Oscar org duo meet myriad challenges

Change comes slowly at Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. This week, for the first time since 1981, there is a new management structure at the nonprofit org.

As exec director Bruce Davis transitions out (he retires June 30), former Film Independent topper Dawn Hudson has come onboard as CEO, and long-time Acad exec administrator Ric Robertson transitions to chief operating officer. The board of governors is expected to officially approve the appointments via a change in bylaws at its next meeting, June 14.

Does the installation of an outsider and femme topper signal a new direction for the institution? As Acad prexy Tom Sherak explains, the new hierarchy — CEO, COO and CFO — is more in keeping with today’s management trends and reflects the organization’s buildout over the last 30 years under Davis’ watch. “We were looking for the best person, one who had run a team before and built something,” says Sherak of the board’s search. “(Hudson) has a lot of responsibility: how to make this place that really runs well run even better.”

It’s expected the two seasoned execs will be redefining their roles in the next few months and dividing up responsibilities. The goal is a yin-yang with the new duo, as Robertson brings 30 years of institutional knowledge to a complex org, while Hudson brings a fresh perspective. Both positions entail considerable political skills; the pair will have to act as mediators and overseers of an organization that comes with a strong-willed 43-member board, 31 standing committees, various ad hoc committees and a 250-person staff, in addition to three locations in Los Angeles, offices in New York and London and an internationally diverse membership.

What Hudson and Robertson won’t have to contend with is fundraising. As Sherak points out, the Acad’s balance sheet is enviable ($82.6 million in annual revenues from the Academy Awards alone, and $311.5 million in total assets, per its 2010 annual report); the org has never had the need to solicit funds — though that may change if a long-planned capital campaign for a proposed museum gets under way. One of the biggest challenges facing the duo, and other senior managers, will be to work within this new structure in a time of rapid change in the industry.

As one Academy members says, “They will have their hands full.”

When Hudson’s hiring was announced, some media members predicted she would overhaul the Oscar telecast. As it stands now, Hudson will not have control of the Oscar show: The Acad president picks the producer(s), and the board, along with ABC, has to approve any substantial changes.

“It’s like a movie; you hire a producer,” explains Sherak.

And like a film financier, the Acad topper, prexy and board have the right to give the show’s producer ideas, and have always done so, Sherak says. In turn, they also weather the subsequent criticism, which has amplified in recent years due to the intense media scrutiny when it comes to all things related to the Academy Awards, and the kudocast’s perceived failings.

In truth, AMPAS has a lot more going on than the Oscars. The org’s educational and cultural arm, the Academy Foundation, supports film education, grant-giving and preservation efforts, doles out money to fests and for scholarships, and presents numerous public screenings, exhibitions and tributes (such as the recent salute to Sophia Loren). Jewels in the org’s crown are the extensive Academy Film Archive and the Margaret Herrick Library devoted to film research.

Hudson and Robertson will have to figure out not only their respective duties with regards to these operations but also must fashion the best way to improve the Acad’s outreach.

Sherak poses a number of questions confronting the Acad: “How do we become more relevant than we have in the past? How do we get more people to come to the library? How do we get more members involved in what we do as organization? We need more outreach in all those areas,” he says, and adds another unknown: the future of the proposed Academy Museum of Moving Pictures.

The museum was on the fast track until derailed by the economic downturn; the Academy already owns the museum’s planned site, located next to the Pickford Center in Hollywood. There had been a $400 million fundraising goal to realize Pritzker-award winning architect Christian de Portzamparc’s designs and exhibits created by Gallagher & Associates.

Currently there is no confirmed timetable or dollar figure on fundraising. The site has been temporarily transformed into an outdoor screening venue.

How to proceed with the museum project and keep promises made to the community is one more task on the new leadership’s open-ended agenda.

Based on their CVs, Hudson and Robertson should be up to all challenges. During her 20-year tenure, the Harvard-educated Hudson transformed and fund-raised extensively for the once-marginal IFP/West org (the precursor to Film Independent) and helped put the org’s Spirit Awards firmly on the kudos season map. In 2001, the org acquired the Los Angeles Film Festival; 2011 looks to be a banner year for SoCal’s largest regional fest, now centered downtown at L.A. Live.

Promoted from within, Robertson joined AMPAS in 1981 as an administrative assistant, and has held the title of exec administrator since 1989. Among his previous duties: organizing the announcement of Oscar nominations, policing campaigns and producing the annual nominees’ luncheon. Additionally, he has overseen the IT, marketing, Web and communications departments, which were created under his tenure.

He and Hudson will have to reconfigure the senior staff due to their newly created positions. Nobody at the Academy seems to have decided yet whether the “exec administrator” title will remain, or whether some promotions and new positions will be part of the new era.

Throughout May, Hudson attended AMPAS meetings, while still working on the transition to a new topper at Film Independent. Though the Acad has a reputation of being close to the majors, Hudson’s indie film background and organic connections to indie filmmakers and distribs will be an asset. Prior to this regime change, several new initiatives were already in progress at AMPAS. The Academy recently polled members for their email addresses in a move toward possible electronic balloting (provided it’s protected, per Sherak). And the qualifying run dates for documentary features have been shifted and extended to Dec. 31 for this year only (previously, documentary qualifying runs had to be completed by end of August), perhaps a signal for a possible date change of the Oscar telecast in 2013.

Sherak admits there may be some culture shock on both sides, but new ideas were what the board was after. “We’re very happy she accepted the job,” he says. “I think it’s going to be wonderful for the Academy.”

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