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Madam president, the Oscar goes to... Cheryl Boone Isaacs

LAPACAZO SANDOVAL and BILL MYERS | 2/20/2014, 5:10 p.m.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the first African-American to serve as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Cheryl Boone Isaacs

And the winner is … Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African-American to serve as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It’s an historic accomplishment by a truly amazing woman who originally had no intention of entering the film business.

Born in Springfield, Mass., Isaacs was exposed to the film industry as a young girl through her brother Ashley Boone Jr., a successful film executive in the early 1960s at United Artists in New York City. One of the early films he worked on was “West Side Story,” and he gave Isaacs an advance copy of the movie’s soundtrack. By the time her family came to New York City to attend the film’s premiere, Isaacs had memorized all the words to every single song. This landmark film utterly captured her imagination.

“I completely related to Anita. I had to be Rita Moreno,” Isaacs proclaimed. This sparked her interest in singing and dancing.

Indeed, early on, her focus in entertainment was only in performing as a singer and dancer. Upon entering college, she had developed a strong interest in working for the United States Information Agency (USIA), which was then like the PR firm for the U.S. government. Working for the USIA required a master’s degree, but by the time Isaacs received her bachelor’s degree, she was burned out on school and ready to move on. Over the next several years, she bounced around in a few jobs and landed as a stewardess for Pan American Airways.

“Those were great years for me—I got to travel the world,” said Isaacs with great pride.

Eventually, she decided the time had come to settle down. Isaacs then asked herself the big question: “What do you really, really want to do?”

It was then that she realized and understood that she wanted to be in the film business.

Upon returning to her home in San Francisco, she decided to move down to Los Angeles. In no time at all, Isaacs was hired by Columbia Pictures and began work on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” After about a year at Columbia, Isaacs was offered a job with a small independent film company, Melvin Simon Productions. Beginning as coordinator of marketing and publicity, she stayed with Melvin Simon Productions for five years. It was like being paid to learn all about the film business.

During this period, Melvin Simon Productions became one of the top independent film companies in the industry. The wealth of knowledge and opportunities provided by Melvin Simon Productions allowed Isaacs to hold various positions and move up through the ranks to become a film executive as vice president of the company. “This was a very special time. I always talk about it. I always ask people if they know about ‘The Stunt Man,’ which was our most critically acclaimed movie, and ‘Porky’s,’ which was our biggest commercial success.”

Upon leaving Melvin Simon Productions, Isaacs moved on to the Ladd Company for a year, where she worked on “Once Upon a Time in America,” “The Right Stuff,” and their box office hit “Police Academy.” When the nation experienced a financial downturn, the smaller independent film companies really struggled. While she loved working with Mel Simon and the Ladd Company, she knew she needed to get a job at a major studio, and Paramount was the place she wanted to be. Isaacs stated, “They were the cool, hip people who did ‘Staying Alive,’ ‘Saturday Night Fever,’ ‘Grease’ and ‘Flashdance.’”

Taking a cut in salary and a downgrade in her title, Isaacs started at Paramount as the West Coast director of publicity and promotion. “So I was no longer doing advertising, market research, international, nothing! And I didn’t care!” Isaacs stated emphatically. “No, I wanted to be there. I had to prove to myself that I could do well, do what I’m told, learn as much as I can and be dependable. I spent 13 years at Paramount and loved it!”

She left Paramount to become president of marketing for New Line Cinema for the next two years, during which time she became increasingly aware of the time she spent away from her family and her 4-year-old son. The loss of quality time at home prompted her to leave her post at New Line.

“I don’t regret it for one minute because family is the most important,” Isaacs said. “I started working as a consultant so I could have air in my day, which also allowed me to spend more time with the Academy.”

To read more about Isaac’s story, look for the rest of the article in next week’s issue.