Outgoing Academy President Hawk Koch on His Dramatic Term and Next Year's Oscars (Q&A)

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Hawk Koch

The veteran producer talks to THR about his biggest accomplishments, next steps and the role of ESPN/ABC's new predictive blogger, Nate Silver: "He will not have any access to members or any polling."

Hawk Koch’s one-year term as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences comes to an end Tuesday when the board of governors meets to elect a new president from its ranks. Because Koch has spent nine years on the board, he’s had to relinquish his seat because of term limits, but though he’s been president for just one year, it’s been a stint full of dramatic developments. Along with Dawn Hudson, who has served as the Academy’s CEO, handling day-to-day activities, since 2011, he’s pushed through major changes. Plans are moving forward for the Academy Museum, scheduled to open in 2017; efforts have been made to diversify the Academy; and the 85th Academy Awards attracted both increased viewership and lots of criticism for Seth MacFarlane’s turn as host. As he prepares to step down, Koch looks back on his tenure -- defending the changes, insisting it really is great to be nominated and saying don’t expect oddsmaker Nate Silver to have any special access to Academy members.

You’ve been around the Academy for a long time. Given that, were there any surprises for you when you stepped into the job?

Yeah, I didn’t know how many things the Academy actually does the other 364 days a year. I thought I did, but we are so busy, between the library and the archives, our programming and our outreach and a zillion other things. I really wasn’t aware of how much we do.

Your father, Howard W. Koch, served as president in the ‘70s. Having watched him, how different was the job for you?

I was off making movies when he was president, so I really wasn’t around very much. I showed up at the Oscars. I produced and directed a portion of the first satellite feed back to the Oscars, Diana Ross from Amsterdam singing “Do You Know Where You’re Going To" from Mahogany in 1976. I can tell you between Jim Roberts, who was the executive director at that time, and then his successor Bruce Davis, the president certainly had a lot to do. But since Bruce has gone and Dawn has come in, there is a lot more to do, a lot more communication. There are a lot more members, a lot more member engagement, and a lot more decisions to be made. In the ‘70s, it was still a small Academy. The numbers have gone up 30, 40 per cent since then, and now we do so many more things and are much more proactive. If there’s one thing I learned this year: I wanted to engage our membership. What I didn’t realize is how much the members wanted to be engaged.

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So what accomplishments are you proudest of?

I think engagement, No. 1, with the membership. I’d always also believed in the adage, “It’s great to be nominated,” and I think during our Academy Week this year, so many of our nominees, said, “Wow, it really is great to be nominated.” It’s not just show up Sunday night, four lose and one wins. I have been a big part of making it feel like it really is great to be nominated. We are also reaching out now more to young filmmakers. The Academy is not this monolith no one get close to. I think now we are more diverse than we have been. I’m very proud that 14 members of our board of governors are  women. I think Dawn and I worked very well together to move the Academy into the 21st century more than it had been. When someone has been in the job as long as Bruce had been in the job, he ran it, and the president came in and gave certain things that the president and the board wanted to do. Since Bruce has gone, I think the president has more to do now. It doesn’t mean he or she has to be here all the time, but it means the presidency is more active. And given how quickly everything happens in the world today, you have to be on top of it. You can’t let it slide. Everybody is out to get you anyway.

Dawn certainly drew her share of criticism during her first two years. What’s her current status with the Academy?

I think she’s on solid ground. I think the board is totally behind her. I think the staff has learned how Dawn wants to operate. I think she’s a really good manager of people. I love her southern style. She’s a very, very warm person who, after only two years, has the same kind of passion for the Academy that I have, and I’ve been around since 1971. She really wants it to flourish as one of the great institutions, and she’s doing everything she can to get it there. I believe we’re a better institution now than we were a year ago.

You and she have made diversity one of your main goals. But aren’t there limits on how far the Academy can diversify if it’s drawing its members from the industry itself?

I don’t know that we can do it by ourselves. I know I was interacting with the studios as was Dawn, and the industry as a whole, and we were saying, “Let’s look and see. Why are we not hiring more people of gender, of color?” Our educational outreach is amazing, and I think we can help the next generation of filmmakers. I think everybody is much more aware of diversity. I think the Academy bringing in the diverse group of new members we brought in this year and having 14 women on the board is leading the industry, saying, “Wake up, everybody, there are some great women, some great people of color.” By the way, young and old. We brought in some older documentarians. Why wasn’t Prince in before? Wow. We’re identifying people who should be in the Academy that weren’t. I know Dawn and I have a really good relationship with the studios, and they are watching us.

Some members have worried that the Academy is lowering its standards in the process.

If you look at the background and the qualifications of everybody we brought in, there were no standards being lowered. I was at every single branch committee meeting this year, and I made a point of saying, “Take a look at diversity, but do not lower your standards.” And we didn’t. And I don’t think we ever will.  

The Academy depends on the Oscars for its main source of income. But it’s risky for any institution to have just a single source like that. Do you see the Academy getting into other kinds of programming?

There may be other things. I’m not sure anything is ever going to compete with the Oscars. Museums don’t generally make money, but my belief is the new museum is going to be a magnet for the city of Los Angeles and for Hollywood. If we have the kind of interactive things the public will love, they are going to be lines down to the Santa Monica Pier to get in.

How about the Oscar show itself? How do you see it changing in the future? Both the Grammys and Tonys have de-emphasized awards and focused more on entertainment.

We had more people watching last year. We had more entertainment last year, even giving out the same 24 awards. If we can entertain and still give out the same 24 awards, that’s what I’d like to do and what our board would like to do. Ours is an awards ceremony, and it should have entertainment. I thought Neil [Meron] and Craig [Zadan] gave us a lot of entertainment. I know what the theme is for next year. You’ll find out in due time. It’s going to be extremely entertaining, and it’s not going to be song and dance. As long as we give entertainment, and there’s good movies out there in the marketplace and people want to see those movies and those stars and who’s going to win, as long we keep the drama going, I think people will keep watching the Oscars. All the others are minor leagues.   

So you think the show should continue to give out all 24 awards on air?

We love all of our awards. We love all of the different crafts. That’s how the Academy started, and that’s what we’re giving awards for. The Grammies give out 182 awards or something, and they give out about six on the show. That’s what they had to do. But we’re the Oscars. As long as people watch it, we want to be an entertainment show that gives out all 24 awards.

It was just announced that Nate Silver is joining ESPN and that he’ll also be working for ABC. Could that give him special access to Academy members for his predictions, and could he have a role on the Oscar show?

No, he will not have any access to members or any polling. We don’t do polling. He won’t have our roster. It’s up to Neil and Craig and whomever the next president is to decide if they want to engage Nate Silver in any other way. Will he be sitting at Oscar nominations morning handicapping for ABC? That has nothing to do with us.

The Academy has long talked about a museum, and now it’s  becoming a reality. How did it gain traction this time around?

The fact that we have a space, that we have a deal, we know exactly what we’re doing. We have a world-class architect, Renzo Piano, doing it. We’ve got a committee that has raised half of the money in a little over a year. We have tremendous industry support. And we have tremendous support from our whole membership. We’re finally there. It should have been done years ago, but now is.

So what is your advice for the next president?

I’ve actually got a little letter to give to the next president, just what I think are our priorities. The priorities are to keep being proactive, to make sure the museum is moving forward. We need to manage the museum in both a fiscal and a creative way so that we will be ready to open and it will be the museum that it should be. To stay on top of the Oscars and make sure it’s the most entertaining it can be. To continue with the programs that are at the Academy. And to be open to change. I think that’s something I preached from the start. We’re not going to do it the way it’s always been done it, because you can’t live in the past. You have to go toward the future.

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What’s next for you? You’ll be resuming your post as co-president of the Producers Guild of America with Mark Gordon.

Mark and I will finish the end of May of next year, but we couldn’t be prouder of the studios and everyone signing on to the Producers Mark. I believe that will change the culture and give respect back to the real producers of films. We know who the real people are who have struggled to find a piece of material, to develop it, to get it financed. For years, other people have taken credit who haven’t been real producers. Everybody said the Producers Mark was impossible, but I feel like it isn’t anymore.

And beyond that?

I start shooting a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie next week in North Carolina. It’s called Christmas in Conway, and it stars Mary-Louise Parker.

After a year, you will be eligible again to rejoin the board. Would you like to return, and can you see yourself taking on another term as president?

I love the Academy. If the producers branch wanted me back as a governor, I would be honored. As far as the presidency, let’s let the next president get in there and have some fun. I know I’ve had a really good run and a great time.