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Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced as founding director of The Sidney Poitier New American Film School at ASU

November 16, 2021

Former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences brings well-earned practical advice and leadership to the position

Arizona State University has added another well-known name to its newly established film school. Highly respected American film marketing and public relations executive Cheryl Boone Isaacs will lead The Sidney Poitier New American Film School as its founding director.

Boone Isaacs will assume the directorship of the three-campus film school starting on Jan. 1, 2022. She will lead from the ASU California Center as well as from Tempe and from Mesa, which will be home to a 118,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art film and immersive media center.

Peter Murrieta, who has served as director-in-residence, will continue in a leadership role supporting engagement and outreach efforts.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs headshot

Cheryl Boone Isaacs, former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is the new director of ASU's Sidney Poitier New American Film School.

With her decades on the front lines of the film industry, Boone Isaacs brings well-earned practical advice and leadership to ASU and The Sidney Poitier New American Film School. She has worked on more than 300 movies and served four terms as president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. During her 24 years as a board member, she served as president of the Academy Foundation and produced the academy’s 2012 Governors Awards.

In January 2016, one year after the #OscarsSoWhite movement, all 20 Oscar nominations in the acting categories went to white performers — again. Boone Isaacs called an emergency meeting of the academy’s board of governors. At that meeting, the group approved sweeping and ambitious changes with the A2020 initiative, including the goal of doubling the number of women and ethnically underrepresented members in four years.

The academy had already been working toward increasing diversity and inclusion, Boone Isaacs told The New York Times in a 2020 oral history of #OscarsSoWhite, “but we went from first to fourth gear.”

“The academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” Boone Isaacs said at the time. Spike Lee told the New York Times, “Cheryl Boone Isaacs really made it her mission to open things up so that the voting body looked more like America.”

Boone Isaacs said she is drawn to ASU because of its emphasis on “representation, and the idea of inclusion, not exclusion.”

“Sidney Poitier — the man, the icon, the legend — is my North Star who exemplifies determination, passion, professionalism and excellence,” Boone Isaacs said. “I am honored to be part of his legacy and to impart his ethos to future generations of storytellers.”

Steven J. Tepper, dean and director of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, said, “Cheryl Boone Isaacs has built her extraordinary career championing — and exemplifying — two of the primary things The Sidney Poitier New American Film School stands for: inclusion and excellence. Cheryl is one of the most respected leaders in Hollywood, and she fully understands its operating system — making her the perfect person to build a school that can help disrupt both film education and the industries it serves.”  

Boone Isaacs is looking forward to building the newly established film school with an eye to the future, with the goal of empowering visual storytellers across entertainment platforms.

“The world of storytelling, and certainly visual storytelling, is really taking off,” she told an audience in the 2018 IPR Distinguished Lecture. “I'm not sure any of us really understand how much it's going to impact ... so many different platforms by which these expressions can be seen and shared with others.” 

Boone Isaacs got excited about working in film when she was very young, thanks to her older brother, Ashley, who worked in the industry. Boone Isaacs and her family would drive from their home in Springfield, Massachusetts, to New York City for the big movie openings, including 1961’s “West Side Story.”

“He was the coolest guy ever,” Boone Isaacs said of Ashley, who began his career as a junior film publicist, promoting movies to audiences overseas. One of those movies was 1963’s “Lilies of the Field,” which starred Poitier in an Oscar-winning performance.

Ashley Boone would go on to work for Poitier’s production company, before landing at 20th Century Fox in 1972, where he became the president of distribution and marketing. Along the way, among his many achievements, he played a critical role in the launch and success of “Star Wars” and oversaw the midnight showings that turned “Rocky Horror Picture Show” into a cult hit.

It was through her brother that Boone Isaacs first met Poitier, in the late '60s.

“He was such a striking figure,” she recalled. “And he was very kind and sincere.”

Their paths would cross again through Boone Isaacs’ work with the academy. She served as president of the organization from 2013–17, the first Black person, first person of color and third woman elected to the post.

Boone Isaacs’ path to the film industry was not direct. After graduating from Whittier College with a degree in political science, she became a flight attendant for Pan American World Airways. She’d fallen in love with traveling her junior year abroad, in Copenhagen, Denmark: “I discovered I had such an interest in how other people existed on the planet, whether it was through art, architecture, language — all of it, how different it was.”

When she was 25, she moved to Los Angeles to find a job in the film industry. Ashley was not “for it,” Boone Isaacs said.

“He knew how tough it was in the industry as a Black man and how tough it would be for me as a Black woman, when there were only a few women and few people of color behind the scenes at the time,” she said.

In the end, her brother did help her, indirectly: “He helped me because he had a great reputation. Barry Lorie at Columbia Pictures asked me if I was related to Ashley, and I said, ‘Yes, he’s my brother,’ and he said, ‘OK, you’re hired.’” 

At Columbia, she served on the publicity team for Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The following year, she was hired as coordinator of marketing and publicity at Melvin Simon Productions, where she worked for five years and rose to become vice president of worldwide advertising and publicity. 

In 1983, Boone Isaacs was named director of advertising and publicity for the Ladd Company, where she worked on films such as “Once Upon a Time in America,” “The Right Stuff” and the box-office hit “Police Academy.” In 1984, she was named director of West Coast publicity and promotion for Paramount Pictures. She went on to lead the worldwide publicity department as executive vice president for Paramount and orchestrated the marketing campaigns for Academy Award Best Picture winners “Forrest Gump” and “Braveheart.” 

“When I first started (in the film industry), I said to myself, You’re going to put your head down for 10 years and work hard, and in 10 years you’re going to look up to see if you’ve advanced. It’s a fast business — a lot of egos, a lot of money. You earn respect, you earn advancement. I spent 13 years at Paramount moving up, moving up. I got passed over a few times. I don’t forget, but I don’t hold a grudge. I just thought, ‘Keep plugging.’”

In 1997, Boone Isaacs was named president of theatrical marketing for New Line Cinema. She was the first African American woman to head a studio marketing department, and only the second African American to do so: The first was her brother, Ashley, 20 years before her.

At New Line, Boone Isaacs developed and executed the campaigns for such films as “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” the company’s highest-grossing film at that time; “The Wedding Singer”; “Rush Hour”; and such critically acclaimed motion pictures as “Wag the Dog,” “Boogie Nights” and “American History X.”

In 2000, she founded her own company, CBI Enterprises Inc., and worked on publicity for “The King's Speech” and “The Artist.” She has also consulted on marketing efforts for such films as “The Call,” “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” “Spider-Man 2” and “Tupac: Resurrection.”

In 2014, Boone Isaacs was inducted into the NAACP Hall of Fame. She has served as a trustee of the American Film Institute and holds honorary doctorate degrees from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and the Chapman University Dodge College of Film and Media Arts.

Teaching and mentoring hold a special place for Boone Isaacs. She is an adjunct professor at the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University and previously served as a filmmaker-in-residence for Chapman. She was an adjunct professor at USC Cinema and Television School’s Peter Stark Producing Program, Columbia College Chicago and Mount Saint Mary’s College. She has been a guest lecturer at the University of Southern California, UCLA, Harvard’s Kennedy School, Loyola Marymount, Bryn Mawr Film Festival, Soka University of America, Dubai International Film Festival, Toronto Film Festival, Singapore Film Festival and Korea’s Busan International Film Festival.  

In particular, Boone Isaacs aims to help students gain an understanding of the size of the industry and the many levels within it.

“What students usually know is actor, director, writer,” Boone Isaacs said. “It’s important to understand the industry and how many career possibilities there are inside of it — and then the support group that surrounds it. Depending on your attitude, your aptitude, your desire, the range is wide.”

Top photo by Marina Razumovskaya/iStock

Deborah Sussman

Communications and media specialist , Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts


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ASU names film school after trailblazing actor and filmmaker Sidney Poitier

January 25, 2021

Move is part of a commitment to diversity in storytelling and storytellers

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2021 year in review.

Arizona State University has renamed its film school after Hollywood icon Sidney Poitier, the first Black man to win the Academy Award for best actor.

The move signifies the university’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity, according to ASU President Michael Crow. 

“Arizona State University is deeply committed to the premise of inclusivity, and The Sidney Poitier New American Film School is an extension of that impact in an area of academic pursuit that will be advanced by representation of greater diversity and perspective,” he said. 

“What we’re doing here is not just recognizing Sidney Poitier for his lifetime of achievements and his legacy, but naming our New American Film School for a person that embodies that which we strive to be — the matching of excellence and drive and passion with social purpose and social outcomes, all the things his career has stood for.”

The Sidney Poitier New American Film School, with nearly 700 students, is one of five schools in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at ASU. The school will soon add two locations besides its current home on the Tempe campus: a new state-of-the-art facility in downtown Mesa that will be completed in fall 2022 and that will be the primary home for the film school, and ASU’s new center in downtown Los Angeles that will open later this year. 

Poitier, who is now 93, is known for breaking racial barriers and embodying characters with dignity and wisdom. He won the Oscar for his role in the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field,” which was set and filmed in Arizona. He also was the first Black actor nominated for a best actor Academy Award for the 1958 movie “The Defiant Ones.” 

Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier was the first Black performer to win the Oscar for best actor, for 1963's "Lilies of the Field."

Many of Poitier’s movies addressed race, starting with “No Way Out,” a 1950 film in which he played a doctor who had to treat two white racists. In 1967 alone, he starred in three hit movies dealing with racial tensions: “To Sir, with Love,” “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night.” 

He later went on to direct several movies, including “Uptown Saturday Night” and “Stir Crazy.” 

Poitier, who grew up in the Bahamas before moving to the United States, served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan from 1997 to 2007.

“Sidney Poitier is a national hero and international icon whose talents and character have defined ethical and inclusive filmmaking,” said Steven J. Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at ASU.

“His legacy will serve as a guide and inspiration for our school and the thousands of film students we educate.”

The school naming was revealed during a celebration video that was released Monday, featuring remarks by many in the ASU community, film industry icons and three of Poitier’s six daughters. 

Beverly Poitier-Henderson said: “It’s fitting that ASU is embracing his work ethic and embracing his commitment to truth and his commitment to the arts and his commitment to education. We’re very happy. He’s very happy.”

Poitier-Henderson talked about how her father was often mobbed by fans when he went out, which was not always appreciated by his daughters when they were young. Once, the family was at Disneyland and when fans started to crowd around, asking, “Is that Sidney Poitier?” his annoyed daughters said, “No, he just looks like him.” 

Their father discovered what they were doing and told them to stop. 

“He told us that these were the people who put us and him where he was, so we had to respect that,” she said.

Anika Poitier is a director and actor.

“It’s really important to have diversity in the stories that we tell, and they need to be told by the people who are living these stories — and that’s a huge problem in this industry,” she said.

“There are so many stories about Black people and brown people and women that are not told by the people who have lived these stories, and to deny their perspective is dangerous.”

Anika Poitier said she hopes The Sidney Poitier New American Film School will encourage students to tell their stories and provide a platform to share them.

“Because I think that it’s what the world needs desperately right now.”

Sydney Poitier Heartsong, an actor and producer, said that her father wanted Black people to have opportunities in all aspects of the film industry.

“I know at the time, the thing that angered him the most was that he was the only one. He was the only one standing up there. He was the only one with an Academy Award. And he fought so that others could be included as well,” she said.

“He wanted to see his story and his likeness represented on the screen, and he was also keenly aware of the fact that that wasn’t going to fully happen, in the way that it should, unless there were people also behind the camera.”

Several current ASU film students also spoke on the video, describing how important it is for people to tell their own stories.

Sidney Poitier

According to his daughter Sydney Poitier Heartsong, the two most important things to Sidney Poitier are education and the arts, a marriage found at ASU's film school.

Serena Hoskyns said that once she was on campus, she knew she was doing what she was supposed to.

“There’s a responsibility in film,” she said. “We influence so much of the world, and with the tropes and stories and things that have been left in place, it’s time for an emerging generation to show growth.”

In the video, Michael Burns, an ASU alumnus and now the vice chairman of Lionsgate entertainment studio, said that change in the film industry is long overdue.

“I also know that this naming is more than just a moment in time. It signals a transformative cultural shift in our nation,” he said. “Sidney Poitier is a hero and a role model whose example will ignite the energies of countless students.”

Tiffany Ana López, the new vice provost for inclusion and community engagement at ASU, said that, like many students in The Sidney Poitier New American Film School, she was the first in her family to attend college.

“I understand that for so many of our students, if they can’t see it, they can’t be it,” she said.

“It’s very meaningful that this is a film school that looks, acts and works like no other, a film school now named for a historic innovator in his field, someone constantly pushing for a level of excellence that’s informed by thinking about social justice and community,” said López, the former director of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre in the Herberger Institute.

Among the celebrities on the video was actor and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, a close friend of Poitier.

“Sidney is not only a fine artist but also a dear human being and a wonderful American citizen,” he said. “Thank you, Arizona State.”

Actor John Lithgow noted that many university institutions are named for people whose achievements have faded from memory. 

“That will never happen to you, Sidney. You are one of our founding fathers,” he said.

“ASU is honoring you. But you are honoring ASU.”

Top photo of Sidney Poitier courtesy Getty Images

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News