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The following story appears in the upcoming issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine on newsstands Thursday.
For Feb. 27’s Oscars telecast, the goal was to attract a younger audience without losing the loyal viewers who make a date with the Academy every year. So producers Bruce Cohen and Don Mischer selected youthful hosts in James Franco and Anne Hathaway, expanded digital efforts like enlisting some of the nominees’ moms to tweet and added a behind-the-scenes Web camera — all designed to appeal to the cyber generation.
None of it worked. The overall audience fell by about 9%, and the age of the average viewer actually edged up slightly to 50.6 years, continuing a decade-long rise from 44.5 years in 2001, according to an analysis by Horizon Media.
“You can say we failed,” says Tom Sherak, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “I’d say we still got 38 million people. If we didn’t get younger like we wanted to, then when we sit down for next year to pick the producer and host, it is what we will try to accomplish.”
Still, adds Sherak, the biggest factor will be the films that are nominated.
“What happens is very much impacted by the movies in any given year,” he says. “We didn’t have an Avatar or a Titanic this year. We had some really good movies that did a lot of business, but it is what it is. Next year, if there is a huge movie, you’ll see more people.”
Reviews of the show — and especially the hosts — were mostly negative, but Sherak won’t blame Franco or Hathaway. He says they did exactly what the producers and the Academy asked them to do. Still, Sherak admits, “the chemistry seemed to be off” between the young actors.
“The problem is, in the past when you have a comic, that comic can play off what happens on the show,” Sherak continues. “I think that was missing. I think they were doing their job. Franco is a very charming guy, but sometimes you need a comic to make fun of things.”
Therein lies a larger, somewhat structural problem with the way the Oscars are put together, says a high-ranking Academy member who asked not to be named: “The choice of hosts is a convoluted affair. It is left completely to the producers and president. There is no discussion with the board of governors.
“A lot of us said Franco, who is a good actor, is the wrong guy when it was announced,” the Academy member continues. “We questioned the TV value of both hosts, and it turned out to be right.”
A committee deciding on the hosts is a “bad idea,” according to Sherak.
“What you have to keep in mind is, when you hire producers, you have to have confidence they are going to put on the show you are looking for,” he says. “Basically Don and Bruce put on the show they promised.”
Sherak shrugs about not being able to please everybody. “Go back and look at what these same critics have written: ‘The Academy is afraid to take chances’ and ‘if the Academy doesn’t get younger, they’ll be off the air.’ So when the producers came and said, ‘We’ve got an idea,’ we said, ‘Great.’ We tried something.
“Bottom line is, you’ve got to trust your producers,” Sherak continues. “You can’t do this by committee. You will never have everybody agree. There is no Bob Hope anymore.”
That might be debatable. The real problem apparently is that no one with the stature Hope had in his day is willing to take the risk of hosting. Sherak wouldn’t name names, but sources say several stars turned down the opportunity this year, including Will Smith, Robert Downey Jr. and others.
As for Franco and Hathaway, Sherak says: “Give them an A for guts to get up in front of everyone. People don’t want to do it. They don’t want to take the chance of hurting themselves. In today’s world especially, it is vicious.”
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