SMPTE 2015: Cheryl Boone Isaacs on Diversity in the Movie Business

HOLLYWOOD, CALIF.—Cheryl Boone Isaacs knows the world of “Mad Men.” She was introduced to the movie business in New York City in the 1960s.

“I had an older brother who started at United Artists in 1961 in New York,” she said. Boone would visit him at work as a teenager. “The alcohol in the office, the double martinis at lunch… and the smoking. It was ‘Mad Men.’ He would throw me in one of the screening rooms and tell me to be quiet. So I watched movies.”

Three decades or so later, Isaacs is in her third term as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She is the first African American to hold the position and the third woman in its 88-year history to do so.

Barbara Lange and Cheryl Boone Isaacs
Isaacs keynoted the annual Women in Technology Luncheon held in conjunction with the SMPTE 2015 Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition. She was interviewed by Carolyn Giardina of “The Hollywood Reporter.” The luncheon has become a regular setting for women to discuss how they got into movie and TV business, and what they experience in the male-dominated industry.

Isaacs recalled her brother’s early influence, but she didn’t follow in his footsteps right away.

“He was so fabulous and so wonderful, and why would I think I could do what he did? I couldn’t do what he did,” she said. Instead, she became a stewardess out of college.

“People look at me quizzically when I say that… but I loved to travel, and I wasn’t much of a backpacker.”

In time, she decided to move to Los Angeles and find her way in the film business. Her brother told her, “I won’t help you,” she said. “He wasn’t being mean at all;” he wanted her to do it on her own.

“I knocked on doors, and someone took pity on me and hired me for a press junket for ‘Close Encounters,’ the 1977 Steven Spielberg blockbuster.

“That started my journey in ’77. I’ve earned my living in this business for 30 years, and that’s an accomplishment, I don’t care what you decide to do,” she said.

She said she was at Columbia for about a year; then went to Melvin Simon Productions, which produced “Love at First Bite,” and “The Stuntman,” nominated for an Oscar, but more notably, “Porky’s.”

“Then I went to Ladd Co. for a year. Alan Ladd, Jr. had run Fox, and was always a very big champion for women,” Isaacs said. “Then I went to Paramount Pictures. I’d met Sherry Lansing in the late ’80s, when I was at Mel Simon, because they had a distribution deal with Paramount. She’s been a major influence on how to be an executive. She was a great role model. Never for a minute did she give up her femininity.

“She was a great role model. So was Dawn Steel,” the late chairman of Columbia Studios from 1987 to 1991. Steel broke the glass ceiling as the first woman to head a major Hollywood movie studio.

“At Paramount, Lucie Salhany ran television. The head of corporate was a female. Buffy Shutt was head of theatrical marketing. Amy Pascal moved up, Staci Schneider, then different executives at Fox. “Then, it seems as if the door started closing.”

Now, the whole discussion is about diversity, she said, or “normalizing” in terms of fitting in.

“‘Normalizing.’ Shonda Rimes says ‘normalizing.’ What’s normal?’ I like that. It has to do with interpersonal relationships, and nothing else,” Isaacs said. “We all work in a pretty tight and small world, actually. The entertainment business is pretty small. When you’re on the set, in post… we’re pretty much hyper-focused on what we’ve got to get done. Sometimes, it takes a bit more effort to look outside your normal space… at those outside of your circle.”

Last year, she said, 300 new members joined the Academy. There were new member gatherings in New York, London and this year, Paris. Isaacs said she met a woman in Paris who worked with Roman Polanski 30 years ago, “and she was just getting into the Academy.”

“So there’s that, and cultivating new talent around the world,” she said. “Hollywood is the heart and soul of movie-making… but cinema is worldwide. It’s our job to educate young folks about our industry, and for the Academy, about the career paths that are available in the industry.”

Beyond director and producer, she said, there’s not as much awareness about other options — editing, sound, visual effects, etc. Isaacs said the Academy is reviewing their educational initiatives to devise the best strategy for bringing more diversity into the technology space.

Giardina mentioned that several films this year addressed women’s issues, including “He Named Me Malala,” and “Suffregette.” She asked if movies are an important conduit for taking women’s issues to the public.

“Yes, but you hear, ‘women filmmakers are not really about entertainment, it’s always Western Union. There’s always a message,’” Isaacs said. “You remember that silliness?

“I think the more we talk about it… the more you talk and the louder it becomes, then the more difficult it becomes to close the door that’s been opened. There are a number of films coming out, and I think Hollywood is getting the message that women actually exist, and some over the age of 30, 35,” she said.

People just like a good story, she said. “That’s why there is a film business.”

Further, Isaacs said that newer content delivery systems are fueling greater diversity across the business.

“Streaming and downloading and VOD and all of the different new platforms are going to allow different genres of film to flourish when for so long it had to be theatrical, and theatrical is always such an expensive venture,” she said. “If it’s not going to make any money, the studios are not going to make it.”

The discussion briefly turned to another issue of concern for the Academy—the “digital dilemma.”

“How do we preserve the next generation of content without film?” she said.

“The Academy has been involved in the issue of losing everything, of it dissipating.” Years ago in a meeting, an executive said, ‘Well, your DVDs are going to last about five years.’ No one in the room had any idea. So how are we going to preserve our art form? The Academy is involved in this conversation.”