A marquee panel discussion at this year’s SXSW was “A Conversation with Cheryl Boone Isaacs,” a conversation between the Academy president and “Hidden Figures” screenwriter Allison Schroeder. The hope, if not expectation, was Isaacs would address this year’s notorious Oscars snafu. Instead, the audience heard a string of anecdotes from Isaacs and Schroeder’s careers.
At SXSW, where panelists tackle big issues and big ideas in the entertainment and technology spaces, the pair’s conversation pivoted on a parade of cliches and platitudes, often pausing to name check those in the industry who fight for diversity in Hollywood. But when it came to the Q&A portion — a feature of virtually every SXSW panel conversation, even for famously reclusive filmmaker Terrence Malick — Isaacs took no questions.
There was a moment when they addressed the Best Picture gaffe. “I was in shock,” said Isaacs, referring to a photo taken of her at the moment. She then swiftly pivoted to talk about how heartened she was by “the graciousness and respect” displayed between the “La La Land” and “Moonlight” filmmakers and the “wonderful sense of community” that she said defines Academy membership.
They did discuss how 2016 reflected what they said was a big diversity shift in Hollywood, and specifically the Academy. Isaacs said she was inspired by how, starting at the Telluride Film Festival through to the Academy Awards, she was “watching the beautiful mosaic of new talent” that was on display. In particular she highlighted Schroeder’s “Hidden Figures,” for revealing female African-American heroes whose stories hadn’t been told.
Noting the rise in female-driven projects, Isaacs cautioned that this wasn’t the first time Hollywood had opened the door to women. Referencing a time when she worked on the Paramount lot, “[there was] a magical moment when females were in positions of power, but it didn’t last.”
However, she said she was hopeful. “I think this time there’s enough momentum,” said. “I’ve seen this before, but I don’t want the door to close this time.”
Success on this front, according to Isaacs, comes down to “hiring, mentoring, and promoting” diverse talent. Beyond that sentiment, however lovely, she was short on details. Much of the panel took on the aspect of an infomercial for how the Academy is building a community of diverse artists.
Isaacs suggested a reference to the #OscarsSoWhite movement, but never named it. “The last year has been very interesting,” she said. “It really motivated us.”
Under her leadership, Isaacs said, conversation about how the Academy should become more inclusive began well before 2016, but this was the year that the organization became more vocal. Outreach was key: According to Isaacs, many people don’t know they are eligible or how to submit for Academy membership.
“I was one of them myself [at one point]. I didn’t know how to become a member,” said Isaacs. She said outreach and inclusion are at the core of A2020, her five-year initiative to make the Academy more diverse.
However, Isaacs didn’t discuss her plan in any detail. It includes policies that remove older and less active members from the Academy, which is arguably the boldest and most controversial aspect of how Isaacs changed the Academy during her tenure. SXSW is built around conversations like these: An industry leader faces a problem, these are the disruptive steps taken to address it, here’s the implications and what was learned. Instead, this talk was more Jimmy Fallon than SXSW, with Isaacs and Schroeder reminiscing about how they still get starstruck and have to catch their breath when meeting celebrities.
Isaacs did take time to promote the Academy museum being built in Los Angeles, and wanted to correct the idea that the museum in simply about honoring and preserving Hollywood’s past. “[There] as so many different ways of telling stories,” she said. “Now you have a museum to show the many different ways to approach stories. We are about preserving the past, honoring the present, and celebrating the future… it’s about all the three.”
It’s hard to imagine a blander summary of the Academy’s stances, and that’s particularly dispiriting at such a dramatic moment. With the distribution landscape shifting at warp speed, and everyone agreeing that the industry has a long way to go before it vanquishes its diversity problems, the Academy is well situated to address a number of major challenges, and SXSW is the perfect platform to discuss them.
At the very end of the conversation, Schroeder brought up that Isaacs’ tenure as Academy president would end this summer and asked what she would miss most about the job. “These conversations,” said Isaacs.