Bill Kramer never imagined he would end up working in Hollywood. Still, he’d loved the movies during his boyhood in a small town outside Baltimore—his grandmother would buy him copies of Variety so he could track the week’s hits and misses.
These days, Kramer lives beneath the Hollywood sign, not far from the house where Barbara Stanwyck manipulated Fred MacMurray to murderous ends in 1944’s Double Indemnity. The latest CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can now read about himself in the trades as he attempts to navigate a movie industry upended by the pandemic and streaming. There are key initiatives in diversity and film preservation to lead, plus repair work at the Oscars after last year’s bizarre on-camera meltdown by Will Smith, until then one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars.
Though Kramer, 54, has been on the job only since July, he isn’t exactly a new face at the academy: He brought the long-delayed Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in for a hugely successful landing in September 2021 as its director and president. Now, as the academy’s CEO, “I have a completely new set of problems to solve,” he says, “but I walked in with very open eyes.”
Kramer seems suited to the task, with a lengthy history of strategic planning and fundraising—including the $250 million he raised to start museum construction in 2016. He’s also a naturally diplomatic spokesman for an industry roiled by controversies from within and without.
“This is a different moment in time for the film industry,” Kramer acknowledges with considerable understatement. Dressed in a cerulean suit and seated in the academy’s sixth-floor conference room in Beverly Hills, a wall-size photo from the set of 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia beside him, he continues, “We’ve just survived a pandemic; theatrical releases don’t look the way they used to”—2022’s North American box office was down about 35 percent from pre-pandemic 2019—“streaming is becoming a big part of our life. We need to evolve and be at the center of those conversations while still recognizing and supporting and preserving cinema.
I think we can do all of that.”
I have new problems to solve, but I walked in with very open eyes.
The Academy Awards celebrate their 95th year in 2023 and remain AMPAS’s most precious asset despite the ceremony’s plunging television ratings and talk of creeping irrelevance. Viewership in 2022 increased an encouraging 58 percent from the previous year but was still the second-least-watched Oscars show in broadcast history. Meanwhile, Smith’s slapping Chris Rock onstage spawned criticism over the decision to allow the actor to tearfully pick up his Best Actor trophy minutes after the assault.
The first Oscars under Kramer’s watch will unfold March 12 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, with Jimmy Kimmel back as host for the first time since 2018. While it seems unlikely a comedian as thoughtful and occasionally merciless as Kimmel will let the Slap go unmentioned, the shape and content of the show have been an ongoing discussion at the academy and at ABC, which has aired the ceremony since 1976.
“We take what happened very seriously,” says Kramer. “This is about honoring the arts and sciences of cinema.
We are looking at the show’s design and production to ensure that nothing like this will happen again.” That includes bringing back veteran awards show producers Glenn Weiss and Ricky Kirshner and returning to a single, experienced host in Kimmel. “A key part of what makes a host of the Oscars successful is the nimbleness that a live-television host understands,” Kramer says. “It’s a very specific skill, and Jimmy’s brilliant at it.”
Another change the CEO promises is a reversal of the academy’s controversial decision last year to remove eight categories—including original score, makeup, and film editing—from the live broadcast, which Knives Out director Rian Johnson tweeted at the time was “absolute bullshit.” It was a failed experiment to save airtime, Kramer acknowledges, that went “against the core mission of the academy to celebrate all of the arts and sciences of moviemaking.”
Kramer’s arrival as CEO follows the tumultuous 11-year regime of his predecessor, Dawn Hudson, whose leadership drew equal measures of applause and criticism for her moves to modernize and diversify the academy. She bore the brunt of every controversy and misstep at the Oscars, from falling ratings and abrupt changes in producers and hosts to announcing, then immediately canceling, plans for a “Best Popular Movie” award. While Kramer inherits lingering concerns about diversity, the answers aren’t obvious. Calls for “genderless” awards (rather than Best Actor and Best Actress) to make room for nonbinary performers have been discussed, but there is no plan to make that change, he says. “At the academy, a big part of our work today is to help envision a more diverse, equitable, accessible film industry. We are always evolving, and it’s a conversation that we will constantly be having. There’s no end point to this work.”
Starting in 2023, the academy will institute “inclusion standards” for diversity in cast, crew, and other areas of production in order for films to be eligible for Best Picture consideration. “What’s giving us a lot of hope is that almost everyone we’re working with is already thinking about this on the production level,” says Kramer, who notes that all of last year’s Best Picture nominees would have qualified, even as filmmakers and academy members have criticized the rule as invasive, anti-creative, and impractical to implement. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts will apply the same standards for its Best Film award in 2024. “We’ve locked arms with BAFTA as we’ve created this process,” Kramer adds. “This is not about legislating art.”
While the academy has no direct control over the making of movies, Kramer has worked to wield influence in other ways. When the museum was preparing to open, he personally asked Spike Lee to “christen the space” dedicated to directors with an exhibition devoted to Lee’s life and work, a shrewd conciliatory gesture considering the filmmaker’s fraught relationship with the academy, which awarded 1990’s Best Picture Oscar to the feel-good Driving Miss Daisy but didn’t nominate Do the Right Thing, Lee’s provocative dramatization of racial dynamics. (The first film shown in the museum’s state-of-the-art David Geffen Theater was a 70mm print of the director’s Malcolm X.) Kramer also oversaw an installation by Pedro Almodóvar and an upcoming exhibition with fellow Baltimore native John Waters along with other auteurs he discovered as a younger man learning to love and understand the movies.
“It’s been amazing to work with filmmakers who helped form my early notions of cinema and diverse ways of telling stories about ourselves, whether it’s being queer”—Kramer and husband Peter Cipkowski married in 2019—“or living in another country,” he says. “It has stayed with me.”
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