So, How Does Film Independent Survive Without Dawn Hudson?

"I don't know how they replace her — her skill set seems like it was invaluable to them"

What could be very good news for the Motion Picture Academy is not so good for the folks who throw the little awards-show-at-the-beach on Oscar weekend.

In naming Dawn Hudson its new CEO and longtime staffer Ric Robertson as COO, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences filled the hole created by the June retirement of Bruce Davis, the Academy's executive director for the last 20 years. 

But it created an even bigger hole in the Spirit Awards' Film Independent, where Hudson (above, and below right with Darren Aronofsky) has served as executive director for 20 years herself.

The move stabilized one organization, but destabilized another.

Hudson, said longtime FIND board member (and former Academy president) Sid Ganis, is "the woman who guided Film Independent for 20 years, and pulled it up by its bootstraps."

Added screenwriter Larry Karaszewski, who had done extensive work with Film Independent and with the Academy, "Dawn is so the backbone of Film Independent that it has to leave a gigantic question mark as to where they go from here."

The organization, Ganis told TheWrap, has "taken a big gulp and said, 'OK, we have work to do.' And the work they have to do is to find a new version of Dawn — or, I should say, to find a new leader, because you're not  going to find a new version of Dawn."

Also read: Academy Names Dawn Hudson CEO, Ric Robertson COO

Both organizations are non-profits devoted to film. But FIND is smaller, leaner and less well-funded than AMPAS, which receives more than $65 million, the bulk of its operating budget, from broadcast rights to the Oscars. And Hudson is the face of Film Independent far more than Davis was ever the face of the Academy, where the president plays a more visible role.

A spokesperson for Film Independent said that it's too early for anyone within the organization to talk about its plans. Film Independent's executive board met on Friday, April 8, a few hours after the announcement of Hudson's departure, to discuss how it might move forward. It did not come to any specific conclusions that afternoon.

Its board of governors, which includes Ganis, Bill Condon, Stephanie Allain, Laura Dern and Tom Ortenberg, met last Wednesday and appointed a search committee, according to a source with knowledge of the meeting.

A separate search is currently under way to find a curator for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art film series, which FIND will take over in September.

"I don't know how they replace Dawn," said one filmmaker who has worked with Film Independent. "Her skill set seems like it was invaluable to them."

The key, the filmmaker said, was the way Hudson straddled the line between the creative and business sides: "At the end of the day a lot of the value of Film Independent is in its ability to convert corporate sponsorships into opportunities for filmmakers. Among all her other skills, Dawn seemed key to those corporate relationships." 

Film Independent is best known for the Spirit Awards and the Los Angeles Film Festival, but those are only the high-profile events in a year-round schedule of seminars, labs, fellowships, screenings and programs designed to aid independent filmmakers.

Hudson's particular focus — which regularly drew complaints from those who thought she was chasing stars and selling out to corporate interests — was to leverage the high-profile FIND events to attract major sponsors like Target, LG and Virgin America.

"This puny little organization attracted a lot of heavy rollers and big sponsors," said an admiring industry executive who has frequently worked with Hudson.

Hudson's departure could present an opportunity for the Film Independent board to choose someone who will steer the organization in a new direction or explore new avenues — or they could take what might be a tricker route, and try to find a person with the same set of skills.

"She built such a strong organization that the bones are there for somebody else to step into," said Karaszewski. "But a new person will definitely change the organization, because Dawn developed such a vast array of personal contacts.

"When she called and asked me to do something, I'd always do it — because it was Dawn asking me to do it, and because she always made it fun."

Many who worked with Film Independent speak highly of the team Hudson assembled, particularly of senior director Sean McManus, a key player in the organization's fundraising. But they also admit that the job requires a set of skills that encompasses both the financial and creative sides.

"The board understands the challenge, and Dawn is participating for as long as she can," said Ganis. "They're hearing from her, they're hearing from me, they're not sitting on their hands."

One executive close to FIND expects the organization to be inundated with resumes – but cautions that the demands of the job mean that the obvious choice of someone with film festival experience might not have the fundraising skills to follow Hudson.  

Which means that the search committee will be looking for someone with marketing, branding and fundraising experience … along with extensive connections within the creative side of the independent film community … and the ability to provide leadership to a solid core staff that might be able to make more money if they went elsewhere.

Then again, Hudson didn't have any of those qualifications when she came to Film Independent in 1991: she was simply a magazine writer and editor with a degree from Harvard. "That job grew as she grew," said the executive, "and those are always the toughest jobs to fill."

The obstacles, admitted Ganis, are significant. "But they'll figure it out," he said. "Because they have to."