Academy's Bruce Davis Reflects on Best Picture Changes, James Franco as Oscar Host and Show's Most 'Odd' and 'Scary' Moments

Bruce Davis-Beverly Hills Home-2011
AP Photo/Matt Sayles

Davis, who is retiring Thursday after 22 years in the post, also reveals why he's the "worst person to go to the Academy Awards with."


After 22 years as executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Bruce Davis is retiring Thursday. For two decades, he's overseen the day-to-day operations of the Academy, providing continuity and institutional memory even as six different men have held the post of president.

Davis' tenure has been marked by several major accomplishments: He helped raise an endowment that supports the operation of the Margaret Herrick Library, which has occupied a former waterworks on La Cienega Blvd. in Beverly Hills since 1991. He encouraged the Academy's move into film preservation by establishing an archive at the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study, which opened its doors in 2002.

And he also faced some setbacks -- especially when the plan to build an architecturally-significant film museum in Hollywood were put on hold in 2008, although he predicts the Academy will soon draw up new plans for a more modest museum.

"Bruce presided over an enormous expansion of the Academy," says writer-director Frank Pierson, who served as president from 2001-2005. "The modern Academy is a machine that he designed and put together. It is so well assembled and such a marvelous invention, that it will continue as he intended it to do."

Through it all, Davis fiercely guarded Oscar, the reigning symbol of the Academy -- and also its largest annual source of income, bringing in about $70 million a year through broadcast licensing fees.

"My wife says I'm the worst person in the world to go to the Academy Awards with," Davis laughs, "because I'm always keeping track of the time -- and watching with gritted teeth."

To counter all the encroaching trophies handed out by other groups, Davis advocated moving the Oscar ceremonies from March to February -- and would like to see it move even earlier on the awards calendar. And in one of his final moves, he argued for the Academy's latest experiment, introducing a variable into the voting that could result in anywhere from five to 10 best picture nominees for the first time when nominations are announced Jan. 24.

While Davis feels that the 2-year-old shift to 10 best picture nominees offered "a better snapshot of good work in the year just past," he's convinced that the new voting procedure will introduce an element of surprise and guarantee that all the nominees are deemed worthy and not just seat-fillers. "It was a long discussion in the board meeting, but it wasn't a hard sell and wasn't a very close vote when it came down to it," he says.

Having already surrendered his office at the Academy headquarters in Beverly Hills to his successors who took over earlier this month -- Dawn Hudson, the new CEO, and long-time Academy administrator Ric Robertson, who's been promoted to COO -- Davis admits he's not much on memorabilia as he greets a guest in the new office he's moved into at the Pickford Center. He has hung one vintage poster from Fellini's 8 1/2 -- a parting gift from his staff -- and cites that film as probably his favorite movie. And while no one would argue the choice, it also suggests a diplomatic streak. For by singling out Fellini rather than some current Hollywood auteur, Davis doesn't risk alienating anyone on the Academy's board of governors, which now numbers 43 members.

Although Davis downplays his own role in the organization, his ability to work with a sometimes-unwieldy board played a role in his longevity.

"We operate by committees," Davis explains. "No one person ever gets anything done at the Academy. You can talk a committee into an exploring an idea. You can talk a committee into recommending a good idea to the board. But it's never the executive director or anyone else saying, 'Here's what we're going to do'."

It also helped that Davis -- who had chaired the Theater Department at Pennsylvania's Juniata College before moving to Los Angeles with vague plans to break into the industry only to be hired by the Academy to oversee a new program of seminars in 1981-- became a veritable storehouse of Hollywood history himself. "Bruce knows the movie business and the art and the science of it, upside and downside," says Pierson. "So many times, you'd ask him, 'What happened in 1932? What happened in 1934?,' and he always had an answer."

While Davis wasn't shy about pushing an idea within the organization, publicly, he has always kept a lot of his opinions to himself.

Asked, for example, if the notorious 1989 Academy Awards, produced by Allan Carr, was the worst Oscar show he ever sat through, he responds, "I recall Snow White bumping me on the elbow as she went up on stage. It was odd," but then he simply shakes his head, refusing to say anything more.

Of course, he acknowledges, when it comes to the Oscar show, there's no pleasing everyone.

"I thought this most recent show had played very well in the house," he says. "Everyone could see Mr. Franco wasn't on the same page as everybody else, but I thought it was working. To see the reviews the next morning, I was really stunned. But then I saw it on disc, and it did not play as well as a television show as it did in the house. Sometimes, the energy just doesn't get there, the bad things are magnified, and the good things aren't quite as wonderful."

Behind the scenes, the story has occasionally been even more dramatic. He cites the two most difficult years, when the Oscars faced last-minute postponements, as 2003, when the invasion of Iraq kicked off just days before the show was scheduled, and 2008, when the writers strike effectively closed down the Golden Globes and threatened to throw up picket lines that would have put a damper on the Oscars. "That was scary," recalls Davis. "The writers kept assuring us they weren't mad at us, but we were the hostage. They had executed the Globes. And the actors wouldn't have crossed a picket line. I was very glad to see that one settled, obviously."

While the Oscars inevitably overshadow much of the Academy's year-round cultural and educational activities, Davis has presided over an ever-growing institution.

The Academy, whose full-time staff stood at around 75 when he first took over, now numbers more than 200. And instead of just one building, Academy activities are spread over three.

"I've been fortunate to be here through a period when our major source of income has increased dramatically," says Davis. "We have this wonderful thing that all non-profits should have -- one night a year when they just kind of rain money on you. I'm not saying we are entirely free of money problems -- we spent our money very carefully. But we are in a very fortunate situation."

When he was first named executive director, however, he was concerned that the Academy was too dependent on its Oscar revenues. He endorsed Academy president Karl Malden's campaign to raise an endowment that would support the library and still complements that effort, in which Malden was assisted by Robert Rehme, who succeeded him as president.

"It was an impressive one-two punch. Karl would come in and tell stories and then Rehme would go for the ask," Davis recalls. It ensured that the Herrick Library could be funded, most years, simply through the income generated by the endowment.

History didn't repeat itself, though, when the Academy drew up plans for an ambitious museum, buying up a city block just north of its Pickford building and commissioning a design from the French architecture firm Atelier Christian de Portzamparc. The project carried a $400 million price tag, which, as the recession hit, proved prohibitive.

While the project has been dormant, Davis insists that the idea itself hasn't been abandoned. Within the next month, he says, the Academy will start knocking down some buildings on the property it owns and find new uses for one or two others.

"The idea of the museum is not dead," he says. "I think the idea of the $400 million museum we designed is dead. The economy has not come back that much. But we can start with a more modest version. We're having meetings about it right now. There are just too many people in this industry who are frankly embarrassed that this city doesn't have a museum honoring its most significant art form."