Cheryl Boone Isaacs Academy of motion
MIchael Lewis

First African-American prexy comes to job with heightened expectations

Cheryl Boone Isaacs is well aware that her anointment as the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in 30 years and the only African-American to ever hold the post comes with heightened expectations to help break down barriers that have long plagued the org and Hollywood at large.

While it’s been a poorly kept industry secret that the Academy’s 6,000-strong membership sorely lacks minorities, a Los Angeles Times survey earlier this year underscored that embarrassment with the revelation that 94% of Acad members were Caucasian and 77% male. Naturally, that disparity is a direct reflection of the lack of diversity in a largely homogenous industry.

“We’re in the second decade of the 21st century, and it’s a whole new environment for entertainment,” said Boone Isaacs in her first sit-down interview since her July 30 Academy election. “I think part of this is a recognition that there are different voices that need to be heard — and that there are audiences for these different voices. We at the Academy want to be a place where these voices can be recognized.”

Boone Isaacs wants every AMPAS member to be more involved in the organization and to nurture talent with different points of view: “Put your head up and look around,” she said. “There are more opportunities now, but we have a long, long way to go in Hollywood.”

It’s too early to know if the Academy will wind up playing a pivotal role in any potential transformation of an entrenched industry. But Boone Isaacs maintains that the organization has begun to move its own needle with this summer’s invitation of 276 new Academy members, a list she says represents “a more global, diverse membership.” An Acad rep says the org is “very happy with the results,” but doesn’t have exact figures; however, several Academy members estimate that 30%-40% of the new group represent racial, gender and/or cultural diversity.

Boone Isaacs pauses at the word “diverse,” saying it often refers only to women and minorities, noting that the Academy’s goal is to embrace those groups as well as people with different languages and cultures.

“I think what’s important is … equal opportunity, not holding people back because of their gender, their race, nationality. We are about self-expression and are still the holder of dreams,” Boone Isaacs says, suggesting that the industry needs to open its doors wider to a new kind of dreamer. “If a person is given an equal chance to succeed, they will. Hollywood has always been at the forefront of a lot of social change. We should remain in the forefront.”

She downplays the notion that there is a different standard for women within the Academy, but the group’s history suggests otherwise. She is only the third female president in the Academy’s 86-year history (actress Bette Davis served for two months in 1941; writer-producer Fay Kanin from 1979 to 1983).

The Academy now has 14 women on its 48-member board, which Boone Isaacs touts as an important step forward: “That’s a big change,” she says. And it reflects well on Hollywood; it means women are getting more authority, more power in production.”

But there’s still a double standard and, arguably, a triple standard in the industry.

“Being a woman is one thing; a minority is even more. … I can pretty much tell in an instant where people’s heads are.” Speaking as the realist and pragmatist she is, Boone Isaacs knows that she will be scrutinized more intensely than others in her position.

“I will be looked at a little more closely than some others, no question. I hope I do my job well and have a favorable impact. … I’d like to believe that (my experience as) a board member gave them the confidence to elect me.”

This is her 21st year on the board, where she has served in every officer post (most recently first VP), as well as prez of the Academy Foundation and producer of the 2012 Governors Awards.

So she was prepared for her new role. “There’s always a difference when you actually have to sit in the chair. But it’s helped that I understand the DNA of the Academy, and I’ve worked with many of the staff through the years.”

On her first full day as prexy, Boone Isaacs met with Oscarcast producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. She plans to be in constant communication with the pair, but promises not to micro-manage. “It’s the Academy’s show. They’re producing it and they understand this organization,” she says. “Last year’s numbers were terrific.”

Critics weren’t so upbeat, but Boone Isaacs says at least people are conversing about the telecast. “It tells me everybody’s invested in the show. They’re thinking about it, caring about it.”

The show is one of her top priorities, along with the Academy’s ambitious museum plans, membership engagement and global outreach.

Boone Isaacs says the content of the museum will continue to evolve through the 2014 ground-breaking and 2017 launch. The goal is to get visitors (including tourists, students or film historians) to better understand every aspect of the biz and to learn how the collaborative filmmaking process works. “We want to explain all the different functions and the value of each department and how they come together with all 17 AMPAS branches represented,” she said.

The museum, added Boone Isaacs, will hopefully remind people that the Acad is more than the Oscars, with its archival treasures, research, exhibitions, preservation, scholarships and multiple other functions.

So is it a museum about the industry or the Academy? “The Academy is the industry,” she said simply.

One of her key mandates: “The world knows the Oscars, and we’re on a mission to have everyone also understand the attributes and assets of the Academy.” That involves participating at festivals, meeting with filmmakers and film commissions, and generally “spreading our field of excellence throughout the globe.”

Despite being under a unique microscope in her new gig, Boone Isaacs doesn’t appear to be at all daunted.

“I like being here. There is a lot going on, and I love that. This is all great stuff, right?”

Four-Point Plan

Global Outreach

The new Academy prez just returned from China, and will build on AMPAS’ ongoing programs, such as sending staff and filmmakers to Pusan, Dubai and Mumbai in the coming months.

Museum

2014 groundbreaking; 2017 opening

Membership

The goal is to increase diversity within the org and the industry.

Oscarcast

Ceremonies March 2

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