Commentary: Majors back in Oscar game this year

Academy's decision to allow ads designed to raise revenue

Oscar outlook: The Academy's decision to allow movie ads on its Feb. 22 Oscar telecast is designed not only to raise revenue at a time when other advertisers are cutting back but also to attract viewers by giving them an early look at event films arriving later in the year.

While accepting movie ads may help improve revenues for the telecast, their presence on the show isn't likely to make much difference in terms of ratings. Unlike ads for the wide range of consumer products and services that are advertised in wildly creative and provocative ways on the Superbowl, there's a lot less latitude for doing something unique when you're trying to sell movie tickets. You basically need to show the best bits and pieces of the films in question and make the most of their star power. The prospects for coming up with something really different that people will talk about around the office water cooler the next day just aren't as good when we're dealing with movies.

At this point, in fact, it's really unclear as to how many films will even want to spend the big bucks it will cost to buy time on ABC's 81st Annual Academy Awards telecast. For one thing, the Academy won't run ads for movies opening before Apr. 27 so that eliminates anything that's about to go into theaters. Ads that run on the telecast must not have aired elsewhere previously so custom creative materials will need to be produced. The high cost of Oscar air time -- 30 second spots went for an average of $1.8 million on the last telecast -- pretty much limits the potential field to summer tentpole pictures. Opinions will vary among marketers as to whether the timing is too early for such films to benefit from the exposure in good enough proportion to the expense.

Demographically, the Oscar telecast (unlike the Superbowl) tends to attract more female viewers than males. Women tune in particularly to see the pre-Oscar red carpet coverage of celebrities and what they're wearing. Summer popcorn pictures, of course, tend to skew more male than female in their appeal. Nonetheless, there will be some films for which an Oscarcast buy could make sense and could be worth the money. Still, such ads are unlikely to be a big enough tune-in factor to boost the show's ratings significantly.

But that's not to say that the Academy may not have a shot this year at reversing the sinking ratings the Oscars and other awards shows have suffered from in recent years. The 80th Annual Academy Awards, for instance, with an audience of about 32 million people were down about 20% from 2007. What could help attract more viewers is the fact that unlike the last few years which were dominated by little seen films from independent distributors and the studios' specialized distribution units, this year the majors are back in the Oscar game. For a change, the best picture race could include some films that people across the country have actually seen.

Moreover, the studios' potential contenders are filled with recognizable star faces and some of them were made by high profile filmmakers that viewers have probably heard of. At this point, most of the films in question are still sight unseen or have been seen by so few awards handicappers that there's really no way to assess their Oscar potential other than on the basis of the elements. That, of course, can turn out to be meaningless if a film isn't Oscar worthy when we ultimately do get to see if. But, for now, looking at the elements is really all we can do.

In the best picture category the major studio titles that are generating some buzz right now include (alphabetically with domestic distributors and with opening dates for the upcoming releases): "Australia" (20th Century Fox, Nov. 26), "Changeling" (Universal), "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount, Dec. 25), "The Dark Knight" (Warner Bros.), "Frost/Nixon" (Universal, Dec. 5), "Gran Torino" (Warner Bros., December not dated at this writing) and "Wall-E" (Disney).

Last year, the majors were pretty much out of the picture when it came to films competing for best picture. Of the five nominees, only one ("Michael Clayton") was released by a major company (Warner Bros.) and even it had been made independently. The other nominees were from Focus Features ("Atonement"), Fox Searchlight Pictures ("Juno"), Miramax Films ("No Country For Old Men," which won) and Paramount Vantage ("There Will Be Blood").

This time around there are seven major studio films that people are talking about at this point as having a possible shot at best picture nods. Not everyone necessarily agrees that all seven actually do have best picture potential, but four or five of them certainly do and even that's an impressive number.

From the standpoint of television ratings, it should help that these studio contenders are populated with big movie stars rather than with the more obscure names that were in some of last year's indie contenders. This year's potential studio contenders boast stars that viewers will recognize walking on the red carpet and they're from filmmakers that people have probably heard of before. The list includes: "Australia" - Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, directed by Baz Luhrmann; "Changeling" - Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich, directed by Clint Eastwood; "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" - Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, directed by David Fincher;

Also, "The Dark Knight" - Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman, directed by Christopher Nolan; "Frost/Nixon" - Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, directed by Ron Howard; and "Gran Torino" - directed by and starring Clint Eastwood.

Also in the Academy's favor is the fact that many of this year's releases from independents and the studios' specialized units also have big stars and in some cases filmmakers whose names might ring a bell with viewers. If these films get into the best picture race or the contests for best actor or actress they'll be of more interest to viewers because of their star power than last year's more obscure indie contenders were.

Among these high profile indies are: "Che" (IFC, Dec. 12) - Benicio Del Toro and Javier Bardem, directed by Steven Soderbergh; "Defiance" (Paramount Vantage, Dec. 31) - Daniel Craig, directed by Edward Zwick; "Doubt" (Miramax, Dec. 12) - Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, directed by John Patrick Shanley; "Milk" (Focus Features, Nov. 26) - Sean Penn, directed by Gus Van Sant; "Rachel Getting Married" (Sony Pictures Classics) - Anne Hathaway, directed by Jonathan Demme; "The Reader" (The Weinstein Company, Dec. 10) - Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, directed by Stephen Daldry;

Also, "Revolutionary Road" (Paramount Vantage, Dec. 26) - Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslett, directed by Sam Mendes; "Synecdoche, New York" (Sony Pictures Classics) - Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener, directed by Charlie Kaufman; "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (The Weinstein Company) - Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, directed by Woody Allen; "W" (Lionsgate) - Josh Brolin, directed by Oliver Stone; and "The Wrestler" (Fox Searchlight, Dec. 19) - Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei, directed by Darren Aronofsky.

That's not to say that every potential indie contender boasts big stars this year. There also are some lower profile titles that are generating an early Oscar buzz such as "The Visitor" (Overture Films) - Richard Jenkins, directed by Thomas McCarthy; and "Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight, Nov. 12) - Dev Patel, co-directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan.

What could really give the Oscars a sizable lift on the ratings front would be a new category dedicated to the blockbuster movies that people watching the show actually pay money to see. In other words, hits like "Iron Man," "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," "Mamma Mia" or "Hancock." However much moviegoers may have liked them, these just aren't the type of movies that Academy members typically nominate for best picture although that certainly wasn't the case years ago.

For instance, in 1952 Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show on Earth" took home the best picture Oscar. In 1958 the best picture Oscar went to the musical "Gigi." 1965's best picture winner was the musical "The Sound of Music." In 1968 the best picture winner was the musical "Oliver." The action thriller "The French Connection" took home top honors in 1971. Today it's almost impossible for mainstream commercial movies like those to get into the best picture race given the influence that critics groups now have on how Academy members and other awards group voters regard potential nominees.

The Academy would dramatically improve its ratings prospects by creating a new category for mainstream commercial movies and letting television viewers vote for their favorites. This would not be an award that Academy members would vote for. Votes would be cast throughout the Oscarcast on the Internet or via phone calls. Those calls, by the way, could generate a worthwhile new revenue stream for the Academy if they were priced at $1 or $2 apiece. People could be allowed to vote as many times as they wanted to based on how passionate they were about a given film.

A running tabulation of the vote could run in a crawl across the bottom of the screen during the program so that viewers could keep track of who was winning. And the winner could be announced at the very end of the show -- after the best picture Oscar had already been awarded and the program's last movie commercial had aired -- so as to keep viewers in front of their sets to find out if the film they'd voted for had won.

Academy members would almost certainly never agree to create such a category as one to be honored with an Oscar so this new award would need to start out with its own clever name and its own gleaming trophy. Care would have to be taken so that it didn't seem as though the Academy was creating a second class Oscar. In effect, this would be a People's Choice or Audience award and properly promoted it would be an honor that filmmakers would want to win.

It's an idea that would almost certainly resonate with the viewing audience that the Academy hopes to see start growing in numbers. When I mentioned this in the past to a friend who's an Academy member he responded by immediately reminding me that the show is overlong as it is and the last thing the Oscars need is to try to shoehorn another award into the telecast.

He, of course, completely missed the point. The program would benefit enormously from being tightened up by having some of its existing awards shifted to another un-televised ceremony. Adding an audience award to the show would be the best possible way to reconnect with viewers who increasingly have been losing interest in watching the Oscars.

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