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This story first appeared in the March 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Are the Oscars too broken to be fixed?
You’d certainly think so, judging from the depressing performance Feb. 22 at the Dolby Theatre. With a flat host in Neil Patrick Harris, a Las Vegas-style production and an interminable pace — not to mention a bunch of A-list stars who went suspiciously missing in action — the 87th Academy Awards could have put even the most die-hard fan to sleep. The 16 percent drop in ratings was deserved and could have been a much bigger slide. This might not go down as the very worst Oscarcast in history (the Academy can thank Snow White or James Franco for that), but it won’t add a feather to the caps of producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, either.
When a show goes so wrong (and has for so long), it’s not just the result of a few tactical errors. It’s not even because of alleged strong differences of opinion between the producers and host Harris (the rumor mill started even before the show had ended). Rather, it’s the culmination of problems that have been festering for years. There’s an increasing gulf between the moviegoing public’s tastes and the Academy’s. And there’s a decreasing relation between the artfulness of the Oscar films and their box-office performance.
Heaven knows the Academy is aware of this and has tried to make changes before. Why else would it have created a separate evening for the honorary Oscars and beefed up the number of best picture nominees from five to as many as 10? These moves were made to appeal to the very audience that has stayed away from most of this year’s nominated films. It’s a simple fact: The audience the Academy hopes will tune into the Oscars has little to no interest in Oscar-type films.
But in all of its changes, the Academy has neglected to change the actual show. And it desperately needs to keep these viewers if it wants to maintain its lucrative contract with ABC. So what should it do? Each year, after the show, the Academy’s board of governors conducts a postmortem in which it tries to answer that question. This year, whoever’s in charge of the coroner’s report should wield an Uzi, not a scalpel.
Why can the Grammys satisfy its audience when fewer people are buying music? How come the Golden Globes can deliver more stars than the film business’ most prestigious institution? And why can’t two of the most experienced producers in town make their show run on time?
It’s time for a shake-up, perhaps starting with these six suggestions:
1. Pay the talent.
Right now the host gets a small honorarium. (It might be a year’s salary for many, but it basically covers their lunch bill.) So it’s time for a real pay hike. If Tina Fey or Jon Stewart or Ellen DeGeneres are too busy, a million bucks or two could change their minds. Pay top talent to perform on the show, too.
2. Learn from the NFL.
The Oscars should be the Super Bowl of movie promos. The Academy has loosened rules on studios buying ads during the broadcast, but the Oscars should take it a step further: Allow studios to debut exclusive footage of films during the show. Far more fans would tune in for a first look at Star Wars: The Force Awakens than they would to see if Birdman wins.
3. Cut the show.
A 2½-hour event would be brisk and snappy, eliminating bad bits, worse numbers, the Academy president’s speech and “tributes.” Why did Jennifer Hudson sing “I Can’t Let Go” after instead of during the In Memoriam segment? Pure bloat.
4. Set up a studio task force.
The majors have a vested interest in promoting their new films, and so do the talent agencies. Start using their top executives to help improve the Oscars. The Academy should be working with the likes of Brad Grey, Donna Langley, Harvey Weinstein and Bryan Lourd to bring stars to the show and upcoming movies. There’s no reason why the Oscars shouldn’t be a place where top stars want to perform or present.
5. Get an A-list director.
Every great film is the vision of a genuine auteur, and there’s no reason an awards show shouldn’t be the same. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if Alejandro G. Inarritu or Steven Spielberg took the reins? Think what Zhang Yimou could do with the Oscars after he made magic at the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Each show would be different and full of surprises.
6. Spread the love.
It’s apparently a nonstarter to relegate technical awards to a preshow ceremony. But it’s unconscionable that viewers have to wait three hours for the big baubles to be presented. Scatter the acting and directing awards. Surprise us!
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