Toronto: Academy President on Diversity Push — "If You Don't Set a Big Goal, What Is the Point?"

Cheryl Boone Isaacs, interviewed by Toronto International Film Festival director Cameron Bailey, discussed her organization's call for greater inclusion.
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Cheryl Boone Isaacs

"It’s like going to the movies," Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs told Toronto International Film Festival artistic director Cameron Bailey on Saturday morning as they sat down at the CBC's Glenn Gould Studio to discuss the Academy’s push for diversity under her tenure. “We all see the same thing — but feel differently.”

Over the course of an hour, Boone Isaacs, only the third female and first person of color to lead Hollywood’s most prominent organization (she recently was elected to a fourth term), spoke in passionate — and personal — terms about the initiative, which has divided her organization. "We want to increase our inclusion by 50 percent," she said, restating the primary objective of the "A2020" plan she unveiled at the 2015 Governors Awards. "Gender and race. It's a big goal — that is for sure. But if you don’t set a big goal, what is the point?"

Boone Isaacs, a studio marketing and publicity executive who followed her late brother, Ashley Boone, Jr., into the business 40 years ago, said, "I was lucky enough to have bosses that saw something in me and helped pull me through," noting that her advancement required hard work and patience. "You can't stay angry too long,” she said. “People don’t like angry. They really don't like angry."

Greater "inclusion" in the Academy was a priority of Boone Isaacs' even before two consecutive sets of Oscar nominations included no acting nominees of color, resulting in the viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, a media spotlight on the organization's demographic makeup and a renewed focus on the issue from her and the organization's board of governors. But, asked if she thinks there is direct correlation between the makeup of the Academy's membership and the makeup of its nominees, she said, "I don’t believe that that is necessarily true."

Instead, she explained, the motivation for the push is to have Academy members serve as "ambassadors" to the rest of the industry and lead it towards broader thinking. “All of us sort of live in our own bubble,” said Boone Isaacs. “You do tend to not look further than your own space, but we’re asking everyone to look further.” She praised Ava DuVernay, J.J. Abrams, Ryan Murphy and Brad Pitt for employing this approach to hirings and promotions within their production companies.

Boone Isaacs acknowledged that the initiative — which, she said, the board enthusiastically has supported from the start — has been met with resistance by some older members who fear how it will impact them. “I just don’t understand it,” she said. "That’s been a frustrating thing for me, this concept of, 'We’re moving people out in order to move people in.' That’s just not true." She emphasized, "Our oldest new member [in a class of unprecedented size and diversity] is 90 or 91, so it’s not about age at all."

Boone Isaacs admitted she finds "exhausting" the constant back-and-forth over the Academy's efforts — which, she chuckled, sometimes even occurs at the supermarket or Home Depot — and expressed regret that "every little thing that happens seems to be newsworthy" or politicized. "When everybody's working so hard to do the right thing, but then you hear or read that there's some sort of calculated thought process ... you get angry for a short while, and then you move on." However, in spite of such frustrations, she remains committed to continuing to guide the organization toward the A2020 goals through the end of her presidency next summer (after which term limits will force her to step aside for at least a year). "The goal," Boone Isaacs said, "is not to have the door close."