Tom Sherak never forgets that movies are for the masses. The veteran marketer turned new president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences started in showbiz driving around states like Maryland and West Virginia, persuading ordinary people to book such Paramount movies as "The Godfather" and "Love Story" into their small-town movie houses. "They were all real people, postal workers or sanitation workers who also owned the one theater in town. I'd go and meet them at their lunch hour and tell them about the movies."
Forty years later, Sherak's taste still tilts to the broadly popular. Last year, he voted for "The Dark Knight" for best picture. And now he's bringing his populist instincts to the most august institution in Hollywood, the academy.
His main goal for next year's show -- which he reiterates frequently and enthusiastically at his new digs at the academy's Wilshire headquarters -- is to make the March 7 Oscar telecast fun, not just for tuxedoed stars but for the folks at home.
"We're putting on a show, and that has to translate to millions and millions of people. I think what happened last year is that the show inside the Oscars, inside the Kodak, was incredible, but at home it played differently. We have to make it more fun," says the 64-year-old Sherak, the former chairman of the 20th Century Fox domestic group and a one-time partner at Revolution Studios.
Even before becoming chairman in August, as head of the awards review committee he was a prime mover behind the bold decision to open the best picture race from five nominees to 10.
To many, the overhaul plays like a naked bid to make room for the blockbuster (or, specifically, comic-book fare) that has been largely shut out of academy consideration. More important, the more popular Oscar nominees tend to bring a bigger viewership to the Academy Awards broadcast, whose ratings have been declining for the last 20 years. Last year's show did bump up 13%, but that still made it the third-lowest-rated show in Oscar history.
The decision to open up the race comes on the heels of another Sherak imperative -- he was a vocal supporter of the academy's 2008 move to air film advertising during the event. The Oscar telecast provides the vast majority of the academy's budget, some $73.7 million in the 2007-08 period, according to its records.
Sherak insists that broadening the Oscar race was nothing more than a gambit to shake up the status quo. "The point of it was to do something," he says. "We need to not be afraid to try things. We need to be positive. The people who are against the idea say, 'What if it doesn't work?' Then we won't do it again."
Becoming in sync with the changing world of cinema is a priority. "The world has changed. That statuette means a lot. It is the granddaddy of all the other shows, but people are now seeing stars and celebrities every day of the week on television or dressed up. It used to be a reason why you waited for the Academy Awards. We have to come up with a way to make that night fun for people of all ages -- those who have been watching it for 30 years and those who have been watching it for five years. We have a different committee studying how people are seeing movies, how they're Twittering and texting each other. We're trying to figure out how to be relevant."
"The academy is in a mood for change," agrees former president Sid Ganis, who remains an academy officer. "The academy has not always been in the mood for change. The academy has been austere, but it's not these days. It wants to change. It's time. The industry is changing. The economics of the business are changing."
Despite the gray in his hair and his strait-laced Brooks Brothers-like attire, Sherak exudes a bouncy, irrepressible air, especially when discussing the academy. Ganis says a week after Sherak took over, "he said to me, in a very quiet way, 'This is the best thing that ever happened to me.' "
"What I like about him is he seems to be excited about everything," says producer Mark Johnson, the academy governor in charge of the foreign language category. "He's not afraid to speak out on the board, and he has huge enthusiasm."
In his new role, Sherak played matchmaker for the Oscar producers, Bill Mechanic, one of Sherak's former bosses at Fox, and director Adam Shankman, whom he knew only through his movies, such as "Hairspray" and "Bedtime Stories." After meeting for lunch, the unlikely duo agreed to join forces. Sherak in turn urged Mechanic and Shankman to consider hiring two hosts for the show, so each could play to different constituents. Mechanic and Shankman ultimately settled on comedy veterans Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, promising a renewed emphasis on comedy after last year's song-and-dance turn led by Hugh Jackman.