Outgoing Academy President Tom Sherak in his office at the Academy of Motion… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)
Tom Sherak never would have been elected president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences if it weren't for the late Frank Pierson and a verbal spat that almost turned physical. It was early 2009, and Pierson and Sherak were at loggerheads at a Board of Governors meeting over a financing issue. The talk was getting contentious, so much so that Sherak said he thought the octogenarian screenwriter "could have beaten the crap out of me."
Then-academy President Sid Ganis threw the discussion to committee to avoid more arguing. That committee reconvened a month later with Pierson and Sherak present. The meeting began with Sherak raising his hand. He pointed to Pierson and said: "I thought about this for the last month and I agree with him. I don't think I'm wrong, but I'm willing to understand his point of view. Let's do it his way."
Pierson, according to Sherak and Ganis, was so floored by the response that months later, when it was time to elect a new president, Pierson — a former academy president himself — stood up and said: "I nominate Tom Sherak.... Anybody that could get into an argument and be as ferocious as he was and then a month later think about the issue and change his mind for the good of the academy, I want him as my president."
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Sherak didn't covet the post, but Pierson got his wish. Now, termed out after three years, Sherak, 67, is stepping down from what he calls the "best non-paying job in Hollywood," a post that requires diplomacy, glad-handing, chutzpah, early morning wake-up calls and quite a few tuxedo-clad events.
A former executive at Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox, Sherak helped the academy renegotiate its contract with ABC for its annual Oscar telecast and its deal to keep the show in the Hollywood & Highland Center. He was involved in changing the number of best picture contenders from 10 to a variable number. And he led the organization's renewed effort to start its own museum, this time in partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Sherak endured more than a few storms along the way, such as last year's resignation of Oscar producer Brett Ratner after he uttered an anti-gay slur, and the subsequent loss of host Eddie Murphy. He had to weather some internal turmoil over the hiring of former Film Independent chief Dawn Hudson as academy chief executive, an outsider who replaced the well-loved Bruce Davis, the executive director for 28 years. And he took the lumps for the academy's lack of diversity.
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As Sherak prepares to clean out his office, it's perhaps not surprising that he's a bit melancholy now that this chapter — which he describes as "some of the most fulfilling years of my career" — is coming to a close.
During his tenure, he's become pals with architect Renzo Piano, who along with Zoltan Pali is adapting the old May Co. building at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue to house the film museum. He's gotten up in the middle of the night to announce the Oscar nominees on live television with Anne Hathaway, Mo'Nique and Jennifer Lawrence. He even donned a Darth Vader costume to kick off the Governors Awards last year.
"The bottom line is I'm a ham," said Sherak, sitting in his office at academy headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard, surrounded by photos of his nuclear family and his Hollywood one. "Getting up at 2 a.m. to do the Oscar nominations on ABC, I was here before anyone else. I couldn't wait to get here. It was like I was a kid again."
That kid got serious when it came to negotiating deals. Sherak says he's most proud of the terms he struck with ABC and the CIM Group, the management company that owns the Hollywood & Highland Center, since those provide the academy a strong foundation going forward. "Financially, I'm leaving the place as strong as I could leave it," Sherak said.
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Davis said Sherak's leadership on the ABC negotiations and during the Hudson transition are his biggest accomplishments.
"Overseeing the transition from one administration team to another is no small matter, and he got that done," said Davis. "It was a little rockier than some had anticipated it would be, but it didn't collapse.... That's when you need a president who can be a diplomat on both sides. He handled that very well."
As for surprises, Sherak said even despite his long experience in Hollywood marketing and distribution, he was caught off guard by the intense, months-long media scrutiny of the Oscar show. "The show to me was you get on a tuxedo and you go. It was never the behind-the-scenes of it," he said. "I don't know how far back it started but the blogging of it, everyone trying to be out first, everyone trying to get information. I might have underestimated that a little."