Honorary Oscars, Telecast Ratings Challenge Academy Board

From choosing hosts to building a legacy, members face hard choices — and controversy — in trying to keep up with the times.

When the 36 men and seven women who are governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gathered in the organization’s seventh-floor boardroom in Beverly Hills in August to select the recipients of honorary Oscars, they knew their choices could create a firestorm. Nearly a dozen years prior, the choice of On the Waterfront director Elia Kazan had provoked controversy and even garnered then-Academy president Karl Malden death threats. 

There was a sense of greater freedom as they met last summer. It was the second time the Governors Awards would be a nontelevised ceremony where honorees could be feted and allowed more time to accept.

Separating the honorary awards into its own show was one of the changes in recent years to liven up the annual telecast and boost viewership. The changes were approved by the governors, the Academy’s ultimate decision-makers.

As it turned out, one choice did cause controversy. Along with historian Kevin Brownlow and veteran actor Eli Wallach, the governors tapped French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, despite doubts he would show up to accept.

Academy president Tom Sherak insists that his attending didn’t matter. “If it was said, it was as a general statement,” Sherak says. “I don’t remember it being discussed. The personal life of each one of them never came up.”

Ultimately, Godard opted not to attend the November ceremony. Instead, a number of governors spoke, including filmmaker Lynne Littman, who said: “Godard dared us to misbehave as grown-ups and artists. He is still misbehaving, and I’d like to think tonight is the first time we have ever given an Oscar for it.”

Welcome to a new era in which AMPAS is trying to catch up with a rapidly changing world, with the governors at the heart of the effort. The board is at a turning point: It must embrace change but remain true to its traditions.

“We’re changing all the time and will continue to change,” says Sid Ganis, a former Academy president and governor on and off since the 1970s. “We have an image that may have been accurate at one point as being stodgy, conservative dudes, but it’s no longer that way.”

Eighty-three years after the board was created, the Academy’s governors face a long list of challenges. It starts with finding a replacement for Academy executive director Bruce Davis, who has steered its ship with enormous success for the past three decades. He startled the governors in October by announcing that he will retire at the end of June. Here are some of the issues his successor and the governors will face:

The Show Really, Really Must Go On

The Academy likes to think it is about the arts and sciences of showbiz, not the chase for money. The reality is that the Oscar show supplies about $74 million of the Academy’s annual $81 million budget, mostly from a license fee paid by ABC and international broadcasters.

Many of the recent changes came about after ratings drooped in 2008. So far, they have helped. The audience last year grew to 41.2 million viewers, up 14 percent from 2008.

While Sherak insists low ratings weren’t the sole reason, the expansion from five to 10 best picture nominees, which put such popular movies as Avatar and The Blind Side into the mix last year, clearly brought in more viewers, even if the little-seen The Hurt Locker still won the prize. Most importantly, it attracted the younger viewers coveted by advertisers. That continues this year with the choice of Anne Hathaway and James Franco as hosts.

The current contract with ABC doesn’t expire until 2014, but the governors plan to start renewal talks before year’s end. “The Academy Awards are the Super Bowl of [nonsports] live TV,” Sherak says.

To further bolster the telecast, this year the Academy has also — at the recommendation of one of the governors — hired a TV producer, Don Mischer, to oversee the show for the first time, as opposed to its tradition of having movie producers do the job. Mischer is paired with Oscar-winning American Beauty producer Bruce Cohen.

“We’ve got a team together we believe will give us a fantastic show,” Sherak says.

Preserve the Past, If You Can Afford It

The Academy puts on dozens of programs each year, provides grants to support movie education and research, plays a key role in film preservation, does international outreach and runs a library and center for film studies. But it doesn’t have a world-class movie museum. Early this century, an effort was launched to fill that void. The Academy battled to acquire land in Hollywood adjacent to its Pickford Center for Motion Picture Studies and held a competition among architects to create a campus spread across at least eight lushly landscaped acres. In 2007, French architectural firm Atelier Christian de Portzamparc was chosen. The effort to raise about $400 million was just getting under way in 2008 when the economy tanked and the effort was put on hold. Sherak says the Academy is still committed to building a museum, but it may be scaled back. 

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So White, So Male, So What?

More women serve on the board now than at any other time in Academy history, but there are still only seven, along with 36 men. There are big-name stars like Tom Hanks and Annette Bening and filmmakers like James L. Brooks but no African-Americans, Latinos or Asians. Sherak is blunt in saying that this is not acceptable, but he is frustrated over how to change it. “There’s not a lot we can do about it,” he says, “because each branch votes for their governor; so all you can do is take note of it and hope that, over time, that will change.”

Director Martha Coolidge, a current governor, says the good news is that women on the board have as much say as the men. Coolidge notes the Academy did have a female president (writer Fay Kanin, 1979-83) before any of the guilds. “As the industry changes,” Coolidge predicts, “those things will improve.”

Speaking the Language of Foreign Films

The choice of the foreign-language film winner has been the subject of controversy for years. It starts with the selection process by each country. Some countries choose to submit their best movie, but in others the selection is blatantly political and unfair. The submissions are then screened by the Academy’s committee of selectors.

Producer Mark Johnson, the governor who has overseen the process for the past few years, says previous critics of the process had a point. He says the committee of selectors was required to see every film (about 65 a year) on a big screen, not by watching a screener. “That involves a lot of time and dedication,” Johnson says. “It’s hard for people in the prime of their careers, so historically [the committee] was an older and, some would argue, a more conservative group.”

Johnson says the breaking point was 2007, when the Romanian movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days wasn’t nominated after winning at Cannes.

“I thought there had to be a better way to represent the views of the Academy at large,” he says, “and not just members of the committee.”

Under a system instituted in 2008, the committee selects six movies from the 65. An executive committee, headed by Johnson, then adds three worthy movies that were not chosen.

After this, a “blue ribbon” committee comprising 10 Academy members in New York and 20 in L.A. watch the nine finalists over a single weekend (three per day) to select the final five nominees.

Publicist Fredell Pogodin, who represents many foreign movies, says the new system has been a success. “It’s much better than it used to be,” she says, though she notes “there has been some dissension among members of the committee who invest a lot of time to see the films and then feel they are overridden.”             

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