Field of Dreams

According to newly elected President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Tom Sherak, the mission of the institution reaches far beyond the Oscars®.

Tom Sherak is a man who has a passion for film. As sitting President of the Academy, he carries with him more than four decades of experience in the motion picture industry as a marketing, distribution and production executive, having formerly served as a partner at Revolution Studios, Executive Vice President of NewsCorp., and Chairman of Domestic Distribution Group of Twentieth Century Fox.

He began his journey at Paramount Studios in 1970, driving around states on the eastern seaboard to persuade small-town movie theaters to show such seminal, now legendary films as The Godfather and Love Story.

We caught up with him early this year to discuss not only the upcoming awards ceremony that has captivated the public for decades, but also the role of an organization whose 83-year-old mission has always extended far beyond Hollywood’s biggest night.

Marlene Stang: In your new position as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, you have stated that you would like to make the Academy Awards telecast entertaining for a wider demographic once again, specifically by taking steps to appeal to both those who have been watching it for year and its newer audience. Would you say that the steady decline in ratings over the course of the past 20 years has been due to a sort of partisan approach to planning the show’s format?

Tom Sherak: They say the Academy Awards is “the granddaddy” of all awards ceremonies, and this is in part due to the sheer number of people that watch it. I do not believe that the format has necessarily been the reason for the decline in ratings, and in fact the ratings for last year’s telecast saw an increase. It is important to remember that the objective of the Oscars is two-fold – to honor our honorees and to put on a show, so we have the ongoing task of making sure that both of those goals are reached.

In regards to the latter point, I think what’s changed in the past 10 years is that viewers now receive information much more quickly. Thanks to the Internet and the myriad other ways people receive their information, they no longer have to wait for the Oscars to see who’s dating who, what the stars are wearing, etc. We need to give them something new, and so one change the producers made this year was the selection of two hosts, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. These men are such individuals, each well known for their unique sense of humor, and we anticipate that their dynamic will bring something fresh to the table. One of our catch lines is “expect the unexpected,” because you always want to support spontaneity in a live show – that’s the allure.

MS: Your decision to open entry into the best picture race from five nominees to 10 has inspired some critics to claim that the Academy is merely succumbing to pressure from the makers of films with more mainstream appeal – filmmakers who feel that their work is regularly overlooked in favor of indie or “art house” films. Was this decision, in fact, simply made to broaden the playing field, or were other factors involved?

TS: The decision to open the nominations to 10 pictures actually had nothing to do with the studios. Every year, a committee reviews the previous telecast and asks the question, “What worked, and what could we have done differently?” This year, that committee decided to expand the number of nominees in this category in an effort to ensure that no great films fall through the cracks. I personally think that The Dark Knight should have been nominated last year and, if the race had included more films, perhaps it would have been.

And interestingly, having more than five nominees is actually nothing new – in certain years during the 1930s and 1940s there were 10 nominees, and for 1934-35, there were twelve. Most movie critics publish a “10 Best” list, so I think that having 10 nominees is a very natural choice. A film can be nominated for best foreign film or best animated feature and now there is a greater possibility that it might also be nominated for best picture, which I think will make things interesting. And who knows – although some have complained in certain years that the movies nominated haven’t even been seen by the general public, opening this category up to 10 films may or may not change that; it’s theoretically possible that we could end up with 10 indie nominees! You just never know.

MS: The Academy now has a new committee that studies how people view movies, and it even evaluates the dialogues that emerge in forums such as Twitter. What do you hope will come of this concentrated attention to the habits of the movie-going population?

TS: I think a love for films has become somewhat universal around the world, and since it is something that people share across cultures, it makes sense for us to be attuned to what people have to say. Films have the power to speak of so many aspects of the human experience, and in turn generate so much conversation. One of my goals is to move the Academy even further into the public sphere. I believe that if we allow whatever dialogues are out there to inform us, it will not only make the award ceremony more relevant, but also aid us in other areas of outreach

MS: The honorary Irving Thalberg award has now been moved off of the telecast to a special non-televised dinner. Was this decision made in recognition of the possibility that many telecast viewers, quite simply, have come to feel that the ceremony has become too long?

TS: Some of those moments (the giving of such awards) have been the most memorable in Oscar history, so the decision to move that award off the telecast was a difficult one. What it ultimately came down to was the fact that the time limits of the telecast have always only allowed this award five or six minutes of presentation time, which is an injustice to the award and the nominees. At our dinner this year, we were able to truly honor the people nominated and give them the attention they deserved. Other awards were also given that night, and it became a wonderful, in-depth celebration of the people who are truly impacting film history.

MS: Although the Academy has put on hold its plans to build a $400 million Academy Museum, you have stated that this goal is nonetheless still very much intact. Tell us a little bit about that project, both in terms of what it might entail and what the Academy hopes to accomplish with such a museum.

TS: Once the economic climate improves, it will first and foremost entail a huge fundraising push that is just not primed to occur right now. The goal is for the museum to span the two blocks of property that the Academy owns, and hold in its collections those things that people come to Hollywood to see. Right now, we promote a tour we call “Meet the Oscars,” where we take the Oscar on tour around the country. People line up to not only see it, but to also have the chance to hold it in their hands. The museum will offer visitors opportunities like that, as well as serve as an educational resource. We want to showcase written materials, storyboards and other facets of the “behind the scenes” movie-making experience in order to impart to the public greater knowledge of film as an art form. To quote the film Field of Dreams, “Build it and they will come.” I certainly anticipate that this will be true of the museum.

MS: Philanthropy is clearly in your blood, as you have worked to raise more than $35 million over the past 17 years as Chairman of the Southern California Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Dinner of Champions. How do you plan to bring that same spirit into your new position as president of an organization that, unbeknownst to many Americans, has long supported film education by providing grants to film festivals, educational institutions and film scholars?

TS: Well, I believe that fundraising is much bigger than any one person, and I work with many talented people who will be a part of the Academy’s fundraising efforts. I believe my job as president will be to keep everyone involved as we move into the future, and even now when plans to begin building the museum are on hold. Supporting the educational arm of the Academy is something we must approach as a team. It’s all a part of our mission in an industry that we love.

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