This month’s choice for AWFJ’s SPOTLIGHT is a film industry leader who will be quite busy on Feb. 22, the night of the 87th Academy Awards ceremony: Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a veteran PR and marketing whiz who acts as Oscar’s main spokesperson. She made history in 2013 by becoming the first African-American and only the third woman (after screenwriter Fay Kanin and actress Bette Davis, who lasted only two weeks in the position in 1941) to be named president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Read on…
Isaacs’ rise into such a power seat was basically pre-ordained since, according to a Deadline article about her selection, she is the only person in Academy history to have served in every elected office that the organization has: vice president, treasurer, secretary, academy foundation president and first vice president. A governor of the publicity branch, she even produced the 2012 Governors Awards.
The Springfield, Mass., native who was born in 1949 originally wanted to be a musical comedy star but instead earned a political science degree from Whittier College. She was inspired to head to Hollywood by the accomplishments of her older brother, the late Ashley A. Boone Jr., whom she has called “my idol.” He worked at several studios, including Columbia Pictures, MGM and 20th Century Fox, where he became the film industry’s highest-ranking African-American studio executive in 1979. The siblings were also the first-ever brother and sister to be academy governors at the same time.
Plumbing the Power of Publicity
Isaacs started as a Columbia staff publicist in 1977, promoting Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In the ‘80s she oversaw campaigns for such sleepers as My Bodyguard and The Stuntman at Melvin Simon Productions. After a stint at the Ladd Company, where she was involved with such titles as The Right Stuff and Police Academy, she became the executive VP for worldwide publicity at Paramount Pictures where she and her team were responsible for Ghost, Forrest Gump and Braveheart.
She then moved to New Line Cinema in 1997, where she became the first black woman to oversee a major studio’s marketing efforts. She then started her own strategic marketing firm, CBI Enterprises Inc., in 1999. She and her company acted as consultants for such Oscar-worthy titles as The Artist, Precious and The King’s Speech. Last year, she was inducted into the NAACP Hall of Fame.
Little wonder that the publicists in Isaacs’ guild are giving her their Presidents Award at their annual luncheon on Feb. 20. Selma director Ava DuVernay, also an ex-publicist, will be presenting the trophy.
Why we chose her: From the beginning of her reign as academy president, Isaacs has stated that she is committed to diversifying the makeup of the now nearly 7,000 members, which was found to be 93% white and 76% male, with an average of 63 in a 2012 Los Angeles Times study. She reconfirmed that commitment following the outcry over the all-white lineup of contenders in the four acting categories — along with the omission of DuVernay, which prevented her from being the first black woman to compete in the directing category — after the nominations were announced on Jan. 15.
Diplomacy and Greater Diversity
When she first became president, Isaacs pointed to her own new position as a sign that “Hollywood in general is being much more inclusive, more aware of different voices.” She quickly put into place measures to ensure those who decide the recipients of one of the most esteemed honors in entertainment represent a wider demographic, including lifting the cap on the number of members (it used to be 5,000-plus a few years ago) and inviting 400 newcomers to apply — especially people of color and a younger age range.
However, on the day of the nominations, Isaacs initially backed off from openly criticizing the organization that she was selected to represent. When asked by the Vulture blog on announcement day whether the academy has a problem with diversity, she responded: “Not at all. Not at all.” Isaacs added: “The good news is that the wealth of talent is there, and it’s being discussed, and it’s helpful so much for talent — whether in front of the camera or behind the camera — to have this recognition, to have this period of time where there is a lot of publicity, a lot of chitter-chatter.”
Social media reaction to her remarks were not kind.
But being the savvy PR pro she is, Isaacs then made a more pointed statement a few days later in an interview with the Associated Press. “In the last two years, we’ve made greater strides than we ever have in the past toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive and inclusive organization through admitting new members and more inclusive classes of members,” she said. “And, personally, I would love to see a greater cultural diversity among all our nominees in all of our categories.”
It takes a big person to know when something more needs to be said and then to state it perfectly. As Academy member John Singleton, who became the first African-American and the youngest at age 24 to be nominated in the directing category for his work on 1991’s Boyz n the Hood, told the Los Angeles Times after Isaacs was named to her post: “She’s so diplomatic and she’s perfect to be the president of the Academy. For many, many years, the Academy was one of the most exclusive clubs. No matter what your credits were, people didn’t feel like applying. And I think that monkey is off the back of the organization now.”
There is still a ways to go, but at least in Isaacs, they seem to have the right leader to get them there.