As executive director of the industry’s most scrutinized nonprofit org, Bruce Davis has overseen decades of change and expansion. His 30-year tenure at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will be celebrated Thursday evening with a reception that marks his final day there.
To most people in the world (and even to many in the industry), AMPAS is synonymous with the Oscars. Davis acknowledges the importance of the show, and the org’s high priority in keeping it relevant and lively. “The world wants to watch what we do. It’s really our annual piece of business, and that’s a good thing,” Davis said.
But Davis’ agenda went far beyond the annual telecast, and the org’s new toppers, Dawn Hudson and Ric Robertson, will juggle many roles, just as Davis did.
During Davis’ tenure, the Acad launched a significant film archive, expanded and relocated the Margaret Herrick Film Library to its current La Cienega location, and moved the Oscars to the Kodak Theater.
Under his watch, the org also has streamlined and organized the membership process, limiting the number of new members annually to equal those lost by attrition and asking each branch to choose a select few. In 2002, the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study was opened in Hollywood to house the Academy Film Archive, utilizing an historic radio and TV production facility.
Steering the Academy can sometimes resemble turning an ocean liner: AMPAS’ bulky operational structure includes 250 full-time staffers and 31 standing committees. The committees mean that many people are consulted on key moves; every decision by the 43-member board of governors is given due — and sometimes lengthy — consideration.
“It can be a cumbersome way of proceeding, but it is also a thoughtful way of proceeding,” said Davis, who thinks the approach keeps one person from taking the credit or the blame.
His emphasis on fairness and democracy is not surprising: Davis formerly taught ethics. His background is academia, including stints at Juniata College and the U. of Maryland before coming to the Academy in 1981 as program coordinator, overseeing lectures and seminars. He was upped to exec administrator after a few years, then named exec director in 1990.
“The Academy has been a great place to work,” Davis said. “In addition to working with the greatest film artists of this era, I’ve been able to spend time with a staff that is very bright and good at what they do, and enthralled with the art of motion picture.”
As “the holder of tradition,” Davis has a deep knowledge of both film and AMPAS history.
Through it all, Davis kept his eye on the Oscars, one of the exec director’s signature responsibilities. Davis says there has been “an absolutely conscious effort” not to commercialize the Oscars. Indeed, there are no officially sanctioned Oscar T-shirts, tchotchkes, gift shops or product tie-ins, and the show’s printed program doesn’t carry ads.
Rules related to marketing and conflicts of interest have been a clear focus through Davis’ run. The no-gifts-to-voters rule was essential. “We’re very careful to make the awards as clean as they can possibly be,” he said.
There has never been a hint of an Acad voting scandal; nor is there a perception that membership can be bought. Furthermore, AMPAS has a singular record of institutional integrity.
“Bruce protected and defended this place like nobody else,” Acad prexy Tom Sherak said.
Davis admits that there are thorny issues, such as social media. When a film is in Oscar contention, voting members suspend their right to publicly judge their merits or to publicly endorse one contender over the others — but that’s increasingly difficult to enforce among Facebooking and tweeting industryites.
Social media is only the latest of a constantly evolving array of campaigning tactics, Davis notes. Also an ongoing concern are film and talent reps who try to squeeze personal endorsements from high-profile Acad members.
Over the years, Davis has had his detractors. However, the only criticism that nettled him was from those who held him responsible for things outside his purview — such as those who carped that he should make the Oscarcast shorter. In fact, he made no unilateral decision over the telecast, but instead worked with the many committees that deal with AMPAS and Oscars.
Some criticized Davis for wielding an iron fist; his defenders say he was simply being a strong leader. Some complained that he was very demanding of the staff; others counter that the staff turnover is low, indicating that they’re contented in their jobs.
Davis was a key instigator of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. The ambitious endeavor took eight years and millions of dollars to research and design. Though the Acad bought an entire block in central Hollywood for the museum’s construction, the ailing economy delayed the launch of the museum’s building campaign. Another factor was ballooning cost estimates. Again, some blame Davis, but one insider shrugs that Davis was dealing with multiple factions, including a committee, president, past presidents, a board and thousands of members.
Davis admits that juggling the needs of Academy members and the TV viewing public remains a challenge — not to mention getting the various factions of the Academy to agree on a decision.
Hudson and Robertson will be dealing with all these issues, as well as questions that arise in a constantly changing industry.
Hudson, who hails from Film Independent, and Robertson, who has been at the Academy for 30 years, will benefit from Davis’ long attention to keeping the Oscar voting process ethical and consistent.
On the table, and actively being addressed, is the question of moving the Oscarcast to an earlier date.
Davis believes the sheer number of kudocasts overwhelms TV auds. “If we can squeeze all (the awards shows) into a briefer period, more viewers would be inclined to wait and watch the big one,” Davis believes. To get to that point, the Acad will have to institute secure electronic voting and digital distribution of screeners — both solvable problems, he thinks.
Davis and the org are always working to ensure a level playing field for all Oscar contenders, which explains why rules vary for such categories as the foreign-language race.
Hudson and Robertson will also continue Davis’ job of working with AMPAS and ABC honchos to ensure the telecast is entertaining enough to justify the network’s hefty license fees. Those annual fees of about $50 million mean AMPAS escapes fund-raising dinners and drives and can channel funds into preservation and other endeavors.
One ongoing challenge: working the tech categories into the kudocast in a way that conveys their importance to non-pro auds. Davis says that can sometimes be a difficult mandate.
“A day may come when we simply can’t hold huge audiences and impose that information on them,” Davis said.