By Steve Pond
LOS ANGELES (TheWrap.com) - Who will replace Motion Picture Academy president Hawk Koch later this month?
Less than two weeks before the board of governors place their votes, a clearer picture of the top candidates is emerging. Barring a surprise, the job will probably go to either Lionsgate co-chairman Rob Friedman or public relations executive Cheryl Boone Isaacs. The latter would be the third woman and first African-American president in Academy history.
According to a member with knowledge of the vote, Friedman and Isaacs were the only two governors besides Koch to receive votes when the AMPAS president was chosen last August.
They remain frontrunners leading up to the July 30 board meeting that will elect Koch's successor after one eventful year at the helm. Koch is termed out.
Then again, dark horses have emerged and surprises have happened in the past: Nobody was predicting that Tom Sherak would land the unpaid job when he was first elected back in 2009. Phil Robinson may be the likeliest dark horse who could snatch victory from the presumed favorites, though the board is full of names (Michael Apted? Dick Cook?) that inspire fanciful guesses. See a list of all eligible candidates here.
Making matters trickier is the complicated legacy of Koch's tenure, which has seen big changes in the Academy and won the president both admirers and detractors on the board.
Already, the election is unusual. Academy presidents are chosen for one-year terms, but they can serve four consecutive terms, and it's exceptionally rare for a sitting president not to be re-elected.
But to be president you first have to be a member of the Board of Governors, which has its own terms limits of three consecutive three-year terms.
Koch, the first second-generation president, has reached the end of his nine years as a governor, so he must leave the board. His seat went to producer Mark Johnson in the recent election, making Koch the first single-term president since Bob Rehme in 1992-1993. (Termed off the board after one year as president, Rehme stepped aside for four terms of Arthur Hiller, then returned to the presidency for an additional four years.)
Both Friedman, who was first elected to the board in 2009, and Isaacs, who returned to the board after an absence in 2011, would be eligible to serve a full four terms.
Friedman is considered the frontrunner by many Academy members at this point. He represents the Public Relations Branch on the Board of Governors, though he has long since left publicity and currently serves as co-chairman of Lionsgate Motion Picture Group, which acquired Summit Entertainment, where he was CEO.
Friedman has been interested in the president's job for years, according to members who know him; in some ways he's in the same position that Koch was in last year, as the governor who is most clearly (if quietly) interested in the job.
The big question about Friedman is how much time he could devote to the position, given his position at Summit and Lionsgate. The last three Academy presidents - Sid Ganis, Tom Sherak and Koch - have devoted increasing amounts of time to the unpaid position, with Sherak and Koch essentially viewing it as their main occupation. (Koch stepped down as co-president of the Producers Guild when he was elected president of the Academy.)
"To really do the job right, you've got to be retired or be on some kind of sabbatical," one governor who asked not to be identified told TheWrap. "Rob is a very good businessman, but my question is, How much time would he be able to give it?
"He can't possibly be the kind of president that Hawk was, because he's got a day job."
On the other hand, governors who disagreed with some of Koch's moves - rehiring Oscar show producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan so soon after their highly-rated but critically-panned show definitely bothered some of the board -- might like the idea of a president whose main job keeps him from being as active as Koch was.
But to embrace that scenario, the governors would have to be comfortable handing the reins to CEO Dawn Hudson and COO Ric Robertson to run the organization the way retired executive director Bruce Davis did in the past. Hudson seems to have solidified her support after weathering a storm of criticism early in her tenure, and the selection of Friedman would be a vote of confidence in the CEO whose contract is reportedly up next year.
Isaacs is also from the Public Relations Branch, and has been in the running for the presidential job in the past. She currently serves as the board's first vice president, and her outside workload as a consultant is less of an issue than Friedman's, though she is not as visible an industry figure as he is.
The Academy, of course, has long been under fire for being old, white and male. But it now has an all-time high of 14 female governors, and it recently invited a new group of prospective members heavy with minorities.
In that climate of increasing diversity, a female African-American president would certainly carry symbolic weight.
One potential wild card: "Field of Dreams" writer-director Robinson, a governor from the Writers Branch. Robinson had strong support among board members last year, particularly within the old guard, but he took himself out of the running because he was preparing a couple of films, including "The Angriest Man in Brooklyn," with Peter Dinklage and Robin Williams.
Past and present governors say that wasn't the first time Robinson declined a nomination. But if the writer-director, who is currently serving as an AMPAS vice president and has chaired some key committees, decides he has the time and would accept the presidency, he would garner significant support, particularly among the old guard.
Any of the 48 members of the Board of Governors are eligible to emerge as a candidate once voting takes place on July 30 - and a few would no doubt receive significant support if they wanted the job.
The problem is that the board tends to be made up of highly accomplished individuals who are still working, making it unlikely that many otherwise attractive candidates (John Lasseter, Kathleen Kennedy, Gale Anne Hurd, Annette Bening, Bill Condon ... ) would have the time.
"I know everybody would love for Kathy Kennedy or Tom Hanks to do it," said one longtime governor, "but neither one wants to at this point."
So where could a compromise candidate or dark horse come from?
Animation branch governor Bill Kroyer was mentioned as a possible candidate last year, though he did not figure into the vote. Apted, a Documentary Branch governor, has served as president of the Directors Guild of America, giving him experience in the arena. And Cook is only going into his second year on the board, which ordinarily wouldn't be long enough to give his serious consideration - but his years running a Disney, and his current lack of a time-consuming day job, could help.
But those names are simply idle speculation at a time when every conversation about the job, be it on or off the record, focuses on Friedman and Isaacs (though it eventually gets around to " ... but there could be a surprise").
The demographic breakdown of Academy presidents since 1990 is not particularly diverse: They've all been white men, with an average age of 67 at the time they assumed office. (Friedman, Isaacs and Robinson are all 63.)
Two have come from the Academy's Executive Branch, and one each from the Actors, Directors, Writers, Producers and Public Relation Branches.
The governors have 84 Oscar nominations and 19 Oscars between them, plus three special-achievement awards and five Sci-Tech awards. (Special effects pioneer Richard Edlund and sound mixer Scott Millan are the board's biggest winners.)
In something of a rarity, Rehme is the only past president on the board. He currently serves as board secretary, part of a slate of officers that also includes Isaacs (first vice president), Kennedy and Robinson (vice presidents) and Friedman (treasurer).