Academy makes a safe pick for its Oscar show
If you've been watching the National League championship series, seeing the Dodgers take it on the chin from the Phillies, you probably know what it means when a batter takes an emergency swing. It's what you do when you've got two strikes, the pitcher is throwing 98 mph fastballs and you're just trying to fight off a pitch and stay alive.
When it comes to emergency swings, no one took a better one Tuesday than motion picture academy President Tom Sherak. A serious baseball fan himself, having spent far more time in the past 20 years with Tommy Lasorda than with Martin Scorsese, Sherak picked Bill Mechanic and Adam Shankman to produce the 82nd Academy Awards telecast, which airs March 7 on ABC.
Neither man was at the top of anyone's list of potential producer candidates, but the hour was getting late -- last year's producers, Larry Mark and Bill Condon, signed on for the job in September. As people inside the selection process had discovered, many of the top prospects for the job -- starting with director Rob Marshall -- were too busy making or prepping their own movies.
It's one of the brutal realities of picking an Oscar producer. The people you want the most, who could possibly transform the stodgy show into a dazzling visual extravaganza, are in demand, with careers at the top of their trajectory. The people who actually have the time to assume the crushing workload of staging the industry's most high-profile celebratory event are -- ahem -- more likely to be able to clear their calendar.
The flaw in the academy's selection process is pretty obvious -- they keep picking film producers to produce a TV show. If I were trying to spiff up one of the world's oldest, and in many ways most outdated, televised awards ceremony, I'd hire someone who's actually -- gasp -- produced a great TV show. It would open up a far broader spectrum of possible candidates. An obvious first choice: Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme, the gifted creative team behind "The West Wing" and "Studio 360." With Sorkin, you'd get someone who could actually write some cutting-edge sketches and comic material; with Schlamme, you'd get a director-producer with a keen eye for exciting television.
I'm not saying that Mechanic or Shankman are an embarrassment. Shankman is an in-demand Hollywood filmmaker, best known for directing such frothy entertainment as "Bedtime Stories" and "Hairspray." Mechanic heads Pandemonium Films, which made "Coraline," a popular animated film released earlier this year. He's also close with Sherak, a relationship that dates back to the two men's service at 20th Century Fox, where Mechanic was chairman of the studio when Sherak was heading up marketing and distribution.
Still, it's a safe, emergency-swing style choice. More than anything else, it reflects the fact that the show put on by last year's producer team was a hit with many industry insiders, in large part because it earned the telecast its first major ratings bump in years. With Shankman's background as a dancer, choreographer and director of musical films, it's a pretty safe bet that the show won't stray far from last year's formula. In fact, the safest bet of all is that Hugh Jackman will be offered a return engagement as the show's host. Whether Jackman takes the gig or not is anyone's guess. But having another producer with roots in musical theater makes it obvious that the show won't stray far from the formula that produced solid ratings a year ago.
Am I excited? Overcome with anticipation? Not especially. As devoted readers may remember, I thought last year's show was dreary and dull, with too little innovation and too many kitschy music numbers. In an odd way, that makes me something of a traditionalist. If the academy isn't willing to blow up the whole awards show template and start fresh, then the best choice for a host would be a comedian, since the best way to break the tedium of three hours of acceptance speeches is by supplying a few good laughs.
But last year Jackman earned plenty of insider respect by getting the numbers. And in an industry that worships box office, even at Oscar time, the numbers will get the nod every time.
Photo of Oscar statuettes from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences