Dawn Hudson’s inaugural spin as CEO of the multi-tentacled Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has been eventful, but not entirely in the ways commonly perceived or expected. The longtime Film Independent exec director, who began a three-year deal in June 2011 to replace retiring Academy exec director Bruce Davis, has found a bottomless supply of opportunities and challenges to address, from the Oscars to the org’s many other projects, each of which could occupy anyone on a full-time basis. Having celebrated the anniversary of her first year at the post, Hudson sat down with Variety awards editor Jon Weisman to discuss the Academy’s newly greenlit museum, diversity and how many best picture nominees the Acad would be comfortable with this year.
Jon Weisman: The Academy tries to promote its work on the other 364 days of the year. What’s most important about those efforts?
Dawn Hudson: First of all, the idea that we’re talking about the other 364 days of the year really makes my heart sing. I’ve been in this industry for 20 years, and you know some of the good works of the Academy, but before I came, I had no idea of the breadth and the scope of the work that the Academy does the other 364 days.
I think the museum has become a priority since the board voted on actually pursuing (it) last October. That is sort of a culmination of all the work that we’re doing, including our education programs, our public screenings and other programs in one institution that the public can (sample) year-round.
JW: You have decent but finite resources. Is there debate over where to allocate them?
DH: Of course. Each area of activity has its own passionate advocates, and each one could warrant the use of all of our resources. So it is our job with the board and the staff to allocate those resources and say we’ll move this one forward maybe a little faster this year and that one the next year.
For example, this year we’re doing a project called “Film to Film.” I think we’ve quadrupled the number of films we restored to new film transfers this year. And next year we’ll be digitizing the library. In the coming year we’ll be looking at educational programs as well.
JW: So is the internal debate heated? How do people respond when they’re told, “You need to wait.”
DH: I think there’s healthy debate. So far no furniture has been thrown (laughs), but there is, like I said, passionate advocacy for each of these programs. But all the key staff and certainly the board members recognize that we must set priorities, and we all kind of pull together for those priorities, whatever they are.
JW: Let’s talk about the museum some more (targeted for the former May Co. Building adjacent to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). What’s your vision for the whole enterprise?
DH: Let me just say, it’s our vision. It’s a long-held dream of this board. My understanding is (that, dating) back to the 1940s, the board has wanted a film museum in this city, and the Academy is the natural entity to create this museum. Right now, the staff and I are focused on the fundraising part of this museum. We’ve got these genius architects (Renzo Piano and Zoltan Pali) working on the exterior of the building. Our president, Tom Sherak, Bob Iger, the chair of our museum campaign committee, and I (are) focused on the fundraising. Simultaneously, Heather Cochran, our museum project director, is meeting with various branches and members and talking about the stories we want to tell, and how we want to tell them.
JW: What do you think will be the biggest hurdles?
DH: Fundraising. We’re in our “silent” phase right now. So we’re going to a few key supporters, and people have been incredibly enthusiastic. But until all those goals are met, that is the hurdle that I’m looking at.
JW: The Academy just sent out invitations to new members, about 175 of them. Was there an issue of fostering diversity?
DH: I think the theme of excellence is maintained year over year. And the Academy with Tom and the Board of Governors — which predates my coming here — had become more consciously inclusive in making sure they didn’t overlook any really qualified candidates. They do that every year, and I think each class over the last few years has become a little bit more diverse, which of course is headed in the right direction.
JW: There are always stories about the Academy’s need to diversify. The counterpoint is that it’s the film industry that needs to diversify. Can the Academy encourage that?
DH: Well since the Academy’s made up of the film industry, I think those discussions in our board room (and) in our programs, I hope will be influential for the film industry. . Nobody can force anybody to make decisions about hiring and nor would we want to, but I think having the conversations and having the awareness helps. But again, you can’t tell people whom to hire — that’s not our role.
JW: Several stories a year ago were that you were brought in to shake up the Academy. How accurate was that presumption, and to what extent has it come true?
DH: I never saw myself as brought in to shake up the Academy. Bruce was retiring, and there was a thought that if maybe we brought in a new set of eyes and paired me with a great COO in Ric Robertson, that the two of us could have complementary skills to move this organization forward in some key areas that hadn’t been dug into in many years. It was a great organization, but some of the structure had been in place since we were a 50-person staff, and now we’re a 270-person staff. What Ric and I found, when we started working together and talking to the staff, is that there’s a real hunger for more communication and collaboration across departments. (But) modernizing our business practices, updating our organizational structure and encouraging collaboration and communication isn’t exactly “shakeup.” That’s a little journalistic sensationalism to me. I would say evolution, not revolution.
JW: What has been the biggest learning experience for you?
DH: How you can never communicate too much. That’s all — I could never communicate too much.
JW: How has your relationship with the board evolved?
DH: It’s been for me a really great, growing relationship. First of all, these are extraordinary leaders in their fields, and so it’s this chance to learn from them really specifically: How does one person run a company, how does one person see our future in digital preservation, how does one see a difference between performance and visual effects? There’s a really deep understanding of our craft that I’ve learned from. But also just learning their vision for this organization (and) their passion for this organization stimulates me. I think we’ve gotten to know each other better and better and will continue to.
JW: Has your indie film background influenced your approach to this position?
DH: Many times I’ll go into a committee, and it’s filmmakers I’ve known since their very first film. So I have a long history with a lot of the artists who are members of this organization and who are helping to run this organization. I think those connections have been really helpful and help to engender trust in me and in our staff and in the Academy.
JW: On the one hand, there’s this indie culture in the film business that has very harsh bottom-line concerns, and on the other hand, you have a studio culture where tentpoles are as much a priority as developing awards-season material. How do you see the Oscars being affected when it seems like the film business isn’t set up to generate a lot of best picture opportunities?
DH: The great thing about the Academy Awards is that it does span the broad spectrum of filmmaking, so we have performances or independent films that are honored, and you have tentpole films with visual effects and other achievements in craft that are honored. And sometimes they’re the same film (laughing). I think the awards show the breadth of all of those achievements.
JW: There’s no consensus in the number of best picture nominees. It was five, it was 10, now it’s a number that the balloting determines each year. How do you see that evolving?
DH: The 10 nominees felt right for the board, but they wanted to make sure each nominee had a critical mass of support, and that’s what this current version is. We’ll see how it works again this year. The board evaluates it every single year. If they feel they need to make changes, they will.
JW: Is there any sense that the composition of the board is tilted too much toward studios?
DH (laughing): Have you seen our nominees lately?
JW: Well, that’s the Academy at large.
DH: I think this board, like our members, they’re artists, so that’s the dominant theme.
JW: What were considered to be the strengths and weaknesses of this past year’s Oscars?
DH: We were thrilled with these Oscars. I think Billy (Crystal) had a great comeback. The viewership was up 4%. Over 39 million people watching TV together on a Sunday night — that was pretty great. I have nothing but the highest praise for what our producers Brian Grazer and Don Mischer pulled off.
JW: Looking ahead, are there any specific ideas for the show?
DH: Of course it’s up to the producers to incorporate this or not, but it’s the idea of looking at the whole year in film. Sometimes there’s more emphasis on just the nominees, and sometimes we can broaden that (to) all the films that are great.
JW: We’ve seen some change in how documentaries are going to be considered this year, including regulations about theatrical release. Original song has some controversy because there were only two nominees last year. Foreign-language seems to have perpetual controversy. How much change needs to be made in these categories?
DH: I think it’s exciting to see what the documentary branch is doing this year, with the whole of the Academy getting to vote on those nominees. (With the others), I just keep reiterating the same thing I said. Everybody will review it — if it doesn’t work, they’ll talk about it and they’ll change it.
JW: Do you expect year two as CEO to be easier? Or will it be more challenging than year one?
DH: I don’t think Ric and I expect it to be easy, because it’s an institution that incorporates so many institutions within it, but I think we have come a long ways toward solidifying a new structure that we see starting to work. We just feel like we’re gaining momentum in all the important areas, certainly in the museum but also in our education department, bringing those under Randy Haberkamp’s leadership there. And really, our partnership, Ric’s and mine, is also stronger than ever after a year of working together.
JW: People use the metaphor of steering a ship …
DH: It’s a great one.
JW: Does it steer a little more easily now that you’ve had the first year?
DH: The important part of that metaphor is that we are all going in the same direction. So you could say, “Oh, OK, here’s our chart. Here’s north, here’s south. And the museum provided a big impetus for us to bring departments together, talk about what each one will contribute.
JW: Let’s end by circling back to the beginning. When you talk about making people aware of those 364 days, it’s clearly targeted for the general public, but is it also needed for membership of the Academy? Forgive a dumb question, but how are they not aware of what you’re doing?
DH: The scope of what we’re doing is so large. If you enter the Academy in the foreign-language committee, you may not realize that we’re giving away over $1.5 million in grants to arts institutions and colleges and internship programs and film scholars. Simply because you’re over here, you don’t know necessarily what’s going on over (there). So (our job is to communicate) to all our members and to our worldwide public.
The Ampas stat sheet*
84th Academy Awards
broadcast: 39.3 mil viewers
Awards: 569 entries
New Academy members: 176
philanthropic grants: – 61
Margaret Herrick Library
Posters – 2,871
Production art 1,043
Digitized materials 19,000
Exhibition loans 22
Objects loaned 120
Events and exhibitions
Programs – 90
Media literacy program:
Schools participating – 9
Students participating 820
Academy Film Archive
Restoration projects: 386
Prints acquired: 52
Vault space added: 21,000 sq. ft.
*July 1, 2011-June 30, 2012