Commentary: Oscar's bright shine will be welcome if it can cut through the gloomy skies


Her makeup will be ethereally pale, her gown a wispy gray with no spangles. She won't be front and center on the red carpet but rather hovering over the proceedings like an overlooked but irritatingly insistent actress.

That's right, despite the glitz and glamour, the economy will preside over the Kodak Theatre and the Oscars on Sunday -- a presence of which all will be subconsciously aware, though few will want to openly acknowledge. Way too boring, way too much already said and way too much done to so little positive effect.

And why would anyone want to openly confront this apparition? This is a night to dispel the gloom and doom, not just for Hollywood denizens but for the country at large. So the dresses still will wow us, the speeches bemuse us and the parties -- though surely a little less lavish -- entertain us.

In fact, it's hard to remember when we all more needed a festive weekend.

It's also hard to know whether just reciting the litany of economic and financial woes besetting the country (and partially our industry) will help dispel the gloom or just worsen it.

But gloomy it is. Frustratingly so, many are now saying. Not that folks here are naive, but some surely thought just having their Dem darling Barack Obama in the White House would give a lift to things.

Instead, the new president has had about as bumpy a start as any White House newcomer in recent memory.

The stocks of all the media conglomerates and indie stalwarts are taking further hits, with the latest, CBS Corp., having to cut its dividend by 80% and barely managing to stay above the crucial $5-a-share watermark. (Going under that bar means mutual funds start dumping the stock.) Disney's theme-park division is coming around to layoffs and restructuring a plethora of disparate units here and abroad. Young Broadcasting has declared Chapter 11; Sirius XM just avoided the wreckers thanks to a white-knight intervention from Liberty's John Malone.

For heaven's sake, even celebrity mags are losing ads and readership.

All these blows are disconcerting because Hollywood is hardly the car industry: It makes products that people worldwide actually want to see -- multiple times and on many different platforms. Even if the ratings for the Oscarcast continue to slip, as they have for a decade, the ceremony remains a worldwide event. (And however blase or critical some are in India about Danny Boyle's depiction of their country in "Slumdog Millionaire," I'm betting there'll be dancing in the streets if it racks up multiple trophies.)

Not that everything Hollywood touches turns to gold, or that all things in Tinseltown are in tip-top shape.

The whole notion of economic safety and scale in conglomeration that spurred the rapid consolidation of the business in the 1990s is quietly getting a rethink in the corridors of power. Just look at what's happened to General Electric in the past year and how its declining fortunes have impacted NBC Universal. Or at Sony, where problems on its electronics side, especially in Japan, have wafted to Culver City and penalized Sony Pictures.

Unfortunately, being smaller or unaligned or less vertically integrated doesn't seem to be any safer a solution, as a cursory look at the stock or debt load of Time Warner, MGM or Lionsgate makes clear.

The TV biz probably is the most problematic at the moment as ad-depleted and costs-challenged networks and station groups rethink their economic model and wonder how to make up for all those car spots which, whatever happens to Detroit, probably never will come back in such abundance.

Simultaneously, they're going to have to figure out how to persuade reluctant talent to dedicate themselves to the Web. Just ask sitcom producer Chuck Lorre, who has a mercilessly funny take on all this and who is hearing nothing but ka-ching from the untrendy rerun syndication of his series but pocketing nada from whatever webisodes he's been coerced into creating.

But back to the film biz being celebrated this weekend.

While DVD revenue continues to slip worldwide, theatrical grosses are holding up quite handily through the global downturn. A likely imminent agreement with SAG will rev the production machine further. Sure, bad movies still get made way too often, and top stars do command outrageous upfront or backend payouts, but the entertainment biz in the U.S. remains a mecca for talent and a trend-setter for young people worldwide. Certainly no longer the only one, but still the dominant one.

GM and Chrysler, eat your heart out.