The Dawn Hudson haters were out in force this week after the motion picture Academy C.E.O. announced that she’ll step down when her contract ends in 2023. Hudson is one of the most controversial figures in town, thanks in part to the outsized role the Academy plays as Hollywood’s de facto town counsel and proprietor of the Oscars. I always equate the Academy to the public servants of Pawnee on Parks & Recreation… if Pawnee hosted the Super Bowl every year.
I happen to like Dawn personally, and I think she often takes the hits for industry-wide problems like inclusion and the generational divide among members, which can often lead to dumb decision-making (the “Popular” Oscar?), not to mention shouting matches at board of governors meetings. But it doesn’t help that her leadership style can seem scattershot and reactionary, or that she took over in 2011 for Bruce Davis, who held the job for 22 years, during which the Oscars became a cash cow.
Here’s a humble assessment of the Dawn Hudson era at the Academy:
– Unprecedented leadership and action on diversifying an organization that was 94 percent white and 76 percent male when she joined. After Hudson became the unwitting face of #OscarsSoWhite, she added about 3,000 people to a group that now includes 9,362 members, bringing the female number to 33 percent and underrepresented minorities to 19 percent. Some see that as anti-meritocracy (how many Wayanses does the Academy need?), but it’s pretty clear something drastic needed to happen. A more representative, more global Oscars will be better positioned for the next 50 years.
– The Museum finally got built. Love it or loathe it, Hudson pushed the long-delayed project across the finish line. Yes, it cost too much (half a billion!), was plagued by multi-year delays and executive turnover, and its long-term financial health is still a big question. But she leveraged the industry’s fundraising muscle, hired and then brought back Bill Kramer as the museum’s leader, and can take credit for finally fulfilling a goal of the organization from its very beginning.
– Few C.E.O.s would keep their jobs if their core revenue generator tanked 75 percent during their tenure. Toilet-swirling ratings for the Oscars aren’t totally Hudson’s fault, of course, and any organization with an unwieldy 54-member board is going to struggle to make bold decisions, but she certainly didn’t do anything to help stem the audience declines. Imagine if Hudson had invested the kind of effort she put into the diversity campaign to plug holes in the Oscars’ sinking ship. “We have failed to move the Oscars into the modern age, despite decades of increased competition and declining ratings,“ former board member Bill Mechanic wrote in his 2018 resignation letter. He was right, and it’s only gotten worse since then.
Clearly, saving the Oscars must be the focus of the new C.E.O. And with Hudson’s 2020 compensation reaching $950,000, the Academy should be able to convince a strong candidate to take the job. Who? It’s early, and given the 2023 timetable, I’m sure all corners of the nonprofit world will be scoured. I don’t think the board will pick someone until after next summer’s election, when a new president will replace the termed-out David Rubin. But based on conversations with members, Academy insiders and longtime observers, Bill Kramer seems to be the leading (and some say only) internal candidate, the person who several key insiders hope gets the job.
As director of the Academy Museum, Kramer has been credited with what the board considers a successful opening, and for bringing stability after Kerry Brougher was pushed out after five years. An experienced fundraiser, he also counts strong relationships with influential Academy members like Ted Sarandos, Steven Spielberg and Bob Iger. He’s never dealt with the Oscars, which could be negative, but the early money is on him.
One other name I heard is Keri Putnam, which is intriguing. The longtime Sundance Institute C.E.O. left in March and would bring with her impeccable filmmaker relationships and nonprofit management experience. After Hudson, who came from Film Independent, some governors might be reluctant to turn the Academy over to another indie veteran, but Putnam knows how to navigate an arts organization with a lot of stakeholders used to getting what they want.I’m told some governors also like Nancy Utley for the job. The former Searchlight Pictures chair exited in April and is currently serving a three-year term on the board. She’s got the best track record of winning best picture in recent years, so she at least knows the value of an Oscar, and what losing that currency would do for the Academy. It’s so rare for a non-profit to own an asset like that, can they save it from irrelevance?