Can the Oscars ever become hipper than the Super Bowl halftime show?
As amazing as it might sound, the venerable Academy has, until now, always hired movie producers to oversee one of the most-watched TV shows of the year. And while movie producers are good at many things -- I mean, just ask 'em, since they're a little insecure these days, in an era in which studios have been cutting back so many producer deals that even the head of the producers' guild doesn't have a studio deal anymore -- asking a movie producer to produce a TV extravaganza is a little bit like asking someone who has been producing a sitcom to produce "The Hangover 2."
But the Academy has finally listened to reason. Or, if I were to put it less modestly, it finally listened to -- ahem -- me. As I wrote after the oh-so-dull Oscar telecast earlier this year: "I've said it before and I'll say it again -- what the Oscar telecast needs is real TV producers, since they actually know how to put on a TV show. My first choice remains Tommy Schlamme and Aaron Sorkin, since they bring built-in writing and directing talent with them, but there is plenty of other savvy TV talent to choose from. It's time the academy realized that a few patches here and some fresh paint there won't do the trick. This is a show that needs a complete makeover."
I'm not saying that the Academy actually read my column and jumped right up and found itself a TV guy, since I'm not sure that the Academy elders listen to anyone, even someone as persuasive and influential as Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has been complaining about the show's stodginess for years without getting much in the way of results. But the deed has been done, and it's a good deed indeed.
The Academy has brought in Don Mischer, who will direct the show and produce it with Bruce Cohen, best known as the producer of such films as "American Beauty" and "Milk." Mischer is the TV guy. It's almost an understatement to call him a veteran. He's been around so long that he actually directed an episode of "Laugh-In," a show that was on the air more than 30 years ago. As a producer and director, Mischer has directed virtually every big-ticket TV event known to man, including the Emmys, the Tonys, innumerable Super Bowl halftime shows, the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the Obama Inaugural Celebration, Motown's 25th-anniversary celebration and the Heisman Trophy Award special, not to mention "Barbara Mandrell's Christmas: A Family Reunion."
With Mischer at the helm, the Oscars won't exactly become the hippest show in town. He's clearly an old-school guy who will retain the show's old-school shaken-but-not-stirred vibe. But we can expect next year's Oscar telecast to feel as smooth as butter, meaning that we shouldn't have the kind of disastrous ending the show had last year, when everything moved along at such a snail's pace that when we finally got to the Big Enchilada -- the best picture Oscar -- everyone suddenly got the bum's rush, as if the Oscars had a curfew or something. With Mischer on board, the pacing should be better and the look of the show should improve, since he's too much of an experienced hand to let anyone design a stage set that forces presenters to walk down an endless set of stairs (eating up valuable air time) to get to the microphone.
But there's one thing Mischer can't solve, something that even the sometimes clueless Academy clearly realizes has become perhaps the biggest millstone around the Oscar telecast's neck......
It's the date of the show. Word filtered out after a recent Academy board of governors meeting that the Academy elders had a lively debate over the idea of moving the show up, perhaps as early as sometime in mid- to late January.
It won't happen in 2011. The Academy Awards are solidly anchored to Feb. 27, and it's too late to move off the date. But what about in 2012? You can make a case for keeping the awards where they are, but only because of tradition -- that's how we've always done it -- and because of technology -- how could we possibly get voters to see the films early enough to cast ballots in time for a January show if many of the films don't open until sometime in December?
But the case for moving the show up into January is enormously compelling. First and foremost, it would help the Oscars' ratings, which, despite a modest bump upward this year, have been in free fall for years. It's not hard to understand the problem. Award shows in general have lost their appeal with a younger audience that has grown up with both "American Idol," which is far more participatory and has the addictiveness of a juicy telenovela, and MTV awards shows, which are crammed with the kind of flashy outrageousness that make the Oscars look, by comparison, like a televised broadcast of a United Nations Security Council meeting.
To make things worse, in an endlessly superficial awards season, the Oscars have become the caboose. They are the last movie award show of the season, a rear-end slot that has robbed the show of much of its luster, since by the time moviegoers have sat through the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards, the People's Choice Awards and all of the other pseudo-awards shows, its hard to rouse much enthusiasm for one more three-hour-plus telecast, especially when you realize that you're going to hear almost all of the same actors and filmmakers give almost all of the same speeches one more time.
The Super Bowl has retained its ratings because there's only one Super Bowl. The Oscars are getting drubbed because there are too many ersatz Oscar pretenders out there stealing the show's thunder. Moving the date up would not only give the Oscars a new lease on life, but it also would wreak havoc on the Globes -- the Oscars' most formidable competitor -- who would no longer have the prized January slot all to itself.
It won't be easy. The Academy would have to set a new 2012 date well before this year's show so that the studios that are releasing potential Oscar-winning films could move up their release dates as well. We'd probably end up with a host of Oscar-type films coming out in November instead of December so that Academy voters could see them in time to get their ballots in by the end of the holidays.
It would definitely put a crimp in the now-traditional mailing of film screeners to 6,000 Academy members, since studios would have justifiable piracy concerns if DVDs were available before the films were even in theatrical release. If Academy voters were all under 30, almost everything could be done with a secure downloading system, but older Academy members have trouble enough working their DVD players without being asked to do anything that might involve connecting computers to their TVs. I know the day will come when Academy members will watch awards contenders on their iPads, but for now, it would be considered a sacrilege, especially by filmmakers who are already unhappy enough over the peculiar Academy practice of allowing voters to pick the year's best movie based on how it plays on their TV sets.
The real point here is simple: Once again, the Academy needs to embrace change to remain relevant in a fast-changing media landscape. Change comes in many packages, some big, some small. But for now, having already made one long overdue move -- hiring a TV producer to produce a TV show -- the Academy needs to move ahead, at full speed, with the idea of pushing its show up into January. It will cut back the overlong awards season and give the Oscars a new feeling of freshness. But most important, it just might improve the Oscars' long-term odds of survival.
Photo: Don Mischer, winning an award for best director at the annual Directors Guild of America Awards in January. Credit: Dan Steinberg / Associated Press