CinemaCon: Hollywood Heavyweights Turn Out for Tom Sherak Tribute

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Jeffrey Katzenberg was the master of ceremonies at the annual Will Rogers Pioneers awards dinner, where Sherak received the organization's top honor posthumously.

LAS VEGAS – Hollywood studio chiefs and theater owners turned out in force Wednesday night to pay tribute to the late Tom Sherak, the former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and longtime top studio executive who was beloved across the film industry.

DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg was the master of ceremonies at the 73rd annual Will Rogers Pioneers Dinner in Las Vegas, where Sherak received the Pioneer of the Year award posthumously. His wife, Madeline Sherak, accepted the award at the close of a touching ceremony that included remembrances, a performance by the singing quartet The Tenors (one of Sherak's favorite groups), and a videotaped message from Adam Sandler.

"He made all of us want to do the right thing in life. He was the top of the top," Sandler said, adding that Sherak is in heaven "making Moses consider how he talks to people."

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Sherak, who passed away in late January following a long battle with prostate cancer, was widely known for his down-to-earth style, helpfulness and humanitarian work. Raised in Brooklyn, he began his career as a film buyer in Philadelphia before moving to Los Angeles and moving up through the studio ranks to become head of marketing and distribution at 20th Century Fox.

As Katzenberg took the stage at the dinner, the Despicable Me 2 theme song "Happy" played. "That little snippet of music is actually quite appropriate. I think if Tom Sherak had a theme song, it would be 'Happy,' because he was happy, always -- genuinely, thoroughly, infectiously. He was a joy to be with, and he is a joy to be celebrating tonight."

Katzenberg also recounted how Sherak always enlisted him to help others, or to raise money for any number of charities.

"We both had a great love for dogs. Years ago, we got our dogs from the same breeder, an amazing guy in Kentucky named Joe. Later on, Joe lost an entire litter and was despondent and broke. Tom called me and said, 'We gotta help him.' We chipped in, made a loan and Joe got back on his feet," Katzenberg recalled. "For most people, that would be the end of the story. A couple of years later, Tom is president of the Academy … and who is walking by his side at the red carpet at the Oscars? The Kentucky dog breeder."

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Sherak is the first person to receive the Pioneer award posthumously, according to Chris Aronson, president of the Will Rogers Pioneers Foundation and distribution chief at Fox. The dinner is held in conjunction with CinemaCon, the annual gathering of theater owners and studios in Las Vegas.

During the ceremony, Aronson announced that $1 million had been raised going into the evening. He then kicked off a challenge by personally donating $1,000. Relativity Media chief Ryan Kavanaugh quickly followed with a $100,000 pledge.

Former Disney studio head Dick Cook brought Madeline Sherak to the stage, saying Sherak was "truly one of the most unselfish people I have ever met.

"Tommy and I shared more than 46 years of marriage and I know firsthand that, except for illness and the death of loved ones, he cherished each day of his life, and each and every person who became a part of it. Over the past few weeks, we have received thousands of calls, emails and texts from people all over the world expressing their condolences," Madeline said.

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"The reach Tommy had everywhere overwhelms our family, and we ask ourselves every day how he had so many hours in the day to connect with so many people and still have time for us," she continued.

Those in attendance at Wednesday's dinner included Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn, 20th Century Fox chief Jim Gianopulos, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, Sony Pictures vice chairman Jeff Blake, National Association of Theater Owners' John Fithian, Lionsgate's Rob Friedman, CBS Films president Terry Press and Open Road CEO Tom Ortenberg, along with the heads of the major theater chains, including Regal's Amy Miles, AMC's Gerry Lopez and Cinemark's Tim Warner.

Past recipients of the Pioneer Award include Katzenberg, Cook, Horn, Sumner Redstone, Michael Eisner, Sherry Lansing, Jack Valenti, Jack Warner, Darryl Zanuck and Cecil B. DeMille.