For the Academy’s New Chief, a Balancing Act
By MICHAEL CIEPLY
LOS ANGELES — Bette Davis, the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, held the job for two months before quitting in frustration. That was in 1941.
Dawn Hudson, the first person to hold a newly created post as the organization’s chief executive, has hung in more than twice as long. But that does not mean Hollywood’s film academy is at ease with the latest strong-willed woman to promise what has always come hard for it: change.
In June, Ms. Hudson was named to replace the academy’s retiring executive director, Bruce Davis. A 20-year presence on the independent film scene, she arrived with a commitment to social and ethnic diversity, a determination to raise the academy’s public profile and a reputation for shaking things up.
“If you don’t want to say yes, don’t take her phone call,” advises Michael Donaldson, an admirer who was Ms. Hudson’s general counsel at a nonprofit called Film Independent, which supports independent filmmakers, and its predecessor, the Independent Feature Project/West.
In Bette Davis’s day, the fights were about whether to charge for Oscar night tickets and cutting screen extras out of the academy.
At issue today is whether Ms. Hudson can accomplish a delicate balancing act: opening the group to fresh talent and unleashing its vast resources — net assets topped $258 million last year, while television deals for the Academy Awards guarantee a billion dollars in revenue over the next decade — without losing the confidence of a 43-member board that built its nest egg, and the Oscar brand, by protecting what already works.
For some, this seems to be a defining moment in a film industry that has surrendered energy to television and other media, adding urgency to Ms. Hudson’s task as the awards season churns toward the Oscar ceremonies on Feb. 26.
“It’s about preserving the emotional connection that people have to the movies,” said Terry Press, a publicist who serves on one of the academy’s internal boards. “That’s got to be the mission.”
Ms. Hudson and Tom Sherak, the academy’s elected president, declined to be interviewed. Both said it was too early in Ms. Hudson’s tenure to discuss the direction that she might take the academy.
But interviews with academy members, including past and present governors, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of prohibitions on public discussion of internal deliberations, make clear that Ms. Hudson was recruited to help fix what not everyone inside believes to be broken.
In the last few months, for instance, Ms. Hudson ruffled feathers by suggesting her own choices for annual invitations to the membership rolls — something that has largely been left to directors, writers and other artists in the academy’s various branches. Within the secretive academy, even small things like this can loom large. Some governors were offended, though as a member herself Ms. Hudson was entitled to offer names.
Backers say moves of that sort reflect Ms. Hudson’s conviction that the academy needs new faces, many from underrepresented ethnic or social groups.
“I don’t think anyone, any white person, in this town is more dedicated to diversity than Dawn Hudson,” said Stephanie Allain Bray, a black producer who is an academy member and who worked with Ms. Hudson on the board of Film Independent.
Diversity is not a strong suit of the academy’s governors; all but one are white, only six are women, and the average age appears to be over 60.
Along with prominent names like the director Kathryn Bigelow and the actor Tom Hanks, the board includes seasoned but less-recognized film workers like Kevin O’Connell from the sound branch, and Richard Crudo, a cinematographer.
Because physical attendance is expected at board meetings, virtually all of the governors are Californians. Making the rounds at private meetings in New York recently, Ms. Hudson suggested opening up the board with the help of video technology like Skype, something Mr. Sherak has also advocated.
“She’s a woman of intelligence, guts and compromise,” offered Sidney Ganis, a past academy president who was on the search committee that recruited Ms. Hudson, and who became acquainted with her as a member of the Film Independent board. Ms. Hudson, Mr. Ganis said, has been raising questions since she took over in an attempt to understand the academy, not dictating changes in practice or policy.
But others describe Ms. Hudson, 55, as an effective operator whose Southern charm — she grew up in Hot Springs, Ark. — veils a toughness that recalls the women of “Steel Magnolias.” At Harvard, that strength failed her for a time. Though she left Harvard halfway through her junior year, experiencing a rare collapse in confidence upon failing a tutorial, she worked in Washington for Sen. John McClellan and later returned to graduate. She also did graduate work in political science at Washington University in St. Louis and later studied in France.
Migrating to Los Angeles after a stint as the editor of St. Louis magazine, Ms. Hudson became an actress. She had mostly bit parts in a string of films and television shows, at least through her appearance in “High Crimes,” a military thriller released by 20th Century Fox in 2002. In that one, Ms. Hudson, already in charge of I.F.P./West, played a hard-bitten colonel who, under hostile grilling on the witness stand, refused to flinch.
(The film was directed by Carl Franklin, who won the I.F.P./West’s Independent Spirit Award for his “One False Move” in 1993. In 1994, Ms. Hudson had a small part in “Angie,” directed by Martha Coolidge, who won a Spirit award for “Rambling Rose” in 1992. The next year, the director Jonathan Wacks, a Spirit nominee for “Pow Wow Highway” in 1990, cast her in “Ed and His Dead Mother.”)
Bill Condon, an academy member and president of the Film Independent board, said Ms. Hudson’s screen career was a small part of her contributions to the industry. “It definitely made her more interesting, but it was always a footnote,” he said.
At the academy, the tough streak figured in a collision with Mikel Gordon, a powerful staff member who, as associate executive administrator, had worked closely with Mr. Davis and Ric Robertson, the chief operating officer. After Ms. Hudson arrived, Ms. Gordon was asked to shift from general administration to the academy’s film programs and archival work — and to move from the executive suite in the Beverly Hills headquarters to a satellite office in Hollywood.
She instead resigned. Reached at home, Ms. Gordon declined to discuss her departure.
“I loved it, loved it, loved it,” she said of the academy. “It just wasn’t the right place for me anymore.”
Well into the board meeting at which Ms. Hudson was appointed, a number of governors doubted that the academy was the place for her as well. According to people who attended, she faltered when presented as the committee’s choice, and was initially turned down. Mr. Ganis and Mr. Sherak continued to plead her case, and Ms. Hudson rallied with a second presentation that carried the day. She was hired under a three-year contract.
Some governors fretted that Film Independent was too small to offer a meaningful proving ground for Ms. Hudson. According to filings with the Internal Revenue Service, the organization has annual revenue of about $8 million, much of it from its Los Angeles Film Festival; by contrast, the academy has taken in roughly $80 million a year from the Oscars, which account for perhaps 90 percent of its revenue, while spending about $30 million to produce the show.
Much of that revenue, and anticipated donations, will most likely go toward developing a movie museum in an alliance with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Ms. Hudson also has suggested that the academy might tap its wealth to become a presence on the film festival circuit — one way to increase its visibility on the many nights when it is not handing out Oscars.
To date, public programs have centered on an annual screenwriting competition, small grants to schools and festivals, and a barely visible but important film preservation program. But some board members are pondering whether a bold move into the festival world might tarnish the awards by becoming too promotional.
Toward the end of the last board meeting, Ms. Hudson and Mr. Sherak also proposed renovations, costing perhaps $3 million, to the headquarters. The weary board, which had just agreed to risk $5 million in a deposit on its plan to open the new movie museum — and had agreed in principle to renovate the structure at a cost of perhaps $150 million — tabled the remodel.
But it will be back, if Ms. Hudson runs true to form. In Mr. Donaldson’s words: “She’s like a mama lion.”