From the Archives: When Tom met Oscar...Movie industry veteran Sherak begins reign as Academy President


Film Journal International pays tribute to the late movie industry executive Tom Sherak with a look back at our 2009 interview as he began his presidency of the Motion Picture Academy.

On August 18, the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) elected Tom Sherak as the organization’s president. Always a good friend of the theatrical side of the business, Sherak found room in his busy schedule to speak to the readers of Film Journal International within a mere month of his appointment.

“Off to a good start,” he declares. “I am still settling in, and taking baby steps here, as it has been just been about three weeks now.”

After seven years on the Board, Sherak feels humbled by the trust extended by his peers. “The Academy’s tradition is so rich and so deep,” he says about his plans to continue the great work of his predecessors. “I am truly looking forward to this year and I will do everything I can to keep fulfilling what this institution is truly about… We do a lot of important work here, but one of the most important things that people do not realize about the Academy is that we are a philanthropic organization. We give away millions of dollars to promote the art of filmmaking, giving grants to film festivals, schools, preservation and more: It’s all part of keeping our business fresh and young and growing.”

This is right in line with how he feels about the institution itself. “The Academy is filled with history.” He says someone asked him recently: What makes the Academy the Academy? “I gave the same answer when people wanted to know what makes a studio a studio: What makes the Academy the Academy is a past, a present and a future.”

Looking ahead, “We’re trying to make the Academy a truly worldwide organization…that’s a really smart thing to do. I also want to continue with our efforts of building the Academy Museum on two blocks of land that we own in Hollywood.” If it weren’t for the economic downturn, he believes, “we’d probably be out there raising funds already. So, how to further develop this project and to move it forward is definitely something that I want to figure out.”

The fact that he was treasurer of the Academy during the last term has nothing to do with putting the money man in charge in tough economic times, he insists. “The good news is,” Sherak advises, “there are 45 governors involved in working out how to take that next step towards the museum. It’s not a one-man job. The times are tough. And, yes, it will be very difficult to raise the kind of money that we were hoping to when the project first started.” That said, “I think our group is up to the challenge and will come up with the right steps to take. Things that are worthwhile aren’t always easy to accomplish.”

Considering other potential challenges to the motion picture arts, such as cutbacks in production funds and more strikes looming, perhaps, Sherak takes a similarly philosophical approach. “These are all things that, as each day goes by, sometimes they get easier and sometimes they get harder. You deal with them as they come about.” Certainly, he insists, “nobody sets out to make a bad movie; that’s not how people start. ‘Here’s $30 million, go make that piece of junk’ is not what happens. Everybody makes a movie that they believe will work and have some business to it. Unfortunately, we all know only too well that not every movie turns out like that. It is an art form, but it is also run as a business.”

Sherak has his own theory why exhibitors, though part of that business, are not part of the Academy. (Agents were also excluded at the institution’s founding because of a potential conflict of interest, the reasoning goes.) “The Academy is comprised of guilds, and its branches are made up of creative people that actually make movies,” he explains. “As the name implies, they are all involved with the art and science of moviemaking. Whereas theatre owners only show them.”

As this author feels that there’s some injustice there—with all due respect, aren’t movie theatres as important as public-relations efforts in the success of a film?—I wondered if Sherak is going to change that. “I haven’t been asked to,” he replies with a laugh, “other than by you… But I would tell you probably, at this moment, no.”

As for the people who do get to vote and be honored at the Academy Awards, Sherak reviews some of the changes recently put in place. Although there has been precedent in nominating more than five films in the past, he recalls that the impetus to name ten Best Picture nominees came from Laurence Mark and Bill Condon, the producers of the 2009 telecast. About the potential makeup of candidates, to be determined by the Academy’s preferential voting system (for an excellent explanation, search for “Best Picture voting rules” at, he opines: “When you have ten movies, maybe some of those will be broader, maybe they’ll be movies that more people have seen. Maybe they won’t be. When was the last time you saw a comedy or sci-fi movie get nominated for Best Picture? Why do they get left out? If films will be made in the way we expect them to be made, there will easily be ten worthy nominees.”

Sherak himself can easily think of five that “surprised” him last year and didn’t get nominated. “One I probably would’ve even voted for as Best Picture.” In any event, “this was not done for the studios, but for the fact that we are celebrating movies,” he contends, adamantly refuting some of the criticism about the move. “It’s all about broadening the work that we do and about giving more films the chance that they deserve. If ten small pictures get nominated, that’s what the membership will choose from.”

What about the risk of adding time to an already lengthy show? “We asked the producers that very same question,” he reveals, “and unequivocally they said, ‘Absolutely, it can be done. There are ways.’” Unfortunately, we were not able to discern the secret of what Mark and Condon or another producer might have in store for the 82nd Annual Awards on March 7. But with more pictures getting a better chance, these changes “will be interesting,” Sherak is certain. “It will be fresh and create excitement.”

The same can be said about the decision to move the honorary awards out of the telecast and into their very own special gala on Nov. 14. It was highly debated, Sherak admits, “but it was something that I truly believed in from the time it first came up. You see so many people deserving of recognition by their peers. I think that night will be one of the most special nights of the year.” Within the context of a telecast, there is so little time otherwise “to express how we feel as a group about their work, their careers and about how much they have contributed to our art and industry.”

While we all wait for the next big bash at the Kodak Theatre or its ballroom, Sherak already has the Samuel Goldwyn Theater right downstairs from his office to enjoy (FJI April 2009). Given such leisurely luxury, will he still be attending “regular” movie theatres in Los Angeles? “You betcha. I’ll do both!” comes the emphatic reply. “I am committed to going to the Goldwyn, but I’m never going to give up on going to a real movie theatre.”

As members of the film business and of the theatrical community in particular, “we are very privileged that many of us do not have to pay to see movies. The same is true at the Goldwyn where, as a member of the Academy, you get to come for free. However, it is also important to sit in a movie theatre with people who actually had to pay for their tickets and to see their reactions,” he affirms. “There is something nice about that… I like being in a movie theatre with people who aren’t necessarily in our business.”

While he does enjoy popcorn and a Diet Coke during those real visits, Sherak is “still trying to figure out why they can’t make a diet slurpee. Why is that not happening?!” Another of his suggestions: “When they play a young kids’ picture on more than one screen, why can’t one of those have some of the lights on just a little bit during the movie. That way, I can take my three-year-old grandchild who’s afraid of the dark. I’m not saying to ruin it for everybody, but just tell people that for an afternoon matinee, ‘We’ll leave the lights on for you.’ I can’t get anybody to agree with me on that.”

Lights off or dimmed, diet or regular slurpee, Sherak has his favorite films and theatre memories too. “Favorite movie of all time? Oh, that’s Spartacus…at Loew’s on 181st Street in New York City,” he says without hesitation. “After that, and very close, The Godfather I and II… I remember like it was yesterday going with my sister and brother-in-law to see Shane at the Tuxedo in Brooklyn. Those are things that stay with you. There’s nothing like going to a movie theatre, sitting down for two hours in the dark and forgetting all your troubles…and that’s why there will always be movie theatres.”

And what about great films to show in those theatres? “As long as there are people with ideas,” Tom Sherak says with presidential assurance, “as long as there is somebody to write those ideas down and then people to execute them in so many ways…there will always be the art form. Movies will live forever.”

Tom Sherak’s Varied Career
After Robert Rehme, Tom Sherak is only the second member of the Academy’s Executive Branch to have been elected to the esteemed position of president (see sidebar). “I follow in good footsteps,” he says. “I’m trying to acclimate myself, doing the things that I am supposed to do, meet with people and the staff, getting the creative juices flowing.”

With Rehme, Sherak not only shares a career debut at Paramount Pictures, where he started in the training program in 1970 before moving through various of the studio’s branch offices over the next three-and-a-half years, but also strong ties to exhibition. Whereas Rehme worked with his business partner Phil Borack at B&R Theatres in Cincinnati, Ohio, among other theatre jobs, Sherak made his first move-over to R/C Theatres. From Baltimore, he went to the Boston headquarters of General Cinema. Working as a district film buyer for six years, he took on the role of head film buyer during 1982 and 1983.

“And from there I came to Fox,” he enthuses about his 18-year career at the studio, which culminated in chairman of Twentieth Century Domestic Film Group. As senior executive VP of Fox Filmed Entertainment, he oversaw the distribution and post-production of Mrs. Doubtfire, Speed and Independence Day, to name only those that his official Academy biography lists. He earlier served as executive VP, and prior to that was Fox’s president of domestic distribution and marketing, where he launched such films as Romancing the Stone, Aliens, Wall Street, Die Hard and Working Girl.

Ever the working man, Sherak joined Revolution Studios as a partner from 2001 to October 2007, defining a decidedly independent slate of more than 40 pictures that included Black Hawk Down, Anger Management, Rent and Across the Universe. When he is not at his new office at the Academy in Beverly Hills, Sherak continues his role as consultant to Marvel Studios.

Presidents of the Academy
1927–1929: Douglas Fairbanks
1929–1931: William C. DeMille
1931–1932: M. C. Levee
1932–1933: Conrad Nagel
1933–1934: J. Theodore Reed
1934–1935: Frank Lloyd
1935–1939: Frank Capra
1939–1941: Walter Wanger
1941: Bette Davis (resigned after two months)
1941–1945: Walter Wanger
1945–1949: Jean Hersholt
1949–1955: Charles Brackett
1955–1958: George Seaton
1958–1959: George Stevens
1959–1960: B. B. Kahane (died)
1960–1961: Valentine Davies (died)
1961–1963: Wendell Corey
1963–1967: Arthur Freed
1967–1970: Gregory Peck
1970–1973: Daniel Taradash
1973–1977: Walter Mirisch
1977–1979: Howard W. Koch
1979–1983: Fay Kanin
1983–1985: Gene Allen
1985–1988: Robert Wise
1988–1989: Richard Kahn
1989–1992: Karl Malden
1992–1993: Robert Rehme
1993–1997: Arthur Hiller
1997–2001: Robert Rehme
2001–2005: Frank R. Pierson
2005–2009: Sid Ganis