In her first public appearance since the Oscars award ceremony (and associated end-of-show brouhaha), Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs took the stage at SXSW with Academy Award-nominated Hidden Figures screenwriter Allison Schroeder in a wide-ranging conversation about Hollywood.
The convivial environment lent itself to a panel that didn’t necessarily go into great depth, but touched on a number of interesting subjects and stories that shed light on the current state of affairs in the industry, including gender and race representation and the familiar tale of how hard it is to break into the business.
Interestingly, Boone Isaacs, who is in her fourth and final term as president of the 7,000 member-strong Academy, didn’t think Hollywood was her calling, even though her brother, former executive Ashley Boone, who passed away in 1994, exposed her to the business early on.
“I never in a million years thought I would enter this business,” said Boone Isaacs. “Everybody I met was really smart, was very intimidating. And I just didn't think [that I would do it], actually.”
Similarly, Florida native Schroeder had the itch to get into the business but landed in finance because it was, as she said on the stage in Austin, “very secure, steady work.”
The spark for Schroeder came when, instead of putting together a traditional presentation deck or spreadsheets, animated her argument which resulted in her boss saying simply, “go to film school.”
That decision certainly paid off, though, there were times that both faced challenges.
Boone Isaacs, who announced a new Oscars museum that will open in 2018 or 2019 in Los Angeles, went through plenty of cold calling before she was given a chance, and her maiden last name piqued curiosity.
“What was interesting was that many people assumed that I was (singer) Pat Boone's daughter. ‘Are you one of Pat's daughters?’ No, no. Or [I’d] just kind of play along a little bit until I showed up. And then it was always a little, ‘Uh huh’.” she recalled. “But that got me in the door. And then this is when my brother did help because they would say, ‘Oh are you related to Ashley Boone?’ And there was one person, after knocking on doors, that said, ‘You know what, I'm going to take a chance on you.’”
That chance resulted in Boone Isaacs working on publicity for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and kickstarted a career that included executive roles at Paramount and New Line Cinemas, where she oversaw theatrical marketing and became the first African American woman to lead a studio marketing department.
Schroeder, who worked at NASA during high school and is co-chair of the Academy’s women’s committee, pushed back at Stanford, where she studied finance.
“I was this blond, twee, little, bubbly, ridiculous thing, [and] they didn't think I could do math,” she said. “When I was signing up for calculus they said, ‘make sure you take the slow class because that's what you can handle.’ I looked at this boy from a very expensive prep school and I said, ‘if you keep talking down to women like that, you're never going to get a date.’ He was sort of thrown but it was because of people supporting me throughout — my parents and people telling me, ‘No, you are good enough and you can do whatever you want.’ [That’s why] I learned to push back.”
When Schroeder began her Hollywood quest, like Boone Isaacs, the welcome mat wasn’t exactly open. Yet, a connection to Pineapple Express writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, plus serendipity, led to a production assistant job on the film.
“I'll never forget that my boss said she hired me because of the shoes I wore to the interview — that I had shown up looking professional in skinny jeans and a blouse but I'd worn ballet flats that showed that I was still a professional but willing to get them coffee,” laughed the ebullient Schroeder.
Without explicitly calling out the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of last year’s awards season, Boone Isaacs, an Academy member since 1987, noted that the Academy’s A2020 diversity initiative is always front and center and that, “it really motivated us in a way that we were already motivated.”
“It's about increasing inclusion for gender, for people of color, for international — and the evolution of the motion picture in many different ways and forms,” said Boone Isaacs. “This conversation will continue. Not just to 2020, but it gives us a goal to work for.”
As it relates to women in the industry, Schroeder sees an opportunity to do something that is counter to the general state of affairs in Hollywood.
“Writing [Hidden Figures] was my love letter to feminism and to female friendship and I think that’s another thing that we need to highlight more is women lifting each other up,” said Schroeder. “It's very competitive in Hollywood. And there's now starting to be room at the table for more than one woman but we have to fly the chair out and say, ‘sit down’ as opposed to thinking, ‘if there's someone else in the room, [they will take] my job.'"
Boone Isaacs noted that the films that were lauded at this year’s awards were indeed a kaleidoscope, far from the conversation of last year, and is encouraged by the efforts happening in the trenches — not just the storylines, but the efforts by filmmakers to hire a wide range of talent.
But, as storytellers, those interesting stories are impacting culture and appear to be changing the perceptions of people, especially the next generation. Schroeder shared a story about how a first grader explained segregation in his classroom and how a little girl saw three African American women on the street and said, “they must be astronauts.”
“I think all of our efforts are starting to pay off,” said Schroeder.
About that ending to the show…
Of course, the elephant in the room was the Best Picture snafu, where Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were handed the wrong envelope and announced La La Land as the winner when, in fact, Moonlight had won the big prize of the evening.
“Yes, there was a little excitement at the end,” laughed Boone Isaacs, who lauded host Jimmy Kimmel. “It was a shock, if some of you have seen that photo (of Boone Isaacs and the crowd). It was everywhere. [But], it all kind of came together, I thought, in a beautiful note and beautiful ending.”
To Schroeder, that awkward moment on stage, with both teams from La La Land and Moonlight on stage together underscored an important break from what many commonly think about Hollywood.
“You're with a lot of people who have been in the business and some of them are a little jaded,” said Schroeder. “In that moment, everyone surged to their feet and the artifice dropped. Everyone was so genuine and, in that moment for both films, it was a really special moment. It was the moment when the movie stars were no longer movie stars and the millionaire producers were no longer [millionaire producers] and everyone was just an artist, trying to support both sides. That was incredibly special.”