The first time somebody asked Tom Sherak to be the president of something, it was his rabbi doing the asking – and the veteran film executive agreed to serve as president of his temple on one condition: "I'll do it, but I don't want a board."
The rabbi turned him down – and years later, when Sherak was elected president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the board was also non-negotiable. That was August 2009, when Sherak was unexpectedly elected by an AMPAS Board of Governors that included Tom Hanks, Annette Bening, Kathleen Kennedy, Curtis Hanson, John Lasseter and James L. Brooks.
The 67-year-old production, distribution and studio executive has now served three terms as president of the Academy – three years in which the organization saw a wholesale reorganization of its executive structure, with longtime executive director Bruce Davis retiring and being replaced by CEO Dawn Hudson (an AMPAS newcomer) and COO Ric Robertson (Davis's right-hand man).
Sherak's tenure also saw the signing of new long-term deals with ABC television and with the Hollywood & Highland Center; the revival of the stalled Academy Museum of Motion Pictures; the controversial replacement of five Best Picture nominees with 10 (passed in his predecessor Sid Ganis' final term, but implemented under Sherak); the 2011 replacement of the 10 with a sliding scale that produces anywhere from five to 10 nominees; and the self-destruction of last year's Oscar show producer, Brett Ratner, who resigned and was followed out the door by host Eddie Murphy, quickly to be replaced by Brian Grazer and Billy Crystal.
Sherak was one of the most visible Academy presidents in decades, but he reached his limit of nine consecutive years on the board this summer. Although AMPAS presidents are permitted to serve four consecutive one-year terms under normal circumstances, Academy bylaws have forced Sherak off the board and therefore out of the presidency.
"I hate the bylaws!" joked the relentlessly enthusiastic Sherak as he sat down with TheWrap for a wide-ranging exit interview just before the July 31 election of his successor.
When you were elected president, the Academy was a place known for its stability. The executive director, Bruce Davis (with Sherak, right), had been there for more than 25 years.
Yeah. Bruce ran the place, and that's the way it was supposed to be. The first two years, I didn't have much to do but smile and every once in a while pick the Oscar-show producer.
Then he retired and you headed the search committee to find a replacement. It took a long time.
It was an unexpected chain of events. Nobody knew that Bruce was going to retire; nobody was looking for Bruce to retire. He'd taken that place from a small organization to 250 people sitting on all that money. He'd set the foundation, and the question was, "Where do we take it from here?"
Why did finding a replacement also involve giving AMPAS a whole new executive structure?
Once Bruce decided to leave, I always thought that it wasn't a Ma-and-Pa organization anymore, and we needed to be set up the way a big business is set up. We needed a CEO, not an executive director. And a COO and a CFO. The board wanted to find someone to make us grow, so we needed changes to make us function differently.
In February, the L.A. Times came out with a big survey exposing the shocking truth that the Academy is mostly old and white.
Yeah, they could have called, and we could have saved them a lot of time. It wasn't like that was a secret.
The latest group of people invited to join the Academy does include more women and minorities than usual. But with the pressure to make the Academy grow and change and become more diverse, do you see a danger in trying to change too quickly?
The answer is yes. And the other answer is, it'll never happen too fast. We won't let it, because the Academy is built on excellence. You have to have accomplished something in your field to get into the Academy.
Yes, we all want to become more diverse. But you don't get diversity by letting in people who haven't achieved excellence in their profession. The way you do it, and this is not a fast or short-term solution, is by promoting ways for people of color to get into the business. What the Academy can do to help diversify the Academy is to help diversify the industry.
Was the Brett Ratner mess your toughest time in office?
Absolutely not. And the reason for that is that when it happened, I started getting phone calls: "If you need me, I'll do it." I had producers calling me, I had hosts saying, "If Eddie Murphy pulls out, I'm in." So actually, the whole thing was very simple. I could sit here and say I had it all planned out, but it just happened. I guess the Academy gods were watching over my shoulder.
Gil Cates, who produced 14 Oscar shows but died just before Ratner resigned, always talked about "the Oscar gods."
In the back of my mind, Gil was the backup. I knew he wanted to do it one more time, and I knew when I hired Ratner that something could happen. So Gil was the backup. And then he passed away.
Earlier this year, you signed two major contracts – one to keep the show on ABC until 2020 and another to keep the show in what is now the Dolby Theatre, at Hollywood & Highland.
I feel comfortable about that. The Academy really needs to know that it's going to live on, that it's not going to have to worry about the money. And I feel comfortable about the security of the place with the ABC contract signed.
Did you ever really consider leaving the theater at Hollywood & Highland?
No. Oh, no. It would have had to be so different and exciting for us to consider moving. Could have left and gone somewhere else? Sure, but Hollywood & Highland is our home. Could we have bid out the contract for the TV show? Maybe, but we've been with ABC for 30 years. Where would we go?
Three years ago, just after you'd become president, I asked you if the expansion from five to 10 Best Picture nominees was going to work. You said, "I don't know, but I hope so." Has it worked?
I think it's worked. There was always controversy, no different than the controversy over the designated hitter rule in the American League. And last year, when I went into Bruce Davis' office and said, "There must be something we can do," and he came up with this idea of letting the voters tell us how many nominees there should be, I think that was a good interim step.
But what made you say to him, "There must be something we can do"?
I was getting a lot of phone calls from members saying, "You gotta go back to the five, 10 is too many." So I went to Bruce, and he did some research with PricewaterhouseCoopers. They came up with this formula that will produce between five and 10 nominees. Don't ask me what that formula is.
I can explain it to you if you want.
Don't you dare! Don't you dare! But I think it's a good thing. There will always be people who disagree with me, but I thought last year was good, and I'm glad we're doing it again.
Is the current board committed to it?
I think so. When we went to 10, we approved the 10 for three years. I still brought it back for a vote the next year, and everybody said we should try it again. And then we gave them the other idea, and they agreed to try that. It came up again this year, and they agreed to try it again.
Do you think the board is committed to keeping the Oscars where they are in the calendar?
I do. The board was willing to move up the nominations, but I don't think they'll move the show.
If the new president is adamant about wanting to move the show earlier or go back to five Best Picture nominees, could he or she have an immediate impact?
They could try to come in and start policking the board, sure. But when I was president, the only difference at a board meeting between me and the other 42 governors was that I had the mallet. I almost threw it at some people a few times, but everyone is equal.
You and your predecessor, Sid Ganis, were more visible and seemingly more active than many of the previous presidents. Is that a necessary part of the job now?
I said this to the board at my last meeting: I don't think the new president has to be at the Academy every day, even though I was. But I think in today's world, with the changes in the business and all the things that are going on, the president does need to be there more often than in the past. Sid and I changed that a bit. The place is run by the CEO and the COO, but the president still needs to be there.
As you're leaving office, are there areas where you think, "Damn, I wish I could have done more"?
The only thing I wish I had a little more time with is the museum. I'll be on the committee, but I wish that I were able to be part of getting the shovel in the ground.
By the way, that wasn't a unanimous decision by any stretch of the imagination. It was a debated conversation: "Should we wait and see if we can raise the money to build something from scratch?" But at the end of the day, everybody felt that we wanted to see the museum in our lifetimes. And I wish I could be part of cutting the ribbon.
The first question I asked you three years ago was this: "What have you learned in your first two months in office?" And you said, "I've learned that not only can you not please all the people all the time, you can't please anybody any of the time." Do you still feel that way?
Well, you can't please everybody. And I truly had no idea what it was to be president back then. But this is not brain surgery. I thought I could bring a sense of fun, and make some tough decisions when they needed to be made. And it's been an exciting three years.
The job has been good for me. I always call it the best non-paying job in Hollywood.
What will you be doing on Tuesday night while the board elects a new president?
Normally, the president serves his years, gets re-elected to the board and then is a board member while there's a new president. But I'm not on the board, so they don't even invite me to their meeting as a guest.
So I'll be at home, waiting to find out who the new president is when I read about it on TheWrap.