Familiar faces could haunt Oscars


Familiar faces: The Oscars aren't until Feb. 25, but it already feels like we've seen the show thanks to the extensive media coverage of the Critics Choice, Golden Globe and SAG awards.

And it's not just the television broadcasts of those awards shows that will create a sense of deja vu when the Oscars roll around. It's also all the related media attention -- including the red carpet arrivals, acceptance speeches, backstage press interviews, fashion photo spreads, after-party pictorials and paparazzi snaps of the winners out celebrating.

The effect of all this media coverage -- which is magnified tremendously because it's repeated over and over on countless Internet sites dedicated to tracking celebrities -- is to make the handful of movie stars who've been winning the early awards very familiar faces.

Before they even open their mouths, we pretty much know what they're going to say. We know, for instance, that Jennifer Hudson will be gushing about how only a short time ago she was living a completely different life and never "dreamed" she'd be up here tonight getting this great award (whatever this one happens to be). And we know Forest Whitaker is going to be trying and probably failing to find the right words to express himself coherently. And we can bet that Eddie Murphy will be thanking a laundry list of people whose names mean nothing to anyone watching who's not a Hollywood insider. And we can count on Helen Mirren to look stately and royal and accept her latest award with dignity and style and probably say something nice about the real Elizabeth II.

About the only difference between the Oscars and, say, the Globes or the SAG awards is that we won't also be seeing the cast of "Ugly Betty" onstage and Mirren won't be getting an additional award for portraying Elizabeth I on HBO. And there won't be any tension about who in the "Gray's Anatomy" cast is saying what about whom. Nor will there be any shots of our favorite "Desperate Housewives" to help us figure out if they do or don't really get along. After all, the Oscars remain a celebration of excellence in moviemaking and only moviemaking.

On the other hand, if we're talking about ratings it's worth pointing out that the people out there watching at home are the same people who account for the great ratings for series like "Betty" and "Gray's" and "Housewives." Those cast members are people that television viewers like to see accepting awards because they feel they know them well and as fans of their shows they have a rooting interest in whether they win or not. So it's unfortunate in a way that those are the very people who aren't usually seen at the Oscars because they're not movie stars.

While surprises are always possible, most people expect the same stars who have been winning all those early season acting awards this year to win again Oscar night. And if they do, the parade up the aisles of the Kodak Theater is going to look awfully familiar to viewers across the country who will suddenly feel they've already been there and done when it comes to seeing these people win, hearing who they're grateful to for giving them their start way back when and finding out why they wanted to make the films for which they're now being honored.

Familiarity, of course, is said to breed contempt and that could be bad news for Oscar, who wants to breed big, healthy ratings, especially among the 18-49 viewers that Madison Avenue prizes most. Without knowing who's names are in the sealed envelopes it's impossible to say if this will be a problem Feb. 25, but it certainly could be. The ballots that just went into the mail Wednesday are due back by 5 p.m., PST Feb. 20. If Oscar voters think about this deja vu effect on ratings when they're voting, they might even decide to toss in a few surprises. But, of course, those performances that keep being honored over and over again happen to be very good performances and Academy voters could feel there's no choice but to celebrate them yet again.

While there are lots of good nominees in all categories this year, it's quite possible that the same old faces will turn up again in those by now very familiar racing to the podium shots, complete with hugs, air kisses and handshakes for the Hollywood power players occupying the best tables up front. Although the nominees know that winning an Oscar is more important than winning any of the awards they've already taken home, the audience doesn't necessarily understand or even care about this. What the audience at home knows is that they've seen something before or have heard the same acceptance speeches before or have stared at similar designer dresses before or caught those same for-the-camera smiles, waves and amazed faces before. So even though the Oscars are the main show, if you've already sat through the earlier events and seen the results unfold, are you going to want to watch it all happen again Feb. 25?

Worse yet, it's no secret that Oscar shows unfold very slowly. The list of non-movie star awards and the roster of industry tributes, as deserved and well produced as they typically are, adds to the telecast's length and can turn off people watching at home who in turn, of course, can turn off the show. As the hour grows late on the East Coast, people decide to go to bed rather than stay tuned -- unless they've got a rooting interest in the films that are competing for best picture or in the stars who are nominated in the acting races. When the same films and stars keep winning other awards, it's understandable that people figure they'll probably win again Oscar night and there's no need to stay up to see them do it.

If the winners can't be fresh and different, the only other thing the Academy can do is produce a show whose host and presenters are exciting and fun to be with for a few hours. There are high hopes this year that Ellen Degeneres will triumph as the show's host, a role that has yielded disappointing results in recent years. She's got some big shoes to fill, of course, when you remember past hosts like Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal. As for the presenters, if they stick to just presenting awards in the straightforward way that the Globes presenters do and don't engage in idiotic banter the way some of the SAG presenters just did, everyone will be better off.

One suggestion that's been making the rounds lately is that Oscar should turn Sasha Baron Cohen loose and hope to hear some funny lines that will provoke "Borat"-sized laughs around the world. Cohen, of course, really delivered the goods at the Globes when he described in precise detail exactly how it felt to be on the wrong end of his now infamous naked wrestling scene. Sitting there in the Beverly Hilton, I was as stunned as everybody else that he said what he said, but there was no other way to react to it than by laughing out loud. But how funny would it be to hear the same story again at the Oscars? Well, actually he told it again at the SAG Awards and it wasn't nearly as amusing. And then there's his line at the Critics Choice Awards as well as at the Globes about thanking everyone in America who hasn't sued him yet. Cohen would have to come up with something else to get laughs Oscar night. He's a funny guy and maybe he could, but how much material is there to be milked about "Borat?" But it would be a blessing for Oscar if Cohen did put something fresh together that resonated with the younger audience the show's sponsors are keen to reach.

There was a time when the television audience was thrilled to get to see Hollywood's biggest movie stars live at the Oscars. But this was years ago when there weren't lots of other televised awards shows and there wasn't the kind of media coverage of these events that there is today. Oscar night used to be quite special. Because handing out awards has become a big business in recent years, awards shows have proliferated. Even foreign awards shows like England's BAFTAs are now being televised in the U.S. on cable, making what happens in London as real to American viewers as if it were taking place in L.A.

Whether they're telecast or not, awards shows get intensive media and Internet exposure. Smaller awards ceremonies held by the guilds that represent producers, directors and writers, for instance, attract significant media attention because they, too, are magnets for celebrities. Whenever you have familiar faces attending anything these days you have a press line on hand to report in detail on what they're wearing, who they're hanging out with and how they feel about winning. So even though these shows aren't telecast, they still wind up on all the celebrity driven syndicated tabloid TV series and in all those weekly celebrity driven magazines on display at supermarket checkout counters across the country. It's overkill media exposure, but there's absolutely nothing the Academy can do about it.

When the Academy announced in the summer of 2002 that it was moving the Oscars to late February from their traditional late March slot, one of its stated reasons was to try to boost the ratings for its telecast. In a New York Times article at the time, Academy communications director John Pavlik was quoted as saying, "The basic reason for doing this is to improve the position of the Academy Awards with regard to ratings and viewership. The ratings have been dipping in recent years, and this is just one of a number of things we're trying to get those ratings up..."

Addressing the point that keeping people interested in movie awards during a three month campaigning period isn't easy, Pavlik noted, "the thought is that if you could move the show a little closer to the year that it is actually honoring, that might make things feel a little fresher in a lot of people's minds."

Did it work? Unfortunately, no. When the show moved to late February in 2004 it drew about 43.5 million viewers compared to some 33 million the previous year. But that's an unfair comparison considering that the U.S. invasion of Iraq got underway at the same time as the Oscars in March 2003 and Oscar's ratings that year were way down because people were watching cable news coverage from Baghdad. In 2005 Oscar's audience averaged 42.1 million viewers. And last year's telecast averaged 38.8 million people. The 2006 Oscars were also down in terms of the 18-49 demographic -- a 13.9 rating vs. 15.1 in '05. There are high hopes, of course, that this year's ratings will be way up from last year, but achieving that will be very difficult.

It's interesting to look back at what Hollywood insiders were saying in the summer of '02 when the Academy revealed its plans to compress the awards season. A New York Times article that ran Aug. 5, 2002, quoted DreamWorks marketing guru Terry Press as saying, "by the time you get to the Academy Awards now, they're almost anticlimactic. The same people tend to win over and over again. So by Oscar time you've already seen Julia Roberts six times in six different dresses. The Oscars needed to do this to restore their own luster."

Well, as they say, the more things change the more they remain the same. Here we are in February 2007 and the Oscars are still pretty much a rehash of what we've already seen on other awards shows. The move to February didn't help and actually may have hurt by giving Academy members less time in which to see the films before they send in their nominations ballots in early January.

Perhaps a move back to late March might be a good thing for Oscar because it would not only extend the viewing period for voters, but it would distance the show from other awards shows (assuming they stayed where they now are). If viewers had something of a breather between all these awards shows they might be more interested in tuning in Oscar night.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Jan. 5, 1989's column: "Further evidence of MGM/UA's continuing resurgence came New Year's weekend as Barry Levinson's 'Rain Man' placed first at the boxoffice with a spectacular
$14.4 million gross at 1,254 screens.

"The success of 'Rain' ... had MGM/UA Distribution Co. president David Forbes in the best of spirits when we spoke Tuesday. 'It's always great to come back from a long weekend and have the No. 1 picture,' Forbes told me. ...Despite its star power (Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise), some observers worried that 'Rain' would face stiff competition from several comedies with big stars. 'This year when all of us were sizing up our opposition,' Forbes points out, 'and trying to come to some conclusions about the right way to handle pictures, the first thing that stood out was that there were fewer films going into the marketplace than we normally see at Christmas. But there were some very strong pictures. As you looked in your crystal ball, 'Scrooged,' 'Naked Gun,' 'Tequila Sunrise,' 'Twins' and 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' all looked like ... they were going to be very stiff competition...

"'We made a conscious decision to wait to come into the marketplace until the holiday really began, which was the 16th of December when schools were beginning to get out. We put our marketing plan together to reflect all of the problems we thought we had to overcome -- the competition; the fact that, while we had a humorous picture, it wasn't a comedy; the fact that we were coming in behind (other films) -- all of the issues that were there...

"The studio's marketing team, he notes, 'spread our media program out carefully so that we weren't coming into the marketplace cold after everybody else had opened. We were actually advertising as the other pictures were opening, but in a small way so that we could have some base from which to start when our full campaign hit.'"

Update: "Rain Man" was a blockbuster success for MGM/UA, opening Dec. 16, 1988 to $7 million at 1,248 theaters ($5,613 per theater). It went on to gross $172.8 million domestically, making it 1988's top grossing film, and took in another $182 million internationally.