Tom Sherak, the longtime film marketing and distribution exec who led the Academy of Motion Pictures Art & Sciences through a period of innovation and change, died Tuesday in Calabasas, Calif. after a long battle with prostate cancer. He was 68.
His family sent a statement through the Academy: “Tom lived his life as an open book. He opened his heart and let the world in, and anyone who was lucky enough to know him knew first hand the power of his love. He gave everything he had to help others, regardless of whether or not he knew them. Tom is a true hero in our lives who has a star on the sidewalk and wings to fly. We love him so very much.”
Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson also issued statements: “In the more than 30 years I’ve known Tom, his passionate support of and excitement about the motion picture business, the Academy, his family and friends never wavered,” said Boone Issacs. “He was truly larger than life, and he will be missed.”
“He was my mentor and my friend,” said Hudson. ” I learned from him, I laughed with him, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the time we shared together. He had a huge influence on the direction of our Academy and on me personally. I will miss laughing with him most of all.”
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Last fall, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Sherak as the city’s first “film czar,” with the goal of bringing more production back to Los Angeles and ensuring that Hollywood continued to be the film capital of the world. Sherak often joked about the salary — $1 per year — but said that he saw the newly created position as a way of giving back to the city where he spent so much of his career.
As film czar, Sherak devised a strategy for winning back production and presented it to Garcetti shortly before the holidays.
Sherak was also a consultant to Marvel Studios and Relativity Media in recent years. Earlier he was a partner at Revolution Studios, before which he served for 17 years as an executive at 20th Century Fox, including as chairman of Twentieth Century Fox Domestic Film Group.
He was also a tireless worker for charities, including spearheading the annual MS Dinner for Champions, helping to raise millions for multiple sclerosis research, among many other philanthropic roles.
Under Sherak’s tenure as president, the Academy responded to declining ratings at the Oscars, an event whose revenues are crucial to AMPAS, with tweaks to the ceremony calculated to renew viewer interest. First, the number of best picture nominees was expanded from five to 10, with the latter number inevitably including popular box office successes — whose appeal would potentially increase the kudocast’s audience — and then a more subtle and complex system was introduced under which the number of nominees could range between five and 10 each year.
In addition, Sherak moved the Academy in the direction of electronic Oscar voting, part of his ongoing effort to bring the org into the electronic age and to make the voting, which involves members all over the globe, faster and more efficient. He also led efforts to draw younger members of the entertainment community as well as people of color into the Academy. And when Bruce Davis exited as head of the org after 30 years, Sherak championed the hiring of Dawn Hudson as CEO and the promotion of AMPAS vet Ric Robertson as chief operating officer.
While an Academy film museum was in the works before Sherak took over, he sealed a deal with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to locate the museum in the historic art deco May Co. building at Wilshire and Fairfax and drafted Disney chief Robert Iger to lead a fund-raising campaign.
As much as he ushered in change, Sherak also assured continuity for the Academy, as the governors of the org signed a deal to keep the Oscars on ABC through 2020.
At the Academy’s Governors Awards in November 2011, Sherak made his appearance disguised as Darth Vader, accompanied by “Star Wars” Stormtroopers. The mask removed, he offered an emotional toast to the late Laura Ziskin and Gil Cates, his voice cracking as he expressed gratitude for Ziskin’s battle to cure cancer “for all of us who have struggled with cancer.” It was one of the few times he publicly acknowledged his fight with the disease.
In a May 2012 article on the imminent leadership change at the Academy — Sherak served the maximum three terms and was replaced by Hawk Koch in August — the New York Times praised Sherak as “an outspoken leader who pushed his group, with its membership of roughly 6,000 film professionals, toward a more public pose.”
There were lows as well as highs for Sherak as AMPAS president. He had selected movie director Brett Ratner to produce the 2012 Oscarcast as part of Academy efforts to broaden the ceremony’s appeal, but reckless public comments by Ratner led to embarrassment for Sherak and for the Academy (Ratner resigned and was quickly replaced by Brian Grazer), while Ratner’s resignation caused host Eddie Murphy to also exit.
Sherak was a member of the Academy’s board of governors (executives branch) since 2003, served for a time as treasurer and was initially elected president of AMPAS in August 2009 and then re-elected to second and third one-year terms.
At Revolution Studios, Sherak oversaw the release of more than 30 films over the course of seven years, including “Black Hawk Down,” “Anger Management,” “Hellboy,” “13 Going On 30” and “Across the Universe.”
He earned an exec producer credit on Revolution’s Jet Li starrer “The One” in 2001 and a co-exec producer credit on the studio’s adaptation of the musical “Rent” in 2005.
The executive had a long career through the 1980s and ‘90s at Fox, which he joined from General Cinema, where he was VP and head film buyer.
As prexy of domestic distribution and marketing and later chair of 20th Century Fox Domestic Group, he oversaw the release of films including “Romancing the Stone,” “Aliens,” “Broadcast News,” “Wall Street,” “Die Hard,” “Home Alone,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Independence Day” and “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.”
He exited for Revolution in 2000.
Sherak was even an occasional actor, with small roles on a 2002 episode of “NYPD Blue” and in the 2010 film “Columbus Circle.”
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Thomas Sherak earned a degree in marketing from New York City Community College and began his film industry career in 1970 at Paramount Pictures, working in the New York, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis distribution offices.
He was a former chairman of the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation and formerly served on the board of directors for the Motion Picture and Television Fund as well as Variety — the Children’s Charity of Southern California.
Sherak’s daughter Melissa has MS, and he was active on the board of the Southern California Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Fulfillment Fund of Southern California. For almost two decades Sherak served as chairman of the MS Dinner of Champions, helping to raise tens of millions of dollars for multiple sclerosis research. For these efforts the American Academy of Neurology honored him with the Public Leadership in Neurology Award in April 2011.
He appeared in director Jenni Gold’s 2013 documentary “CinemAbility,” about the depiction of people with disabilities in film and television.
Sherak was also on the faculty of the UCLA Producers Program and was co-head of its advisory board.
In addition to his wife Madeleine and son William, Sherak is survived by two other children.
Services for Tom Sherak will take place at 10 a.m. Thursday at Temple Aliyah, 6025 Valley Circle Blvd., Woodland Hills, CA 91367. Immediately following the service, the assembled will proceed to Mt. Sinai Memorial Park, 6150 Mt. Sinai Drive, Simi Valley, CA 93063. No cameras inside the temple, please.
Donations may be made to one or more of the following: Tom Sherak’s MS Hope Foundation (Please make the check to The UCLA Foundation and in the memo section Tom Sherak’s MS Hope Foundation Fund #62674O); the Fulfillment Fund (323-939-9707); or the Sherak Family Foundation.
Any donations for Tom Sherak’s MS Hope or Sherak Family Foundation can be sent to 5555 Melrose Ave., Dressing Room Bldg 302, Los Angeles, CA 90038