On the retirement of the Academy’s top staffer, a look back at snafus, power plays and battles won and lost
On Friday, for the first time in decades, the Academy's headquarters in Beverly Hills is having to get along without Bruce Davis at the helm.
Davis, who had worked at the Academy since 1981 and served as executive director since 1990, has officially retired, and moved to a different office in Hollywood; in his place, his longtime second-in-command Ric Robertson has been promoted to COO, and former Film Independent executive director Dawn Hudson brought in as CEO. (Both are new positions for AMPAS.)
A former college professor who was hired by the Academy after chairing the theater department at a small college in Pennsylvania, Davis pushed for fundraising, stood up to the board of governors on occasion, advocated for rule changes, earned the nickname "Dr. No" among Oscar staffers for his strong hand, endured both a shrinking Academy Awards audience and a growing style of cutthroat Oscar campaigning, and ran the day-to-day operations at AMPAS.
In honor of the end of Davis' tenure, a few snapshots from a long career, taken from about 17 years of interviews and encounters:
Davis came to the executive director job a year after what is still the most infamous Oscar show ever (James Franco's shenanigans notwithstanding). It happened in 1989, when Allan Carr produced the show, which began with a hellaciously long and silly opening number in which an actress dressed as Snow White cavorted with a young Rob Lowe. (Their debut on a rewritten "Proud Mary" is still the stuff of Oscar-night legend.)
"It was all very secretive," said Davis, who at the time was the Academy's executive administrator. "It was going to be a surprise not only to the audience, but to us. But when Snow White walked down the aisle and brushed by me, I thought, Oh my God, I wonder if anybody's cleared that. I wasn't the executive director yet, but I knew that there were some things that you have to do some checking around with."
Carr hadn't cleared it, and Disney sued.
Coming from academia, Davis was familiar with endowments as a way of building up a war chest — and he was also worried about the revenue from the Oscars, which typically had funded virtually all of the Academy's operations.
So in the late '80s, he pointed out to the board of governors that the Academy was operating its library out of its annual revenue — and if that revenue dropped as Oscar viewership declined, the library could be in big trouble. He recommended building up a sizeable endowment, and using income from that to support the library. AMPAS president Karl Malden and his successor Robert Rehme spearheaded the effort, which raised enough to, most years, fully fund the library.
(With the economic downturn, admits Davis, the endowment took a hit, and has not always generated enough to support the library. In fiscal 2008, according to public records, the Academy's investment income was just under $6 million, more than $2 million less than the previous year.)
"I said we should be putting a little something aside, maybe do a little fundraising for the first time since the early days, to protect against hard times that may be ahead of us," said Davis.
Ironically, he said he made the recommendation "based on what turned out to be a false premise." With network television viewers declining as the TV landscape fragmented, Davis said he was worried "that a day might come when we couldn’t get the same kind of license agreement from any network that we’d been used to.
"But I was completely wrong. What I hadn’t foreseen is that the audience might get smaller and smaller, but the number of occasions when an audience of even that size was gathered in front of the television became rarer and rarer. So sponsors were willing to pay much more than they had been paying, and the income didn’t go down from the show."
Earlier this year, the Academy extended its deal with ABC for another six years, until 2020, at current rates.
WHAT'S UP, DOCS?
Over the years, another of Davis' de facto jobs was explaining the Academy's preferential system of counting votes to curious members — most of whom, he admitted, didn't know how it worked even after he explained it.
He was also in close touch with Price Waterhouse, which became PricewaterhouseCooopers midway through his tenure. In 1995, when a huge outcry arose over the failure of the acclaimed documentary "Hoop Dreams" to even land a nomination, he was the one who went to the Oscars' accounting team. In what was for him an unprecedented move, he asked for the results of the voting, in which each member of the volunteer documentary committee was asked to score each contender on a scale of either 0-to-10 or 4-to-10 (accounts differ as to which scale was in place at the time).
"They didn’t give me the names of the voters," he said. "It was Voter A, Voter B, Voter C – and sure enough, there were a small minority of voters who had given the lowest possible score to every picture except the five that they wanted to be nominated, which they gave 10s to. That completely skewed the voting. One film had gotten more 10s than any other picture, but those minimum scores were enough to push it to sixth place."
In the aftermath, Davis pushed for the voting to be changed to a 6-to-10 scale, to lessen the damage a small cabal of voters could do to any specific film.
Davis also remembered another time when he got a call from a PricewaterhouseCoopers rep, and got to directly influence a slate of Oscar nominees.
"Every once in a while there's an odd little wrinkle," he said. "A couple of years ago, there was a special category where the rule says that only pictures that receive an average score of 8.0 are eligible, and there must be between three and five nominees. And they called up and asked, 'Which one of those things is most important?'
"And I said, 'So we don't have three pictures with an 8.0, right?' And they said, 'Right. We've got two, and one very close to that.' So I got to make a real executive decision. I decided having three nominations was more important than having an 8.0, and we tinkered with the rule a bit."
I SEE DEAD PEOPLE
If there was one thorn in Davis's side on the Oscar show, it was the annual "In Memoriam" segment. The math is brutal: more than 100 Academy members pass away each year, but the segment can only give about 30 of them a brief spotlight on the Oscar show. And when friends and family were livid that a loved one has been left out, Davis was the guy who got to apologize and try to explain.
"I have had a person, in mid-summer, call me from the hospital to say, 'My father just died. What do I do to get him in the memoriam?'" remembered Davis. "This was not a person I had ever heard of, and I'm fairly knowledgeable about the industry."
The segment, he said, was slated for elimination by the board in 2002, after a widely-criticized montage that left out Oscar nominee Dorothy McGuire, but restored the following year after the deaths of Milton Berle, Lew Wasserman, Rod Steiger and a number of other prominent figures.
"It's awful!" said Davis of the segment's fallout. "There's nothing you can say to somebody's wife or somebody's daughter about why their relative didn't make it into that sequence. Those statistics — we can only do two dozen and we have this many — cut no ice whatsoever, so you try to be as diplomatic as you can. If it's an actor you try to talk about the immortality that the very form of motion pictures conveys, and what does it really matter in the long run what happens for a moment on Oscar night. But it's awful, just awful."
THE ISLAND OF MISFIT OSCARS
Davis didn't just deal with the Oscar show; sometimes, he became temporary caretaker for the Oscars themselves.
The first time I was in his office was a couple of months after a major earthquake struck Southern California in early 1994. At one point, the conversation turned to Oscars that had been damaged in the temblor.
"Do you want to see some of them?" asked Davis with a laugh. He walked across the room and opened a closet, where about a dozen damaged Oscar statuettes sat on a couple of shelves.
For the moment, it turned out, Davis was housing the Oscars that had been returned to the Academy for repair or replacement. They included Oliver Stone's Best Director statuette for "Platoon," which was bent at the base, and Jack Nicholson's Best Actor trophy for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" — which, appropriately considering the fate of Nicholson's character in that movie, had a big dent in the statuette's head.
One thing became clear during Davis's tenure: The Academy took its trademarks and properties very, very seriously. It went after winners or their families who tried to auction off Oscars that they'd won; third-party dealers who conducted the sales; vendors selling unauthorized merchandise (of course, all Oscar merchandise is unauthorized); and websites like Sasha Stone's Oscar Watch, which had to change its name to Awards Daily after pressure from Academy lawyers.
I ran into that myself in late 2004. Just as my Oscar book, "The Big Show," was about to go to press, I received a phone call from one of the Academy's lawyers, telling me that the cover image — a rehearsal photo of stagehands silhouetted behind on table on which a pair of dummy Oscar statues sat — featured the Oscar too prominently as a design element, and would likely bring legal action. We quickly replaced it with a photo in which the only visible Oscar was in Mira Sorvino's hand (which, in fact, turned out to be a more playful and better cover image anyway).
Those battles, carried out by the Oscar legal team and often by Robertson more visibly than Davis, helped foster an image that the top ranks of the Academy meant business. "We call him Dr. No," one show staffer once said to me of Davis. "But you’d better not print that, or he'll cut you off."
(I did, and he didn't.)
If Davis could be tough, many members insisted that he needed to be — that it took a strong personality to stand up to the Academy's board of governors, 43 prominent filmmakers accustomed to getting their own way.
Talking about Davis's ability to make the board see it his way, one member remembered a particular case from a couple of years ago, during the annual meeting at which the board voted on new members who'd been recommended by the individual branches.
One branch, said the member, had recommended for membership a person who was associated with the branch's craft, but who was not by any definition of the word a filmmaker. Although that made the recommendation suspect, the board initially voted to approve it — whereupon, said the member, Davis addressed the governors and reminded them that they'd be setting a troublesome precedent if they admitted the person to membership in a branch that was devoted to filmmakers.
Davis then walked out of the room and let the board revote — and while the person was invited to join the Academy, the invitation was to be a member-at-large rather than a member of the branch.
"There are very few people," said the member telling the story, "who have that kind of influence over that board."
DARK NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM
One of Davis's last pet projects at the Academy was also one of the most problematic — because in addition to putting a sizeable dent in the Academy endowment, the economic crisis of recent years also derailed his dream of a lavish Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Hollywood.
Davis pushed for the project as the board of governors approved the purchase of land next to the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study on Vine Street in Hollywood, and as a search for an architect ended with the choice of Atelier Christian de Portzamparc.
But the economic downturn of 2008 essentially killed fundraising for what was to have been a $400 million project. "I don’t think there's a question that everyone who serves this Academy believes that we should try to see this come to fruition while we’re still around," Academy president Tom Sherak said.
Davis has said that he can still envision a less lavish museum taking shape on the property — and if so, he'll be in a good location to keep an eye on the project, with his new office situated in the Pickford Center.
"He's ready to slow down, but he can still make us better at what we do," said Sherak.
"We've gotta protect the past and the present and the future, and there's nobody that did that better than him. He knew the past, he was in the present and he was able to look ahead to the future. So there's no question that we're not going to let Bruce get too far from us."
Photos courtesy of AMPAS. Davis toast: Todd Wawrychuk. Library: Richard Harbaugh. Nicholl Fellowship: Matt Petit