If ever there was a reluctant revolutionary, it is Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Asked lately what she expected from a fourth year as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — if she is indeed re-elected by the group’s board of governors tonight — Boone Isaacs said she was mostly looking at the same challenges she faced when her tenure began in 2013.
“There are a lot of things on the table, but in some ways they haven’t changed,” she insisted, during an interview in late June. In her first year, a big issue was member engagement. “Member engagement continues to be of importance,” Boone Isaacs said, in a remarkable — if not uncharacteristic — bit of understatement. In fact, many of the Academy’s 7,000 or so members have been clamoring for a stronger voice in its decisions, and perhaps even for mass meetings to ventilate conflicting opinions before a board that has grown to 54 members.
Boone Isaacs also mentioned the Academy’s movie museum, a much-delayed and still not completely funded project that has been in the works at least since the late 1940s, and is now set for completion in 2018.
But mostly, she spoke about her commitment to a diversity program that promises radical transformation of Hollywood’s film academy by 2020. “We have a goal, and we are going to continue to work as hard as we can to meet that goal,” Boone Isaacs said of a plan to double the number of women and ethnic minority members in just a few years.
Of 683 prospective new members invited to join the group in late June, 46% were women, 41% were people of color, and 283 were from abroad. As early as next year, the new admissions patterns will begin to affect Oscar voting, as intended, and probably for the best — no one of sense would care to see a repeat of the all-white acting nominations that prevailed in the last two years.
And Boone Isaacs, a soft-spoken, innately conservative Hollywood marketing executive, may ultimately be remembered as the biggest surprise in Academy history.
For years, Boone Isaacs was best known as the kid sister to Ashley Boone Jr, a flashier, irreverent executive who made his mark in the “Mad Men” era by saving The Rocky Horror Picture Show with a clever idea, to set no-holds-barred midnight screenings, initially at a theater in Venice, and later, while marketing president at 20th Century Fox, by helping to make a blockbuster of the original Star Wars.
For much of his life, Boone was known as the film industry’s highest-ranking black executive. When he died of pancreatic cancer in 1994, at the age of 55, Variety’s obituary called him “a Jackie Robinson of Hollywood.”
With Boone’s death, his sister — then SVP Worldwide Publicity at Paramount Pictures — was widely cited as the highest-placed black film executive still standing. But she seemed never to blaze quite as brightly as her brother, who had ushered her into the film business after an education at Whittier College, and a brief career as a flight attendant for Pan Am.
“Early on, I told myself to put my head down and just do what I was told, learn as much as I could and not look up for 10 years,” she told an interviewer in 2014.
She married Stanley Isaacs, an off-beat writer-producer with a taste for indie science fiction films like Megalodon and Raptor Island. They had a son. For a time, in 2008 and 2009, Boone Isaacs was distracted by a lawsuit, now settled, over her handling of a trust left by Ashley Boone for the education of young relatives in their native Massachusetts. Mostly, though, Boone Isaacs worked — at Paramount, New Line Cinema, and in her own modest consulting business — without hinting that she might one day turn the old, white, male film academy on its head.
In Boone Isaacs’ first year as president, she was widely seen as a defender of the old order: Senior members who had worked with her through the years believed she would protect them from a more obvious change agent, Dawn Hudson, a new chief executive who had come from Film Independent with strong ideas about the need for a shake-up in Academy governance.
Initially, Boone Isaacs and Hudson clashed; in fact, Boone Isaacs opposed Hudson’s contract renewal in 2014, but a rival board faction over-rode her.
But tonight, a new board in all likelihood will re-elect Boone Isaacs — a strong tendency to return incumbent presidents has long prevailed at the Academy — to continue a revolution over which she and Hudson now preside together.