has done several times. The nominees are next asked to leave the room so the other governors can hold a discussion, after which the nominees return and everyone privately casts a vote on a keypad. The Academy's general counsel, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, then tallies the results and announces a winner.

At the moment, THR can report that Dern, Kennedy and Rubin each have numerous supporters and will embrace a nomination when it comes on Aug. 8. It is possible that other candidates also could emerge on the night of the meeting, a la Sherak's case — perhaps someone with greater experience on the board than the aforementioned three, who joined it in 2016, 2015 and 2013, respectively — but it would be very surprising if anyone can muster enough support to hold off all of these popular candidates for the opportunity to become the 34th person to lead the organization.

Rubin, the proprietor of Firefly Casting, has spent decades casting films such as The English Patient and Men in Black, and recently cast the HBO limited series Big Little Lies. He was instrumental in lobbying the Academy to create a casting directors branch in 2013, and became one of its first three governors that year. During his four years on the board, he has made a name for himself as a hard worker and articulate advocate for causes ranging from increasing diversity within the organization (something he has also championed in casting) to recognizing a casting director with an honorary Oscar (he succeeded and his trailblazing mentor Lynn Stalmaster was one of the honorees at the 2016 Governors Awards, which Rubin also produced, and at which he was among those who toasted Stalmaster). A close ally of Boone Isaacs, he spent this past term as the board's secretary and chair of its Membership and Administration Committee, which oversaw the extension of a record number of invitations to members of the community last month. And, like Boone Isaacs, he finds much of his support from governors representing the "below-the-line" craft and technical branches who feel safer with someone from their ranks leading the organization and safeguarding that awards for their categories will continue to be handed out on the Oscars telecast.

Dern, a highly respected actress who has accumulated two Oscar nominations (Rambling Rose and Wild) and who is likely to receive an Emmy nomination on Thursday for her performance in Big Little Lies, is as well-regarded off screen as on. The daughter of two Oscar-nominated Hollywood legends, Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, and a single mother of two, she has won many admirers among her fellow governors for never letting her busy acting schedule get in the way of her commitments to the board — and, in fact, taking on extra work as a member of the Kathleen Kennedy-chaired Museum Committee, for which she has been an effective fundraiser. Dern is understood to be the preferred choice of Academy CEO Dawn Hudson, who was hired in 2011 to oversee the organization's 350 full-time staff, and quickly clashed with Boone Isaacs; Dern and Hudson go back many years, to when Hudson ran Film Independent and Dern was coming up as a darling of the indie film community, and Hudson tapped her, this past February, to call the roll at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon.

Kennedy, meanwhile, comes to the race with a similar reputation for humility and nose-to-the-grindstone hard work on the board. The married mother of three is the youngest child of Ethel Kennedy and the late Robert F. Kennedy and has used documentary filmmaking — through Moxie Firecracker Films, the company she and Liz Garbus co-founded 19 years ago — to follow her parents' example of calling attention to important political and social issues. Among her credits: she was a producer of the 2011 doc short Killing in the Name, an exec producer of the 2005 doc Street Fight and directed the 2014 doc Last Days in Vietnam, all of which received Oscar nominations (though she was personally recognized only for Last Days). During her two years on the board, Kennedy has served alongside Dern on the Museum Committee, worked with her fellow doc branch governors to clarify the distinction between film and TV documentaries and this year co-hosted an Oscar Week event featuring clips from — and conversations with the filmmakers behind — the Oscar-nominated feature and short docs.

Clearly, these three governors share a great deal in common in their approach to board service. Due to their busy work schedules, any of them likely would function as president in the way presidents did until fairly recently — namely, as a ceremonial figure who presides over monthly board meetings while overseeing a select portfolio of side issues, not as someone who comes into the Academy headquarters daily and gets involved with the day-to-day management of the organization, as the last three presidents have done. Sherak, who died in 2014, had an office at Paramount, but was retired and spent much of his time at the Academy; Hawk Koch was around a lot, as he had only one year to see through his agenda before term limits forced him off the board entirely; and Boone Isaacs was a mainstay in the president's office on the Academy's sixth floor, which also houses the CEO's office, a situation that sometimes proved too close for comfort for her and Hudson.

But while the three governors vying to follow Boone Isaacs are in many ways alike, there also are some important distinctions between them. Rubin fits the profile of most recent Academy presidents: highly respected within Hollywood, but not known to the general public. Many earlier occupants of the job were "names," like Douglas FairbanksBette DavisFrank CapraGregory PeckRobert Wise and Karl Malden. While they were not necessarily as committed to board service as Dern and Kennedy have been, they were important to the organization for symbolic as much as substantive reasons, and either Dern or Kennedy would bring with them that same added value. In fact, some feel that the Academy once again needs a name at the top of its roster — both to bring a fresh sheen and semblance of protection to an organization that has taken quite a bit of incoming fire over the last few years and also to help attract financial support for the Academy Museum over the next few. It will be interesting to see how the votes shake out.

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