Inside the Academy: Division and Dysfunction After Epic Oscars Gaffe

Moonlight La La Land Best Picture
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In the immediate aftermath of the wrong best-picture winner being announced on the evening of Feb. 26, the leaders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences disagreed about how to respond to the biggest debacle in Oscar history, according to sources with knowledge of the internal discussions. CEO Dawn Hudson favored the Academy issuing a statement of apology sooner rather than later, while president Cheryl Boone Isaacs suggested that the organization lay low until determining exactly what went wrong.

RYAN INZANA for Variety

According to one insider, Hudson and Academy spokesperson Teni Melidonian wanted to issue a press release expressing sympathy for the filmmakers whose moment of triumph was overshadowed by an epic gaffe, with “La La Land” erroneously named best picture before the correct winner, “Moonlight,” was announced minutes later. The statement under discussion would have also included an apology to the “La La Land” team, says the source.

When it became clear that an accountant for PricewaterhouseCoopers was behind the embarrassing blunder, that firm issued an apology — some three hours after the show ended — and Isaacs was apparently content to leave it at that, people close to the matter say. But Hudson and Melidonian believed the situation, which was dominating the news cycle, merited more reaction from the Academy. “When your entire financial plan and image in the world is dependent on one night, you should probably get it right,” says an Academy member.

The Academy leaders dispute claims that they were not in sync. “Cheryl, Dawn, and I were aligned on strategy in the hours following the Oscars,” Melidonian said in a statement sent to Variety. “We worked together to formulate a comprehensive strategy to help diffuse the misinformation that was circulating. The goal was to ascertain the facts before issuing a statement to our members and the public, which is precisely what happened.”

The Academy’s lack of a fast response drew harsh criticism from parts of the Hollywood community and left bruised feelings among the producers of both “La La Land” and “Moonlight.” It took a full 24 hours for the organization to issue an anodyne apology. Many insiders complained privately that the Academy’s statement offered no details about how future mistakes could be avoided or more quickly addressed.

The differences of opinion over the Oscar fiasco underscore what some say are long-simmering tensions between Hudson and Boone Isaacs. Some people who have had dealings with the Academy executives over the years say the two don’t always see eye to eye and have clashed over direction and strategy. “They had different styles,” says a person who once worked with the duo.

These divisions have led people inside the Academy to question who exactly is steering the ship. One source said the dynamic between the leaders has made for an “unhappy household” that has split the Academy’s board into rival camps. “There’s team Cheryl and team Dawn, and on either side there’s a lot of dissatisfaction,” says another Academy member.

Hudson reports directly to the board of governors, on which Boone Isaacs holds an unpaid position as its president. Boone Isaacs will be leaving the Academy in July when her fourth term as president ends. Hudson’s future with the organization will also be determined this summer when her current three-year contract expires. It’s unclear whether the board will once again extend her deal.

People close to the Academy say the tricky dynamic between Hudson and Boone Isaacs can be traced back to the time leading up to and including the moment Boone Isaacs succeeded Hawk Koch as president of the organization in July 2013. The two leading candidates to replace Koch were Boone Isaacs, a former public relations and marketing executive, and Rob Friedman, then co-chairman of Lionsgate’s movie group. Though active campaigning for the presidency is frowned upon, it was well known at the time — including to Boone Isaacs — that Hudson and Koch were pushing people on the board to elect Friedman.

“From day one there was tension,” says a person who has had a long association with the Academy. “It was ugly from the beginning.” The source says that at times the two would hold separate meetings to discuss the same matter. “Their guidance was never uniform; they never spoke as one organization. It was very dysfunctional.”

Boone Isaacs and Hudson declined to comment on their working relationship. Instead, they issued a joint statement to Variety listing the organization’s achievements and goals.

“It is abundantly clear that over the last several years, with the support of our board, we have significantly advanced milestone initiatives such as diversity and inclusion, global engagement of our members, and made substantial progress in building our museum. Throughout the process we knew implementing change would be difficult, especially for an organization of this magnitude, and with 90 years of tradition behind it. But, we remain steadfast in our commitment to continue pushing forward the goals vital to the Academy and for our community.”

Members say that the organization is at a crossroads. Now, in addition to dealing with expanding the breadth of its voting body to include more diverse artists, the nonprofit entity faces questions about the integrity of its annual telecast, which is down in the ratings.

The Academy came under harsh criticism last fall when it dragged its feet on lining up Oscar producers and a host with just four months to go before the February telecast. That marked the longest the organization had gone before naming a producer. That lag became a source of tension with Oscar broadcaster ABC, which had lobbied publicly for late-night host Jimmy Kimmel to emcee the show. In the end, the Academy and producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd tapped Kimmel.

With Boone Isaacs finishing up her time at the helm, and Hudson’s future with the Academy unclear, it may fall to a new set of leaders to figure out how next year’s Oscars can deliver the goods.