#OscarsSoWhite: Academy Chiefs Reveal Behind-the-Scenes Drama That Led to Historic Change (Exclusive)
"It's not about political correctness," CEO Dawn Hudson, joined by president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, tells Janice Min as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' top brass sit for a lengthy, wide-ranging interview about Chris Rock, critics of the membership changes and how inclusion is essential for survival.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
It’s early Saturday, Jan. 23, the day after a history-making announcement by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences about diversifying its membership, and the 88-year-old organization’s leaders are in a palpably good mood at their Beverly Hills offices. Just nine days earlier, on Jan. 14, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs took the stage on live TV at the crack of dawn knowing that the words she was about to utter — the names of 20 acting nominees, all of whom were white, again — would elicit year two of #OscarsSoWhite outrage. “The sequel is always bigger,” says Academy CEO Dawn Hudson now, ruefully.
She’s right. Spike Lee, who in November had been granted an honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards, announced he would not attend the Feb. 28 ceremony. Jada Pinkett Smith posted a video on both Twitter and Facebook announcing her decision to not attend (“Let’s let the Academy do them … and let’s do us, differently.”), followed by Will Smith telling Robin Roberts on Good Morning America, “At this current time, we’re uncomfortable to stand there and say that this is OK.” Nominee Charlotte Rampling decried the outcry as “racist to white people,” and Michael Caine urged black artists to “be patient.” Meanwhile, Oscar host Chris Rock — who in 2014 wrote about race in Hollywood for The Hollywood Reporter — tweeted, “The #Oscars. The White BET Awards.”
Amid the furor, the tradition-bound Academy quietly did something it’s not known for: It took swift action. Boone Isaacs, 66, and Hudson, 60, began working to push up the revelation of details from the A2020 diversity initiative that Boone Isaacs first had announced at the Governors Awards. On the night of Jan. 21, they secretly invited into the Academy’s seventh-floor boardroom the 51 members of their elite Board of Governors that includes such illustrious Hollywood royalty as Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos and, importantly, Phil Robinson, a screenwriter (Field of Dreams) and head of the committee in charge of membership — and a longtime advocate for diversification of a group of 6,261 members that is 93 percent white and 76 percent male. With unanimity, the group voted in a sweeping array of reforms that included the appointment of three new governors by the president (typically they are elected by the Academy branches), the diversification of the executive and board committees and new rules that require voting members to be “active in motion pictures” and to renew that status every 10 years.
During an hourlong conversation, it becomes clear the two leaders understand and are willing to accept that not everyone will agree with the Academy’s decisions. They reveal that ABC, which has broadcast the Oscars for 40 years and has the rights through 2020, as well as Walt Disney chairman and CEO Robert Iger, were involved as supportive partners in the moves. They also, strikingly, are unwavering in their certitude that these changes needed to happen now and would have happened regardless of the nominations. (The sequence of questions has been edited and some answers have been condensed.)
Listen to the full podcast interview below.
Boone Isaacs (center) with the current Board of Governors.
Let’s go back to the night before the nominations are announced. Pricewaterhouse comes here with the results, you learn who is getting nominated. How did you feel?
DAWN HUDSON It’s a very dramatic process because, as you alluded to, we’re in this building, we’re in lockdown in this building, with security, the Internet is turned off, your cellphones are turned in and PricewaterhouseCoopers comes with the nominations that night so you can prepare for the announcements the next morning. And we get the nominations, we read them, and we think, “Wow, OK. Here’s the hand we were dealt this year, and there are great nominees in there.” It wasn’t as inclusive as we hoped, it wasn’t as inclusive as we hoped for the second year. The sequel is always bigger, almost always can be bigger than the original. And we knew we were going to have to speak to this issue. It was a long night.
Did you know it would be this big of a story?
CHERYL BOONE ISAACS I thought it was going to be pretty big. I’m not sure [I realized] this big, but it’s like the success of a motion picture. You know you’ve got a hit, but you don’t know that it’s actually going to be $500 million, you know?
HUDSON It’s a conversation that everyone is having anyway. It’s happening in corporate America, it’s happening in our police departments, it’s happening with our politicians. And films are such an important part of our culture and the connective tissue of our culture. So all of those conversations now can come together around the Academy Award nominations.
Is there a silver lining in all of this, that the role of the Oscars is clearly important?
BOONE ISAACS Absolutely. We’re very happy about the fact that this conversation is continuing and has spread. And we’re very happy that our Academy is at the forefront, which we should be, on this question of inclusion.
HUDSON It was a full-time job just talking to people throughout this time, our board members and our artist members. It’s really the good and the bad of being the most prominent arts institution in the world. That’s the great megaphone that the Academy Awards has.
At the Academy, you’re at the tail end of the moviemaking process, but you get all the blame. How does that make you feel?
BOONE ISAACS It gets to be a little challenging.
HUDSON The Academy Awards are at the tail end of the process, but our members are the moviemaking process. They are the ones writing and photographing and starring in all of these movies, and they were very concerned. And that’s why our governors got together [on Jan. 21] and said, “Look, we’ve been talking about these changes [to be more inclusive in our membership], we’ve all thought they were important, we as artists thought they were important to make, but now we need to make this happen now, tonight.”
Did you feel like you had to stem the conversation? That you had to cut it off before the Oscars broadcast?
BOONE ISAACS I would say more importantly that we could not be silent. And we had no reason to be silent. It isn’t a smart thing just to sit back and just sort of let the conversation get out of hand when it’s about you. At some point, you need to speak up.
What reactions have you gotten since the announcement of the new rules?
BOONE ISAACS They’ve been pretty positive — some people I haven’t heard from before are saying, “Bravo, this is a great step forward, we’re proud of our Academy, we’re proud of our board.”
HUDSON And a lot of the same people who were writing before, like, “What the heck is going on over there?” They now wrote emails of support and made phone calls of support.
Rock hosted the Oscar ceremony in 2005.
Is what you’ve announced part of the A2020 initiative you’ve talked about? Some people are saying this was reactive, that you bowed to political correctness.
BOONE ISAACS This has been an initiative of the Academy for about three or four years of more inclusion in all aspects of what we do. And we have brought in more diverse members. Certainly last year the biggest [group of] invitees that we’ve ever had and the most diverse we have ever had. So this has been something that has been the heart of this organization, including the board, for a number of years. Last year, I announced at the Governors Awards this initiative of A2020, which was actually naming the activity that we have been doing. And that is to reach a better goal of inclusion by 2020. So this was already in process and led by Phil Robinson — we have a group of people who have been working already on ways of looking at what we do and how to increase our membership.
Did it take work to get unanimity with the governors?
HUDSON No, no.
BOONE ISAACS Unbelievable. It really didn’t.
And the discussion was in person. Everybody came together in person?
BOONE ISAACS Oh yes. I believe strongly: Get everybody in a room and have a discussion. You know, we were probably going to announce these measures in another month or two, so it wasn’t like it was way down the road by any means. But this gave us an opportunity to make it more public and let everybody know it’s not that we’re just listening, we listened awhile ago and we’ve been at this for a while.
HUDSON I want to address what you said about political correctness, which makes me a little crazy. The Academy is tradition-bound, it is rule-bound, it is not trying to be politically correct, never has been. We are an elite institution. That elite institution is part of who we are, and that definition won’t change. We are the best of the best in the film industry. We don’t feel that we have looked far and wide enough for the best of the best. It’s not about political correctness, it’s about building the best team, the best institution, the best artists. Because unless you have the best artists as members, unless you have the best artists voting on the Academy Awards, you don’t have a real reflection of the best of our film culture. We’re not talking about [just these] nominations. The nominations we can’t control.
How do you think you’ll get to the goals you’ve targeted of doubling the numbers of female and diverse members?
BOONE ISAACS The phone calls I’m getting from studio executives, production executives, agents, certainly our members — everybody wants to know what they can do to help. You can’t win an Academy Award if your film is not greenlit. You can’t win an Academy Award if you weren’t in a particular role in a movie. So it is about opportunity from the very beginning of this process and the inclusion of different voices from the very beginning.
Have you heard from all the studio chiefs at this point?
BOONE ISAACS All of them? No.
HUDSON Not all. We have [previously] met with them all, of course, and they are all members and they are all contributing to our museum. The museum has been a great umbrella because now the conversations with everyone have happened to make it a museum of this community and the conversations about diversity have been ongoing with all of the studios, and now they will continue.
The percentages you talked about in the announcement, that is a way to encourage exploration of more people?
HUDSON Yes. It’s good to have a number, it’s good to have a goal. “Thirty percent of my crew, 50 percent of my crew are going to be diverse, women, people of color.” You will look harder, you will go, “Let me find one more first AD to look at.”
BOONE ISAACS One more, plus one more, plus one more.
HUDSON Right. And we talked about not setting a goal, but we thought, “No, we really want you to understand we mean this.” We don’t mean we’re just going to try. We are going to change the complexion by finding the best artists in all different communities that we haven’t talked to before. The Academy hasn’t had the reputation of being the most welcoming institution for anyone of any color. So the other part of this is to say we are a group of artists. We are not a faceless institution. As a community of artists, we invite you in.
Smith has said that his and wife Jada’s decision to not attend the ceremony is about “the ideals that make our country and make our Hollywood community great.”
In 2012, the Los Angeles Times ran a piece about who was in the Academy. The Academy has always said that it doesn’t keep track of numbers. Should Hollywood expect greater transparency about the membership?
HUDSON We had already done an internal survey before the Times published because it’s important to us to know. This is not a scientific survey, this is just our membership knowing the different people in the branches as best they could. And those numbers, which we talked about in the press yesterday, we had 7 percent people of color, slightly more than the Los Angeles Times said four years ago, and 24 percent women. That’s the commitment you heard — we want to double that in the next four years. We don’t think that’s hard. So yes, [the Academy is] not reflective of the world at large or our moviegoing public. Yet.
Some older, white Academy members have said they are insulted by the insinuation that they are racist and can’t pick movies in a color-blind fashion.
BOONE ISAACS I certainly understand the hurt because people they don’t even know are making a judgment about them and about their artistic integrity and their artistic taste. So I can understand why our members are insulted by this. I think that is absolutely unfair because we don’t know how they voted.
HUDSON And yet you want to make sure the membership is as reflective of our contemporary film culture and film community as possible.
BOONE ISAACS Community, yes, absolutely. That’s what’s important.
HUDSON That’s the most important thing, so that we’re not talking about what people chose, we’re just talking about who those people are within our membership community. What you put in your DVD player first is what’s familiar to you.
Spike Lee, who was honored at the Governors Awards, says he is not coming. Do you expect to hear from him now? Do you expect him to attend?
BOONE ISAACS I have no idea. Spike is Spike. He follows his own heart. This is a person we all know. He is faithful to himself, and he made a decision, which he came out with publicly, and it’s his decision. But we are very proud of our relationship with Spike.
Lee posted on Instagram on Jan. 18: “40 White Actors In 2 Years And No Flava At All. We Can’t Act?! WTF!!”
And if he wants to come, you will gladly have him?
BOONE ISAACS With open arms.
Some people were saying Will Smith probably wouldn’t have come anyway because he wasn’t nominated. Obviously you would love to have him there as well?
BOONE ISAACS Absolutely. Will is absolutely great, and he is a major star in the world. People love Will. So of course we would love to have him come this year, next year, any year, all years.
Charlotte Rampling, her comments, how did you feel about that?
HUDSON Look, some of these things are generational, they just are. And that’s what we’re talking about with the whole Academy. When you pick the best of the best, they are members of our Academy, you just have to make sure, as this generation grows older, you’re bringing in the best of the best of the next generation, and sometimes there is a lag and sometimes there’s not as much reaching out into the next generation.
Some Academy members are saying we’ve gone from racism to ageism with this decision.
HUDSON That wasn’t the point of those measures at all. The point was, there have been people in the Academy, they have been selected as members of the Academy, they were working in the film industry at that time, at one point in their careers, and they’ve moved on to a completely different field, completely different careers, and yet, because we have lifetime membership and lifetime voting rights, they are still voting on what is the best in contemporary film culture. And that’s not even what our original charter said. So we are really going back to the original intention of the Academy, the creation of the Academy. That’s how we’re culling the members, the ranks of voting members. They will still be members, they just will lose the ability to vote on a community that they are not really a part of.
Rampling has said her comment that #OscarsSoWhite is “racist to white people” was misinterpreted.
You’ve done a great job of diversifying membership in the past few years. You’ve invited Lena Dunham, Justin Lin, people who haven’t won an Oscar — you’re willing to take that criticism?
BOONE ISAACS They don’t have to be in what would be considered an Oscar-worthy film. It’s about talent. It’s about their voices. And their voices are loud and heard, and they have a following, therefore they’re relevant and need to be part of the conversation. So that’s why they are included in our membership ranks.
Diversity is a big initiative at Disney, the parent of ABC, which airs the Oscars. What seat do they have at the table in this discussion?
BOONE ISAACS A number of Disney executives and filmmakers are members of our organization, for one. And they are our partners with regard to our telecast. We have a tremendously great relationship with Bob Iger and [Disney-ABC TV Group president] Ben Sherwood and [ABC Entertainment Group president] Paul Lee and the entire staff and their marketing staff. We’ve got a terrific relationship all year long because these are good, smart people.
When people are throwing the word “boycott” out there — they had to have had some concern.
BOONE ISAACS They’re our partners, they know that we have been very actively involved with our diversity initiatives. So on [the day of the nominations], it’s pretty much across the board, a little bit of a surprise, but they know that we are working hard at improving.
So Bob Iger personally cared about this issue?
BOONE ISAACS Oh absolutely.
HUDSON Of course. We’ve talked about the goals to increase members of color and women in our membership, and you’ve talked about culling the membership of people who have moved on to other industries.
But the other measures that the board passed — and they may seem a little inside baseball but they will have a big impact on the governance of this institution — they change the rules. This is a rule-bound organization, and the board changed the rules — immediately putting governors who are diverse into that body was important to them.
How will you choose the new governors?
HUDSON The board will approve it. Cheryl, as the president, appoints.
Have you been lobbied already?
BOONE ISAACS Yes.
Did Chris Rock ever consider pulling out like people have wanted him to?
BOONE ISAACS No. No, no.
John Krasinski and Boone Isaacs announced nominations Jan. 14.
Chris Rock has a certain brand of humor. He’s gonna go there?
BOONE ISAACS Mmhm. (Laughter.) Well, we’ve always known he was gonna go there, right? This is Chris. We know who he is. He is a brilliant, brilliant, observant comedian and performer, and he is a brilliant host. And yes, we want him to, obviously, because way before this, our selection of Chris was to bring some edge and some fun and some funny —intelligent funny — to the telecast. So we know he’s going to do that.
One of your producers, Reginald Hudlin, wrote for The Hollywood Reporter last year about how Hollywood works against its own economic interests. He also wrote that it’s easier if you’re black to be president of the United States than to run a studio. Why is that?
BOONE ISAACS You want us to answer that question? (Laughter.)
HUDSON I think they will change.
BOONE ISAACS I’m surprised it hasn’t. I mean, to this date.
Who do you think is doing a good job in Hollywood right now in terms of diversity?
BOONE ISAACS I think the studios actually shouldn’t be crucified as much as they have been. You talk about Star Wars, right? The biggest franchise ever, and the two leads are a black actor and a female and two new, young actors that the public didn’t know at all. That’s the chance that they took because they know it’s right and it was right for their film. And it all worked.
HUDSON It’s exciting to see the release that both Creed and Straight Outta Compton got this year and how well they did in the marketplace. And it’s back to what you said Reggie Hudlin’s piece was about: It doesn’t make good economic sense. You shoot yourself in the foot not to release films like that. I’m sure this will have a domino effect. They were so successful and so embraced by a wide audience. That was Warner Bros., MGM and Universal. So you will have, I think, more and more.
Does it make you laugh when, let’s say, Empire is a huge hit on TV and then all the networks want an African-American cast for a soap opera set in the music world? Is that progress?
HUDSON Sure. (Laughter.)
BOONE ISAACS It’s been that way as long as I can remember, you know? Before the first Star Wars, it was like, nobody’s interested in that genre, it’s not gonna happen. And immediately after, you see a succession. If a comedy comes into the marketplace and it’s hugely successful, then there are a number of comedies right after. That’s kind of normal, and we are happy about that and certainly we are really happy about Cookie and her empire. (Laughter.) And maybe that means down the hall in the film division, someone will say: “You know what? This is a good storyline. Why aren’t we doing that storyline for the masses, for the big screen?”
Are you prepared to get this onslaught of members who might not be happy if you terminate their membership in the Academy, their voting rights — are you prepared to take the heat?
HUDSON We are not talking about terminating members, we are talking about people who have moved out of the film industry, to not allow them to vote on the Academy Awards. That’s what everyone expects of the Academy. We expect the elite of the elite to be voting on the Oscars. And I think people who are in other industries, that doesn’t fulfill our mandate. So am I prepared to take that heat? Yes. Am I prepared to defend the very mission of this organization? Yes.