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Tension at the Academy: Inside New President John Bailey’s Surprise Election

On Aug. 9, John Bailey visited the headquarters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It was his first full day as president of the institution, and his new office was virtually empty.

“A tabula rasa,” he said.

He met for two hours with Dawn Hudson, the Academy’s chief executive officer. Hudson talked about her priorities — diversity and the Academy’s museum — while Bailey, a veteran cinematographer, expressed his passion for film education programs.

“It was a beautiful discussion,” insisted Bailey. “I am going to have the best relationship with Dawn you can imagine.”

That would mark a sharp reversal from the often tense, adversarial association the two have had for years. Bailey, who is part of a vocal group of below-the-line members who believe the board should take a more hands-on role in running the Academy, has been a longtime outspoken critic of Hudson and her leadership. “This could be a disaster,” one Academy board member told Variety.

Hudson, along with a number of like-minded associates, was shocked by Bailey’s election, according to several Academy insiders. The CEO declined comment.

In the election for board president, she backed Laura Dern, whose obligations as a working actress would have limited her to a largely ceremonial role. But Dern bowed out of the running at the Aug. 8 board meeting, and Bailey defeated casting director David Rubin for the top job.

“This is a potentially dangerous situation,” said another person close to the Academy. “When you have two people running something, they can step on each other unless their roles are clearly defined.”

Hudson would clearly have preferred to have a freer hand in running the Academy. It is widely known that there were long-simmering tensions between her and previous Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs. The two had distinctly different styles and frequently clashed over the organization’s strategy and direction. Their strained dynamic split the board into rival camps and raised questions about who was really in charge.

Hudson could face similar problems with Bailey. Her supporters worry that Bailey will be a micromanager and that he and his constituents on the board “want to know every detail of what’s going on,” suggested one insider.

Bailey said he’s happy to give Hudson the freedom to do her job. “I’m not interested in telling Dawn how to run the administration of the Academy,” he said. “I am interested in representing the Board of Governors. I have an ability to understand and listen to them and help execute their directives, and I can do that in conjunction with the Academy administration.”

Bailey — and those who know him ­— said he is a conciliatory person.

“My feeling is that I was elected president not because of any infighting, or any issues regarding Dawn Hudson or anybody else, but because people recognized that I could work and talk to everybody,” he said.

Bailey, whose credits include “The Big Chill” and “Groundhog Day,” is widely respected for his deep passion for film history and photography. He was first elected to the Board of Governors in 1996 and has served off and on for a total of 14 years. He’s the first craftsperson in more than 30 years to helm the Academy, after a recent run of producers and marketing execs. He inherits an institution that has been roiled in turmoil.

The Academy was chastised for its slow response to the Oscar debacle after the wrong best picture winner was announced Feb. 26. Spurred by the embarrassing #OscarsSoWhite campaign, the organization made an aggressive push to invite a diverse group of nearly 1,500 new members into its ranks. Though Hudson and Isaacs had tension, they shared a commitment to double the Academy’s diversity numbers by 2020.

There was much scuttlebutt over a white male succeeding a woman of color as president. Bailey, who turned 75 on Aug. 10, gets irked when asked if a septuagenarian white man can effectively lead the Academy’s diversity efforts.

“What you just said is bulls—,” he said. “I was born a white man, and I can’t help it that I’m 75 years old. Is this some sort of limiting factor?”

Bailey said the Academy is not backing off its commitment to diversity, but emphasized that it can be fulfilled in part by inviting well-credentialed foreign filmmakers who have flown under the radar.

As for the Academy’s long-delayed museum, Bailey has been a strong advocate for using the exhibits to instruct on the craft and history of filmmaking. He made it clear he and other board members would take a hands-on role in overseeing the museum.

Cinematographer and former board member Caleb Deschanel is among those who expect Hudson and Bailey will find a way to get along.

“Dawn’s more interested in the awards and the glamour of it,” Deschanel said. “That’s sort of an inevitable dichotomy, but I think it’ll be a good balance.”

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