'The Awards Pundits' on Chris Rock Hosting Oscars, Gotham Noms, Sarah Silverman

Scott Feinberg and Stephen Galloway also compare notes on the box-office performance — in many cases, underperformance — of Oscar hopefuls so far, and the impending arrival of 'Star Wars.'
Sarah Silverman in 'I Smile Back'

This is the seventh installment of what will be an ongoing dialogue, throughout the awards season, between THR's awards analyst Scott Feinberg and executive editor, features Stephen Galloway.

GALLOWAY Scott, I have a bone to pick with you.

FEINBERG Again?

GALLOWAY You slammed the great Chris Rock in a post earlier this week, saying he isn’t the right guy to host the Oscars. Actually, you went further and said Kevin Hart’s the man for the job. Maybe one day. But Rock is one of America’s great comics, and he delivers three things the Academy needs. First, he’s a proven entity: OK, I know his last outing as Oscar host drew mixed reviews, but I bet he learned enough from that to be bolder and braver this time around. Second, he’s as talented as anyone who’ll be onstage with him — and that matters; nobody wants a second banana calling the shots. And third — crucially — he shows the Academy is at least making a stab at embracing diversity, when Hollywood has been so lax about that.

FEINBERG Let me be perfectly clear: I didn’t slam Chris; I just questioned why Oscar producers David Hill and Reginald Hudlin — who were brought in to create a new and improved Oscars — hired a host from yesteryear, rather than someone new, specifically Kevin Hart, who’s been begging for this thankless gig. Chris is a brilliant guy who might do a fine job — nobody will be pulling harder for him than me. But the Academy needs to try something different if it wants to increase ratings and remain relevant. The core audience that’s tuned in in the past will tune in regardless of the host; the problem is, their numbers aren’t getting bigger. Like the Republican Party, the Academy needs to expand its base if it wants to survive. I’m confident Kevin would have helped do that by bringing in new, younger viewers, while still entertaining the old guard. And I'm disappointed he won’t get the chance.

GALLOWAY You’re only looking at ratings. But Hudlin and Hill have two issues to worry about and two masters to serve. The first is ABC (and specifically Disney/ABC chief Robert Iger, who apparently was involved in the nitty-gritty of the negotiations), which has only one goal: to improve ratings. And the other is the Academy establishment, which is terrified that someone will come along and tarnish its brand —

FEINBERG — see: Seth MacFarlane. (Although I loved him.)

GALLOWAY Those two masters aren’t always in sync. And I’d be surprised if the old guard were even close to embracing Kevin, any more than they would Amy Schumer, whose name was also being bandied as a possible Oscar host.

FEINBERG Actually, I suspect they went after Chris partly because they hoped he could bring along Amy; he directed her HBO comedy special, which was the talk of the town last weekend. (Hill said, shortly after he was hired, that he and Hudlin wanted two hosts.) Regardless, I agree with you: from ABC’s point of view, Rock is the safer bet; while he’s thought of as a no-holds-barred comedian, he’s also proved he can respect the boundaries of broadcast TV. I’m not sure the same can be said for Ricky Gervais, who made the Golden Globes must-watch TV when he hosted, and who would have been a ratings-magnet for the Oscars, too.

GALLOWAY You really think he would have made a difference? I didn’t think the hosts really impacted the ratings.

FEINBERG History shows the host has little to do with the ratings; they’re much more tied to the popularity of the top nominees. It’s not coincidental that the year of Titanic, the Oscar show hit a ratings high that hasn’t been surpassed since. In fairness to Chris, that’s probably why the Oscar ceremony that he hosted in 2005 (when Million Dollar Baby edged out mediocre competition) generated lower ratings than the year before (when the blockbuster The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won nearly everything), even though it was hosted by the decidedly less edgy Billy Crystal.

GALLOWAY Rock’s probably praying Star Wars: The Force Awakens lands a best picture nom, to give him whopping ratings. I don’t think Iger would mind either. Then he’d have a blockbuster and an Oscar nominee and a ratings bonanza. Better buy your Disney stock now.

FEINBERG Already done! I mean, they could have replaced J.J. Abrams with Kim Kardashian and it would have made no difference — that’s going to be the highest-grossing movie of all time, probably by far. I hope Jurassic World has enjoyed its brief stay in the top three because it’s about to be evicted.

GALLOWAY I have a feeling there’ll be a few big hits muscling onto the best picture nominee list — including The Martian, Straight Outta Compton and Inside Out. I’m less sure about some of the smaller movies. I rolled my eyes when I saw the Gotham Awards nominees this morning.

FEINBERG You mean you’re not excited about Diary of a Teenage Girl, which led the field with four noms? I’m shocked. The Gothams — which are determined by four committees of five New York-based “writers, critics and programmers,” a group far from representative of anything but their own tastes — are less about predicting the Oscars than highlighting great under-the-radar work. It’s nice that they shine a spotlight on films like Tangerine (which was shot for $100,000, entirely on iPhones), and performers like Charlotte Rampling (45 Years), Blythe Danner (I'll See You in My Dreams) and Lily Tomlin (Grandma), as this may be their only moment in the sun outside the Independent Spirit Awards. In terms of any Oscar connection, I suppose it’s worth noting that Spotlight landed a best feature nom, and its ensemble was chosen to receive a special jury award at the Nov. 30 ceremony, while The Danish Girl, which I thought the indie crowd would have dug, was totally shut out.

GALLOWAY I was outraged they didn’t nominate Sarah Silverman for I Smile Back. It’s a very tough film — about a woman sliding into addiction, and the effect on her family — but she gives a beautiful performance, and I loved the way there are no villains here, only victims. I would have thought she was a lock for a Gotham nomination, even though it will be hard for her to win over Oscar voters.

FEINBERG I saw it this week, for the second time, at its L.A. premiere, and was even more impressed with her than I was the first time. She’s totally believable every step of the way, to the extent that you forget she’s the same person as the outrageous (and outrageously funny) comedienne. She’s been putting herself out there this month, talking to Glamour about her battle with depression, with you at a Q&A and with me for an upcoming episode of my podcast, and perhaps all the exposure will pay dividends.

GALLOWAY There was another Gotham snub: Room didn’t get nominated for best feature — which troubles me even more than Silverman. That movie’s looking stronger and stronger, and the fact it did well at the box office last week (when two other indie releases, Truth and Beasts of No Nation, tanked) bodes well for its Oscar chances. What’s sad is: Here we are in late October, and almost all the most anticipated films of the year have already been released. There’s so little to look forward to.

FEINBERG Climb away from the window, Stephen! There’s plenty to come. The Big Short, Concussion and The 33 have started screening for industry audiences. Joy has been test-screening. And then there’s still The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, By the Sea, Creed, In the Heart of the Sea and Star Wars. That’s something to live for.

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