Tom Sherak on His 8 Biggest Challenges as Academy President (Q&A)
On Tuesday night, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will elect a new president for the first time since 2009, when Tom Sherak was a surprise choice for the high-profile unpaid position at the organization that bestows the Oscars. Sherak has proved to be a strong leader but one capable of compromise, who has had to navigate through major changes in the long history of the tradition-bound nonprofit organization.
He negotiated a new TV contract with ABC, a new deal for the Oscar venue at the Hollywood & Highland complex, brought aboard a new executive director in Dawn Hudson, changed the way best pictures nominees are picked (again) and launched what will become a major museum about the movies. None of these moves was without controversy or opposition, but Sherak managed to keep his head, build a consensus and get the job done. He talked candidly with The Hollywood Reporter about his biggest challenges during his three years on the job.
1. OSCAR'S HOME
THR: The Academy threatened to move the Academy Awards out of Hollywood even before Kodak went bankrupt and decided to take its name off the theater. In the end, the Oscars remained there and the theater got a new name courtesy of Dolby. The Academy had the right to stop that naming rights sale but didn’t. What is the backstory?
Sherak: Yes, we had the right to stop a naming if we felt it was not good for the Academy Awards show. Now, what does that mean? You want to name that theater Hooterville or the Topless Theater at Hollywood & Highland? That wasn’t going to happen. But you know, if a name came up that was a solid name, a solid company, then we wouldn’t have stopped that.
What happened [with the theater renewal] was somebody came to me and said we have an out if we want it. We had the right to terminate and look elsewhere if we want to, otherwise we have to stay another eight years. I said: "Well, wouldn’t it make sense to terminate and renegotiate? It is the Super Bowl event of movie entertainment." And they said, "Well, you know, you have to find someplace else to go." And I said, "Well, let me think about it."
Three times a year, I have had lunch with past presidents. There were seven, now there are six past living presidents [Frank Pierson died July 23]. We’d get together after the Oscars and after the Governors Awards and one time in between that. I would discuss with them what was going on at the Academy and get their input on things. So I brought up at this lunch -- this was in November, right after the Governors Awards -- that we could renegotiate but were concerned about where we [could] go and who would want us. And I’ll never forget, it was Walter Mirisch -- who was the oldest president in the group and as vital as he was 20 years ago -- who looked at me and said: “Tom, listen to me. It’s the Academy Awards. You’ll find a place to go. Renegotiate, Tom. Trust me.” And that’s when I went to exercise our right to renegotiate.
Then right away we started getting offers. We stayed there because that’s where we belonged. So it was Walter Mirisch who gave me the go-ahead in his own way to say go do it; somebody will want us, don’t worry. And he was right on. ... I never told anybody that story, by the way. But that’s exactly what happened. I said OK, and all of the sudden, I started finding myself in a negotiation that I said, "Wow, this is going to be good for us." It wasn’t an easy negotiation, it was hard; but you know, I enjoyed it, and it was fun.
2. NEW MUSEUM
THR: You inherited a mess in Hollywood. The Academy had bought land but then couldn’t raise money to build a museum due to the recession. How did that lead to a new museum at LACMA on Wilshire Boulevard and an outdoor theater in Hollywood?
Sherak: When we wanted to do this, there were people in Hollywood who were upset we were not going to build our museum on that property but instead were going to join with LACMA to put the museum in the [former] May Co. We tried to explain to them, in the nicest way, that we didn’t want to abandon them because we have a building there. We have the Pickford Center, and we’re very proud of it. It wasn’t about abandoning them.