How to Fix the Academy's Management Problem: Overhaul the Board

How to Fix the Academy's Flub Problem - Illustration by Lars Leetaru - H 2019
Illustration By Lars Leetaru

From the "popular Oscar" pratfall to the recent Kevin Hart hosting fiasco, the organization keeps stumbling over itself. With 54 governors, a permanent CEO and a short-term president, it's time for a revamp.

The Academy must have breathed a sigh of relief Jan. 22 after the smooth and relatively controversy-free announcement of this year's Oscar nominations. That, however, was a rare ray of sunshine to pierce a storm of disasters, starting with 2015's #OscarsSoWhite outrage and continuing through this year's "popular film" fiasco, not to mention the Kevin Hart self-immolation. Now, who should take the blame?

Insiders point fingers in all directions. Dawn Hudson, the former president of Film Independent who was named CEO in 2011, is a divisive figure who has nonetheless won key allies, most notably executives/producers Amy Pascal and Kathleen Kennedy while alienating some of the older white men who have dominated the below-the-line branches of the Academy.

Others express dissatisfaction with recent elected presidents, including the current officeholder, John Bailey (whom they blame for clinging to the popular-movie Oscar idea), and his predecessor, Cheryl Boone Isaacs (who added real diversity by ushering in more than 2,000 new members during her four-year tenure while diminishing exclusivity and facing charges of ageism over voting eligibility).

It's not surprising, then, that a half-dozen high-level staffers in recent years have run for the exits — or been pushed. Among them: COO Ric Robertson; chief marketing officer Christina Kounelias; managing director of membership and awards Kimberly Roush; managing director of human resources Kim Congdon; museum fundraiser Bill Kramer; and museum COO Rich Cherry. Many have been replaced — the Academy in December named former Los Angeles Sparks president and COO Christine Simmons as its new COO — but, observers say, so much turnover is cause for alarm.

"There are so many levels [of mistakes]. This is indicative of a larger, systemic problem," says David La Piana, author of The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution.

He and a dozen Academy members interviewed for this article say the heart of the matter may not be one individual but rather an unwieldy, 54-person board of governors, with three governors elected by each of the Academy's 17 branches and the president nominating three more, who are then approved by the whole board.

"A 54-person board is ridiculous," says Kim S. Cameron, a professor emeritus of management and organizations at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and co-author of Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture. "You know there are coalitions inside the board, and reaching consensus is essentially impossible."

Four years ago, the Academy hired the management consultancy firm Insigniam to look into this, but no major structural changes have since taken place. "It's not a top priority," admits one governor, who says the Academy has been unfairly tarred by the media for its Oscar woes while not given its due for excellent work in other areas — the Margaret Herrick Library, the Nicholl screenwriting competition, etc.

So is there anything the Academy should do to fix its problems before next awards season gets underway? Yes, say management experts, who caution that without such clear and structural change, further disasters are bound to occur.

Here are five of their recommendations:

1. Slash the size of the board, with two members per branch at most. "No organization can effectively operate with a 50-plus board," says a former staffer. "Effective boards delegate responsibility to a smaller group that can move more deftly. They don't at the Academy."

2. Create a steering committee with eight to 10 members and empower it to make key decisions, reducing the governors' role to one of advice-and-consent or specific action on any of the various subcommittees. The elected officers now report back to the board but have limited authority.

3. Change presidents' tenure. Presidents come from the board of governors, who elect one of their own to a one-year term that can be renewed for up to four years — unless the president is "termed out" as a governor. Lengthen the one-year term to three or four, waiving his or her board term limits. "No continuity gives license to the CEO to ignore the president," notes Cameron. "This [makes for] a perpetual lame duck."

4. Improve the definition of the president's and the CEO's jobs. "There could be a lack of clarity in their role responsibilities or job description," says Cameron. "Knowing the limits of my authority and what I'm held accountable for needs to be very, very clear."

5. Pay the unpaid president a reasonable salary to avoid tension that has existed between recent presidents and a CEO who's earning $700,000-plus annually. Warns La Piana, "Conflict between a president and CEO is a toxic situation that cannot go on for very long without hurting the organization."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.