HIGH PROFILE: Dawn Ann Hudson CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Dawn Hudson, chief executive officer of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is remembering how her love affair with movies began.
As a student in the mid-’70s at Harvard University, the Hot Springs native was first exposed to film as an art form and something worthy of study. By the ’80s, when she was editor-in-chief at St. Louis Magazine, she “had completely fallen in love with movies. All I did was watch movies.”
Speaking on a Friday morning between Zoom meetings earlier this month from her home office in Los Angeles, Hudson recalls how she would watch movies on videotape and put herself through her own obsessive kind of film school.
“I would go on different jags. I would watch everything Paul Newman was in; I would watch everything Ava Gardner was in. In college, I fell in love with [Federico] Fellini films and I would watch [Ingmar] Bergman films. I would take an actor or a director and watch everything they had done.”
Like many an American dreamer before her, Hudson followed the pull westward and in 1989 left St. Louis for Los Angeles to pursue acting and screenwriting.
Instead of being nominated for Oscars, though, she has spent the past decade-plus at the helm of the organization that hands out those iconic golden statues.
In her time at the helm of the Academy, Hudson has spearheaded efforts to increase and diversify its membership, especially after the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite movement.
Veteran casting director David Rubin is Academy president, and works with Hudson leading the organization.
“I approach it from a governance perspective and she approaches it from a management perspective, as she leads the Academy staff, across all departments, and works to achieve the goals set forth by the Academy’s board, which I chair,” Rubin says. “Dawn has had tremendous impact on the Academy in many areas. She has championed our steady move toward equity and inclusion for all, as she set a goal to double the number of women members and the number of members from underrepresented communities by 2020 — a goal which was achieved ahead of schedule.”
Hudson was also integral in the completion of the $480 million Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which opened Sept. 30 in Los Angeles.
Earlier this year, Hudson announced she will step down as CEO when her current term ends in May 2023.
LAKE HOUSE LIFE
Growing up in Hot Springs, Hudson, the oldest of four children — Kyle, Tracy and Kevin are the others — was a combination lake rat and bookworm.
“We grew up on the lake in a place called Burchwood Bay,” she says. “We had a lot of independence and went all over the lake, all over the neighborhood. We would go around the bay in a leaky rowboat. It was very active and outdoorsy.”
Her mother is Martha Humphreys Alexander and lives in Fort Worth. The Humphreys family owned Humphreys’ Dairy in Hot Springs.
“Their logo was: ‘Where the Best Milk Grows Since 1910,'” Hudson says.
Her father, Carl Benjamin Hudson, Jr., was the bartender and manager of the Black Orchid nightclub on Central Avenue. He died in 2003.
When she wasn’t outside, she was next door at her grandmother’s curled up with a book — “The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and whatever I could get at the Garland County Library,” she says.
Kathy Rogers met Hudson on the first day of seventh grade at Southwest Junior High School.
“We gravitated toward each other that very first day,” says Rogers, a retired registered nurse who still lives in Hot Springs. “We spent just about every weekend together at each other’s houses until we graduated from high school.”
Hudson was a stellar student, Rogers says.
“If she wasn’t looking up on her way to class, she was looking down into a book. She read constantly.”
The two friends took summer classes in junior high to be ahead when school started in the fall and would ski “from dam to dam” on Lake Hamilton in the mornings before leaving for class, Rogers says.
“We would hang our heads out the car window to dry our hair on the way to school. It was a wonderful childhood and we had not a care in the world. We spent every summer on the dock.”
They are still tight, texting and calling regularly. In October, they cruised by their old haunts when Hudson was in town as honorary chair for the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.
“She is the same person I could call and talk to when we were in high school,” Rogers says. “Eleven o’clock at night is kind of her prowling hour. That’s when she’ll get on the phone and we’ll text. Of course, that’s 1 a.m. my time. So when the phone goes off, my husband knows it’s Dawn.”
Hudson graduated from Hot Springs High School in 1973 and left for Cambridge, Mass., and Harvard University, where she studied government.
She still remembers the culture shock.
“I had a very strong Southern accent. In Boston, as I tried to maneuver around the city, people couldn’t understand me,” she says. “I went to school with people who were so sophisticated, who had read all of Marcel Proust’s ‘Remembrances of Things Past’ in French in the seventh grade. There was a worldliness to my classmates that I was awed by.”
After graduation she moved to Paris for a year and worked as an au pair before winning a Rotary Club scholarship to study political science at the Institute d’etudes politiques in Grenoble, France.
A spell as a journalist in New York didn’t work out and she accepted a scholarship to graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, where she later took the job at St. Louis Magazine.
“I realized I didn’t want to be an academic,” she says. “I loved Washington University, but I wanted to be more in the real world.”
Besides her magazine work, Hudson had a side-hustle teaching dance. This was also around the time that her interest in film really began to blossom and by the late ’80s she was mulling a career in movies — acting and screenwriting — something she’d never even thought possible earlier.
“I learned that I really liked the arts and that there were actual professions in the arts,” she says. “Even as I was watching movies and loving them, I didn’t realize you could actually work in film, that people made these beautiful movies and that’s how they made a living. I don’t know what I thought.”
A few of her dance students were living near L.A. and invited Hudson to crash with them.
“I’m positive that they didn’t mean for me to show up on their doorstep and sleep on their floor in a sleeping bag for six months, which is what I did. I was your real nightmare house guest.”
She took part-time jobs, wrote scripts and took acting lessons.
“I did the whole struggling artist thing that almost every person who comes from a small town outside of L.A. comes here for,” she says.
In 1991, she started working part time at IFP, which became Film Independent, the nonprofit dedicated to fostering indie films and that founded the Independent Spirit Awards, the Oscars of the independent movie world.
The group was struggling financially, Hudson says, and fired its staff. They rehired her, though, and asked for help to regroup. She agreed, but didn’t plan to hang around very long as she was still pursuing a career in acting and writing.
“And then I stayed there 20 years,” she says.
Hudson was named executive director of Film Independent, helping the organization expand its membership and acquire the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2001.
“I loved it. I love movies, I love supporting artists, I love creating a community of artists and I really found something where I felt I could contribute and that I loved.”
It was during her time at Film Independent that she and Rubin first crossed paths.
“I was asked to join the nominating committee for the Independent Spirit Awards, where we watched dozens of independent films and met to discuss their relative merits and ultimately vote on whether to nominate them for Spirit Award recognition,” he says. “Dawn organized and led that committee and I was immediately struck by her passion for cinema, her innate warmth and her compassionate leadership style.”
Her time at Film Independent coincided with the rise of independent movies from directors like Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino and others.
“When I first started at Film Independent, they were called ‘regional films.’ [Indie film] really wasn’t the household name that it became a few years later. ‘Pulp Fiction’ became prominent, even at the Oscars, and it became clear that independent films were a source of original voices who were going to go on and influence film culture.”
TAKING THE HELM
In 2011 the Academy was looking for a new CEO, and Hudson was on its short list.
Coming from the indie world, her impression of the Academy was that it was “older and stodgier.”
Then she interviewed with the search committee who were also Academy officers, and included producer Jim Brooks, actress Annette Bening, producer Howard Winchel “Hawk” Koch, movie executive Sidney Ganis and others.
“We had this discussion about film and art and books and I thought, ‘Oh, look at this Academy. They’re just like all artists. It was a really fun couple of interviews and then I was hired.”
Hudson, 65, says the board of governors told her from the beginning that they wanted the organization to evolve, “to be more inclusive and representative and diverse and have a more modern infrastructure and move the organization forward.”
She took over right before a new cultural zeitgeist was beginning to take shape, one in which voices from people not always represented were looking for space to be heard. Movie-viewing habits were also changing as streaming services were becoming prominent. What was it like to be involved with the Academy during all this period of so much transformation?
“Oscars so white was the demarcation line, but really things had been changing and building for many years, they just became more public and you became part of something bigger,” Hudson says. “The movie industry was changing, movies were being accessed a different way and made in different ways. You’re part of all these changes, but at the time, you’re just putting one foot in front of the other, doing what needed to be done in that moment.”
Rubin points to the opening of the new museum as a high point of Hudson’s time leading the Academy.
“Perhaps the impact that’s most noticeable is the recent successful opening of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which was a project decades in the making, but only brought to fruition during her tenure as CEO. There are so many challenges faced when opening up the first museum of its kind in Hollywood, the legendary home of motion pictures,” Rubin says.
“At each crossroad, Dawn and a series of intrepid governors led the way toward solving problems, raising money, and assuring that the Museum’s galleries speak to all people and their love of movies. She has led with passion and integrity, and her Academy legacy will attest to both of those wonderful qualities,” he says.
Plans for the museum had been in the works for years — it was actually in the Academy’s 1929 charter — but it had just never gotten off the ground, she says.
“I along with the board of governors all made this our mission and I certainly believed in it,” Hudson says. She notes that the museum is next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard.
“I believe that film is our most accessible art form, and I felt like this new location represented that.”
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO …
Of course, we have the Academy to thank for the annual Oscar ceremony and telecast. The 2022 edition is set to air March 27.
Rogers says she knows exactly where to look for Hudson during the show.
“When she first started, a bunch of my friends would get together and we would dress up and have Oscar parties. I always knew she was on the fourth row, second seat and I would always watch to see what she wore. I always call or text her the day of the show to say good luck. That’s been our routine every year.”
Hudson, who has a 22-year-old son, Sam Harrison, says Oscar night is a thrill, but all the work that goes into it beforehand is also rewarding.
“I love big productions and I feel privileged to be a part of it. What’s fun is the making of it, the building of it and putting the pieces together and watching it come together.”
While the 2021 version was stripped down because of the pandemic, Hudson says she hopes next year’s show will return to the Dolby Theater in Hollywood and that stars will be “back on the red carpet.”
She still has plenty of time with the Academy and more work ahead, but what are her plans after she steps down in 2023?
“I’m going to take a nap and then think about the next step for me. I love this organization, and I love what we have been able to accomplish in the last decade-plus. I feel that some very significant milestones have been met and we are laying the groundwork for the future of the Academy. I see a very bright future ahead, and I want to try my hand at something else.”
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Jan. 4, 1956, Hot Springs
• WHAT I LOVE MOST ABOUT MY JOB IS: The incredible people I work with.
• THE LAST MOVIE I SAW WAS: Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.” Loved.
• THE BEST ADVICE I’VE EVER GOTTEN WAS: Hire people who are smarter than you.
• MY FIRST JOB WAS: Cleaning law offices for state Rep. Ray Smith Jr. while in high school.
• THE BOOKS I’M CURRENTLY READING ARE: Jonathan Franzen’s “Crossroads”; Deesha Philyaw’s “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies”; Vladimir Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory.” Also, just finished listening to a wonderful recording of Mark Harris’ “Mike Nichols: A Life.”
• IN MY FREE TIME I LOVE TO: Watch movies!
• SOME OF MY FAVORITE MOVIES I’VE WATCHED IN THE LAST FEW MONTHS ARE: Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”; Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude”; Susanne Bier’s “After the Wedding”; Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation”; John Farrow’s “His Kind of Woman”; Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love”; Spike Lee’s “He Got Game”; Lilly and Lana Wachowski’s “The Matrix”; Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell”; Boaz Yakin’s “Remember the Titans.”
• AS A STUDENT, I WAS: Reading everything I could get my hands on.
• MY FIRST IMPRESSION OF HOLLYWOOD WAS: Glamorous! Convertibles and people who dreamed big dreams.
• I AM CURRENTLY WATCHING: All the Oscar contenders.
• MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY WOULD INCLUDE: Stacey Abrams, Madeleine Albright, Elaine May, Adam McKay, Guillermo del Toro, E.B. White.
• WHEN I RETIRE, I PLAN TO: Who’s retiring?
• THE ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Committed
CORRECTION: The name of Kathy Rogers was incorrectly spelled in a previous version of this story.