The Oscars legacy of film academy chief Dawn Hudson

One of Hudson’s top priorities was to make the academy more inclusive. She saw diversifying the organization that was supposed to represent Hollywood’s best and brightest as not only the right thing to do but also critical to the academy’s survival. Hudson immediately launched an internal survey of the demographics of the academy’s staff, committees and membership, something that the organization had never undertaken.

Not everyone on the board at the time shared Hudson’s sense of urgency.

“Everybody called us a bunch of old white guys … well, it wasn’t true, but it was pretty close to true,” says Ganis. “And Dawn came in and Day 1 she said ‘diversity’ — and she did it in every direction…. There were board members who said, ‘We have to change,’ and I must say I was one of them. But I don’t think the board was looking for somebody to remake the organization.”

Six days after starting the job, Hudson and then-academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs convened an unpublicized meeting with Spike Lee and other academy members and leaders to discuss how the organization could be made more welcoming to underrepresented communities.

As a woman taking the reins of a group that was, according to a 2012 Times study, more than three-quarters male, Hudson personally felt the organization’s skewed demographics. “When I first came, there were very few women on the board,” she says. “I felt acutely that I was one of the few female voices in that room. It was sort of a boys club.”

Elected to the board in July 2016, Dern says she was surprised at how resistant some in the group were to Hudson’s efforts to modernize the institution and how entrenched some of its leaders were in “an old-school ritual of how certain things were considered.”

“Literally every meeting where Dawn would bring up something that sounded, you know, 50 years behind its time — not cutting-edge, just catching up with a lot of other organizations throughout the world that were attempting the same goals — that there would be any resistance did always shock me,” Dern says.

In 2016, after incremental efforts to boost the organization’s diversity, the academy’s inequities exploded into public view. Two consecutive years of all-white acting nominees sparked the #OscarsSoWhite controversy with outrage on social media and within the industry.

At an event honoring Boone Isaacs that January, amid growing talk of a potential Oscar boycott, “Selma” star David Oyelowo became one of the first prominent figures in Hollywood to publicly blast the academy, telling the crowd, “I am an academy member, and it doesn’t reflect me, and it doesn’t reflect this nation.” After he spoke, Hudson and Boone Isaacs pulled the actor aside to discuss their response to the crisis.

“I remember the three of us huddling while people were chomping on their rubber chicken, trying to figure out how we could address what was becoming a bit of an outcry,” Oyelowo says. “Here were these two women who were caring about the likes of myself and other marginalized voices, saying: ‘What can we say to show that we want to change?’ I watched them both navigate that, and I thought Dawn’s thoughtfulness, her ability to listen and her desire to put in place things that were actionable despite the political nature of the academy, was really exemplary.”

Dawn Hudson and David Oyelowo in 2019.

(Rodin Eckenroth / FilmMagic via Getty Images)

Hoping to quell the firestorm, the academy announced a plan, dubbed A2020, to double the number of women and minorities in the group within five years. With thousands of new members from around the world, membership grew by nearly 80% to more than 10,000, and the goals were achieved in 2020. Today, the academy says 34% of its members identify as female, while 19% are from underrepresented ethnic/racial communities.

Many cheered the aggressive effort to diversify the organization, but some older academy members balked at the notion that its ranks needed a radical overhaul, arguing that they were being unfairly scapegoated for industry- and society-wide problems and that the bar for membership was being lowered.

“The academy may not have been a complete hall of fame, but it used to take some artistic achievement to become a member,” Mechanic says. “Now all you have to do is buy a movie ticket.”

Looking back, Hudson wishes she had done more to convey the importance of taking such dramatic steps.

“It’s hard to change what you have for breakfast, much less change a 90-year-old institution,” she says. “People want it in theory, but in practice it creates a sense of loss. I feel more compassion now, I guess, toward that kind of resistance. If I were doing this all over again, I would communicate even more what the academy must do to stay relevant, how the academy must reflect our filmgoing audience and our film industry talent that we had unintentionally but in our complacency not included before. I feel like we’re a much stronger academy now.”

During Hudson’s tenure, the academy also significantly diversified its leadership. For the first time in the group’s history, the board, which has expanded to 54 governors, now includes more women than men. In the most recent board elections, the number of members from underrepresented racial/ethnic communities rose to 15 from 12. In 2020, the academy announced a new initiative, Aperture 2025, geared at further increasing representation in the organization’s governance, membership and workplace culture as well as instituting new inclusion standards for Oscars eligibility.

Even as the group was giving its membership a makeover, Hudson was engaged in another ambitious and high-stakes project: building a major movie museum in the heart of Los Angeles. Announced in 2012 with an initial budget of $250 million, the project was soon beset by delays and construction snags.

As the budget swelled, eventually nearly doubling, and fundraising slowed, tensions among board members rose and Hudson’s leadership again came into question. Despite the setbacks and hand-wringing, Hudson insists she maintained a firm grasp on the museum project.

“Yes, of course, there were challenges,” Hudson says. “But once we started demolition, I thought, ‘There’s no going back now.’ We had Tom Hanks, Bob Iger and Annette Bening leading our capital campaign. We weren’t going to lose.”

The stakes of the museum project, in terms of both the nonprofit organization’s brand and its bottom line, are enormous. During Hudson’s tenure, the academy’s net assets grew from $289 million in 2011 to $894 million in 2021, according to the group’s most recent financial report. But in a potentially worrying sign for its long-term health, awards revenue, after rising for decades, has leveled off in recent years, declining more than 10% in the fiscal year ending July 2021. The academy’s current contract with ABC ends in 2028. Beyond that, the broadcast — or streaming — future of the Oscars is an open question.

In September, after a reconsideration of the exhibitions to showcase underrepresented voices in Hollywood history, the $480-million museum finally opened. Though the fanfare was muted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the museum sold more than 550,000 tickets in its first nine months, according to the academy.

“We would not have a museum if it wasn’t for Dawn and her vision and her commitment to the civic and cultural life of the city and the industry,” Kramer says. “She saw the need for this.”

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