published Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs' game change

Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, smiles for a portrait in Los Angeles. Isaacs has become the third female Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president and the first ever African-American head of the organization.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, smiles for a portrait in Los Angeles. Isaacs has become the third female Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president and the first ever African-American head of the organization.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — When Bette Davis became the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1941, it's believed she was met with such opposition by the predominantly male organization that she resigned after two months.

The motion picture academy has seen only two other women in the top post since then: writer-producer Fay Kanin in 1979 and now film executive Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who has also become the organization's first black president.

Seven months into her new position, Isaacs is still adjusting to the excitement of her appointment and the weight it has within the film community.

"It's different being a minority in a majority space," said Isaacs in her office at the Beverly Hills headquarters of the academy, long known as being predominantly white, male and over 50.

A poster of Oscar Micheaux's 1931 film "The Exile" hangs on the red accent wall across from her desk. The words "Mighty Modern All Talking Epic of Negro Life" are emblazoned across the top of the placard. "My parent's favorite phrase was 'Just get above it' and I must say that I have to put that into practice here," she said. "But it doesn't stop your personal self-doubts."

As the face now representing the 6,100-member academy, Isaacs knows there's a lot riding on her decisions and responses. "I really try to get to the reality of a situation and have a conversation with myself and ask 'Are you being reactive? Are you being defensive?'" said the 64-year-old, who became a member of the academy in 1988 after launching her career as a publicist at Columbia Pictures in 1977.

"There are things you can't do," she added. "You can't get angry because then you are just an angry black woman. As women we do have that and then being a minority, there is this extra layer."

As a teenager growing up in western Massachusetts in the 1960s, Isaacs looked up to her older brother Ashley, who worked as an advertising and publicity executive at United Artists in New York. "He was hip and would come home with 16 mm films and screen them in the dining room," she recalled, citing her brother, who died of cancer in 1994, as fostering her love of film. When Ashley moved to Los Angeles, Isaacs followed.

"I was living in San Francisco working as a stewardess for Pan American and I needed to get serious," recalled the Whittier College graduate. "I knocked on doors and started at Columbia."

In 1984, she became the director of publicity at Paramount Pictures and in 1997 she transitioned to New Line Cinema, becoming the studio's first black president of theatrical marketing.

"The thing I like most is strategy," said Isaacs, who ran the publicity campaigns for "Forrest Gump," ''Braveheart" and "Rush Hour." ''At New Line, I was involved with filmmakers that were diverse and it really gave a nice perspective."

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