Dawn Hudson, Academy CEO, Thrashed by Anonymous Old White Men in LA Times Roast

Half a year into her stint as CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Dawn Hudson got a cutting performance review from the Los Angeles Times last weekend.

The Times piece is not, at face value, an editorial evaluation of Hudson's work at the head of the academy. It is instead disguised as a news story -- one that says Hudson has come "under fire" from the academy's largely white, largely male board of governors. Aka, six anonymous "academy insiders" complained about her to the Times.

The one-sided attack on Hudson, as compiled by reporter Nicole Sperling...

... does not contain a single counterargument, on or off the record, to balance out the insiders' accusations.

We're sure those accusations were made, and that "at least one member raised the possibility of buying out the remainder of her three-year contract" at a board meeting on December 6, as relayed to the Times. What's not entirely clear is if this whole alleged flamewar is the product of a few old grumps frightened of change.

Among the anonymous claims made in the Times' Hudson roast:

  • "She has not done enough to get to know the intricacies of the academy, including its 250 employees, and has made decisions without consulting others, including the board."
  • "While she's instructed middle management to hire minorities for entry-level jobs, she's made pricey additions to her own staff, in particular a speech writer and a social media executive -- both white men."
  • "Hudson has inserted herself into the process of member nominations -- a procedure that historically has been determined solely by [15 academy branches for different fields, including actors, directors and producers]. ... Hudson is now meeting with the membership department herself and coming up with her own shortlist of people."
  • She replaced "Andrew Marlowe as the longtime volunteer chairman of the academy's grants committee ... because she didn't like the way he ran a meeting, having attended one meeting for less than 30 minutes... . She made the decision with little consultation from committee members, and had one of her employees deliver the news to Marlowe, rather than tell him herself."
  • She requested "$4 million to remodel one floor of offices at the academy headquarters... [on the] assumption that the board would approve the funds without discussion. Her argument for the expensive construction project was that it would improve staff communication."

We cannot speak personally to the merits of Hudson, who previously ran Film Independent, the arty L.A. org that puts on the Spirit Awards. And we've heard plenty of smack-talk from within those indie circles -- that Hudson is not about the films, just about the profits; that she doesn't have enough of a background in movie-making to know the art of it; that she's pushy and bossy and rash.

But unlike Film Independent, the academy is not about art. It's about spectacle. It's about making big-budget blockbusters even bigger by gilding them in Oscar gold. It's about red carpets. Emo montages. Popular culture. Profits.

So it seems even Hudson's "faults" -- or what we know of them -- make her the perfect candidate for the job. And unlike the old boys on the board of governors, she apparently understands that things like social-media marketing and edgy 21st century digs are the only way the academy can survive the tech revolution to charm a new generation.

What doesn't work is recruiting stoners/romcom darlings like James Franco and Anne Hathaway to host the Oscars (pretty much the only line of communication the academy has with the general public). That was en empty, old-people-trying-to-understand-young-people decision -- one that was made well before Hudson's arrival.

The producer for this year's ceremony is instead going with a classic host -- Billy Crystal -- then dusting him off with some modern, self-mocking trailerage.

(Of course, the road to Crystal has been a rocky one: Before he was locked in by current awards producer Brian Grazer, comedian Eddie Murphy was slated to host. But Hudson and the academy faced a PR disaster when former awards producer Brett Ratner dropped a gay slur while being interviewed at a film screening. Ratner quickly resigned from his post at the academy -- taking Murphy along with him. Not exactly within the new CEO's control, but it didn't look good for her, either.)

Within the academy's offices, our own sources tell us that until Hudson came along and made some new hires, the multimillion-dollar operation was running on a "primitive" computer system that even local law-enforcement agencies, notorious for stone-age data entry, might call a clunker.

The accusations against Hudson in the Times all share a common factor: The board members behind them are either scared of change or of relinquishing their own power.

How can Hudson be criticized for hiring two more white men onto her personal staff, when the board's selection of Oscar voters is a sea of ancient, same-faced Angelenos? A more balanced New York Times article from October showed that some of the resistance to Hudson's ideas may just be blind stubbornness:

Because physical attendance is expected at board meetings, virtually all of the governors are Californians. Making the rounds at private meetings in New York recently, Ms. Hudson suggested opening up the board with the help of video technology like Skype, something Mr. Sherak has also advocated.

"She's a woman of intelligence, guts and compromise," offered Sidney Ganis, a past academy president who was on the search committee that recruited Ms. Hudson, and who became acquainted with her as a member of the Film Independent board. Ms. Hudson, Mr. Ganis said, has been raising questions since she took over in an attempt to understand the academy, not dictating changes in practice or policy.

It seems strange that Sperling, the Los Angeles Times reporter behind Saturday's update on Hudson, found not a single advocate for the new CEO's shake-things-up approach. Especially since Sperling herself writes that "it appears to be a minority of the 43-member board that is unhappy with her performance." (We've contacted Sperling for rationale.)

Imagine a story about any other company, in which a handful of disgruntled employees are quoted as saying they hate their boss. What's the point? The LA Times has merely compiled a spreadsheet of personnel complaints.

The real dirt of the Hudson vs. old white men saga, from where we're sitting, is that somebody's finally trying to inject some life into one of Hollywood's most treasured institutions, and getting a ton of pushback from the nervous old ninnies who raised it.

One faceless board member calls the controversial she-EO a "bull in a china shop." That might say more about the paranoia of the china-shop keepers than their ballsy intruder.

[@simone_electra / swilson@laweekly.com / @LAWeeklyNews]


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