The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

Category: Academy Awards

New Oscar rules: Can the Academy curtail awards season excess?

Colinfirth The Oscar silly season has officially begun. That’s the only way to look at the new Motion Picture Academy rules governing how studios and filmmakers can promote their movies during Oscar season, a period that these days lasts longer than winter in Siberia. Being a sports fan, I’ve always thought that it was impossible for any organization to have more arcane rules than the NCAA, but the academy has easily topped that body. Its new regulations are intended to stop Oscar-season excess, but many believe they could easily lead to more over-the-top campaigning than ever.

When it comes to excess, nothing can really top an Oscar shindig like the one Arianna Huffington threw last February at her house for Harvey Weinstein’s “The King’s Speech,” which featured not just the A-list cast and filmmakers from the movie, but real British royalty, notably Earl Charles Spencer, brother of the late Princess Diana. The party generated tons of press and publicity, and was clearly designed to create buzz for the film, which ended up winning the Oscar for best picture.

According to the new rules, a similar party this year could offer just as much pomp and circumstance, just as long as it happened two weeks earlier, before the nominations were announced. Because “The King’s Speech” was already the favorite to win best picture even before the nominations, it seems clear that the party would have had just as much impact if it had been held in mid-January instead of early February.

Instead of truly cracking down on the lavish parties and endless stream of celebrity-studded Q-and-A screenings, the academy has embraced a half-hearted compromise. It has essentially decreed that in terms of parties and celebrity screenings, anything goes until the nominations are announced; but after Jan. 24, mum’s the word. As one awards campaigner complained to the Hollywood Reporter, “If you’re a nominee, you’re basically under house arrest for a month.”

In other words, after the Oscar nominations are announced, all the fun has to stop. Academy members can’t show up at any parties. Members are also prohibited from attending screenings that have receptions with food and beverages. Of course, it raises the question: If it is so important to protect what academy President Tom Sherak calls “the integrity of the Academy Awards process and the distinction of the Oscars” after Jan. 24, why isn’t it worth doing before Jan. 24 too?

The academy argues that there’s a method to its madness. It has to go easy on its prohibitions for social events like a Q&A celebrity screening because it needs to encourage members to see films as they should be seen — on a big screen. With DVD screeners readily available, bare-bones screenings have had poor attendance in recent years. As academy chief operating officer Ric Robertson acknowledges: “It’s a lot easier to get people into theaters if there is going to be a discussion with a director and actor afterwards.”

But at the same time that the academy is saying it wants to prod members to see films in a theatrical setting, it refuses to curtail access to DVD screeners. In fact, it is making seeing movies on a small screen even easier than ever. In its official release Wednesday, it said that the digital distribution of movies to academy members is now acceptable, meaning that the academy has no problem with its members watching nominated films on their computers and iPads.

The academy has every right to try to control the excess that has, in recent years, threatened to overshadow the awards themselves (which in 2012 will take place Feb. 26). The academy clearly is hoping to level the campaign playing field, worrying that the hoopla plays into the hands of the campaigners with the most money — i.e., the big studios. But the academy doesn’t seem to understand how the Oscar game is played today. As any pajama-clad Internet Oscar pundit already knows, the pecking order for the top Oscar films is already firmly in place way before the nominations are announced.

Last year is a perfect example. Long before the nominations were announced, the best picture race had been narrowed down to two films — “The Social Network” and “The King's Speech” — each one propelled by a savvy, big-spending Oscar campaigner, “Social Network” producer Scott Rudin and “King’s Speech” backer Weinstein. If the academy really wanted to level the playing field, it would put the most restrictive rules in place before the nominations, not after.

Of course, if the academy really wanted to bring a bit more sanity to the whole proceeding, it could move the Oscars up a month. The equation being: less campaigning equals less excess.

By the time the nominations arrive, the die is usually cast. And that goes for Oscar excess as well. One-upsmanship triumphed over art a long time ago. The academy’s Robertson deserves a big round of applause for saying that he wants people talking about the work, not “who threw a good party or ran a successful campaign.” But in today’s cutthroat competitive Oscar season, there’s only one thing on everyone’s mind: winning.

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--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Colin Firth photographed with his Oscar at the Governors Ball last February in Los Angeles.

Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times


Eddie Murphy to host Oscars and I'm not delirious about it

Photo: Eddie Murphy in a scene from the 2008 film. "Meet Dave." Credit: 20th Century Fox It’s hard to get excited about Tuesday’s news that Eddie Murphy will host the 2012 Academy Awards, because — how do I put this as respectfully as possible? — his last three live-action movies have been embarrassingly schlocky stinkers. Maybe Oscar producer Brett Ratner thinks he has an ace up his sleeve. Or maybe he just likes hiring his pals; Murphy is, after all, the star of Ratner’s upcoming thriller, “Tower Heist.”

It’s hard to think of a comedian with a career that is more in eclipse than Murphy. After a meteoric rise to stardom, first on “Saturday Night Live,” then in a string of hit films including “48 Hrs.,” “Coming to America,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and “The Nutty Professor,” Murphy has aimed low, and even then often missed, be it with lightweight hits like “Daddy Day Care” or with disasters like “The Adventures of Pluto Nash.”

Murphy has now made three consecutive critical duds: 2007’s “Norbit,” which was a commercial hit but was greeted with derisive reviews, then “Meet Dave” in 2008 and “Imagine That” in 2009, both losers at the box office. Murphy has another film, “A Thousand Words,” which was filmed in summer 2008 but was such a troubled production that it has sat for years; it will finally see a release early in 2012. All he’s had going for him is the animated “Shrek” franchise, where he voices the role of a motor-mouthed donkey.

It’s great to have an African American Oscar host again — the last was in 2005, when Chris Rock tried to bring a little razor-edged humor to the show. Murphy, though, is such an inside-the-Beltway showbiz creature by now that it’s hard to imagine anything shocking or subversive coming out of his mouth.

The last time Murphy showed any of his old live-wire ambition was in 2006 with “Dreamgirls,” where he turned in a dazzling performance and earned himself a supporting actor Oscar nomination. Of course, Murphy, who is infamous in Hollywood for his half-hearted work ethic and sense of entitlement, managed to embarrass himself when he left the Oscar ceremony in a huff immediately after losing to Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”). Murphy didn’t even have the class to stick around and watch his “Dreamgirls” costar Jennifer Hudson win an Oscar of her own.

In the old days, that kind of self-centered head trip would land you in Oscar jail. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is clearly desperate to put on a glitzy show next Feb. 26 in the hopes of wooing viewers that have been tuning out the Oscars with depressing frequency.

To understand the choice of Murphy as host, it’s worth recounting the rationale behind hiring Ratner — director of such populist movies as “Rush Hour” and “X-Men: The Last Stand” — as producer of the Oscar show (along with Don Mischer).

Ratner is seen by the academy brass as someone who knows what’s cool but appreciates old-school showbiz. I’ve known Ratner, 42, since he first came to Hollywood and he has an undeniably high regard for throwback figures like Dino De Laurentiis, Warren Beatty and Robert Evans (who lived at Ratner’s house after Evans’ own home was badly damaged in a fire). At the same time, Ratner also has a well-established affinity for cutting-edge pop culture, going back to his student days at New York University when he was an early initiate in Russell Simmons’ hip-hop rat pack.

Then there’s the diversity issue. This past season, there were no Oscar nominations for any minorities in the major acting, writing or directing categories — a point of embarrassment for the academy. Ratner is white but has a track record of giving great parts to black actors like Chris Tucker and Don Cheadle, and has a kinship with African Americans in his personal life as well, where his gal pals have included Naomi Campbell and Serena Williams. So his selection might be seen as a shrewd way to make the show (if not the actual nominations) more multicultural.

Finally, there’s Ratner’s knack for attracting top-notch talent. Even though he didn’t make a movie for several years after 2007’s costly “Rush Hour 3” (largely because of studio executives’ worries that he lacks focus and work ethic), he made sense as an Oscar producer because the job’s top priority is attracting star wattage. Even when he made a forgettable thriller like 2002’s “Red Dragon,” Ratner managed to assemble a team of first-class actors, including Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson, Harvey Keitel and Mary-Louise Parker.

If Ratner could simply land half of the actors who’ve appeared in his films as presenters, he’d earn his keep. But I find it hard to imagine rank ’n’ file moviegoers being particularly revved up about the idea of a show anchored by Murphy, who feels like a relic from another age.

In the official academy announcement Tuesday, Ratner called Murphy a “comedic genius,” saying he was “one of the greatest and most influential live performers ever.” He said Murphy will “bring excitement, spontaneity and tremendous heart to the show.”

There’s only one problem. Today’s comic geniuses are Ben Stiller, Zach Galifianakis and Seth Rogen, not Murphy, who hasn’t lived up to that billing, live or on screen, in far too many years.

Ratner clearly has an old-school reverence for Murphy, whom he almost joined forces with several years back on a reboot of the “Beverly Hills Cop” franchise. But knowing Ratner’s cultural roots, the Murphy he really loves — the R-rated bad boy from “48 Hrs.” and “Eddie Murphy Raw” — isn’t the guy we’d ever get to see at the Oscars, a show so steeped in PG-style schmaltz and decorum that Rock was never asked back after he brought a little too much irreverence to the proceedings.

Of course, it would be great to see Murphy show up at the Oscars, lean and hungry and eager to blow us away. Maybe he’ll be like a modern-day version of Elvis Presley, who staged a startling comeback in a legendary 1968 NBC TV special after languishing for years in Hollywood, making the same kind of dreadful movies Murphy has made recently.

Stranger things have happened. But the odds are slim. It’s hard to know just what you’ve got until it’s gone, and with comedians like Murphy, once the killer instinct is gone, it ain’t coming back.

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--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Eddie Murphy in a scene from the 2008 film. "Meet Dave." Credit: 20th Century Fox


An honorary Oscar for Oprah: Did April 1 come twice this year?

Oprah It's hard to imagine a more boneheaded move by the motion picture academy than its decision to give an honorary Oscar, in the form of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, to Oprah Winfrey.

It's bad timing, coming less than a month after rumors surfaced that the academy had her atop its list of candidates to host the Academy Awards next year. We can only hope that the academy has now abandoned that idea, because if Winfrey were to host the show after landing an honorary statuette it would look like the worst kind of backroom, back-scratching deal.

Winfrey is best known as a fabulously successful TV host; her film career is sketchy at best. She was nominated for an Oscar for her first role as an actress, in “The Color Purple.” She produced and had a major role in “Beloved,” which earned mixed reviews. Otherwise, she has little connection with the movie side of showbiz, other than a producer credit for “The Great Debaters” and an executive producer credit for “Precious.”

Winfrey has clearly done lots of creditable humanitarian work, but why should she be getting the Hersholt award — perhaps the most prestigious of all honorary Oscars — which in the past has gone to actors, executives and filmmakers with high-profile movie careers? Judging from my email traffic, the prevailing analysis is that the academy was reacting to the loss of face it suffered this year with the total absence of people of color from its Oscar nominations.

Have the academy governors decided to paper over their embarrassment by handing out honorary Oscars to Winfrey and James Earl Jones, who, sadly, has never won an Oscar, despite a long and distinguished career in film? It is a way of guaranteeing that some people of color will be taking home Academy Awards, even if the honors aren't actually presented on Oscar night (they are given out at a dinner Nov. 12).

Winfrey simply doesn't belong in the same company as previous Hersholt winners, who have included such movie icons as Jerry Lewis, Sherry Lansing, Quincy Jones, Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. Even David Wolper, a Hersholt winner from 1985 who was best known for a 40-plus-year career as an A-list TV producer, had a much heftier body of work in film, including producing credits on the original “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and an Oscar-nominated documentary.

Winfrey has done good work in the world, but that's not enough to merit an Oscar. The academy is usually a stickler for insisting that its talent come from the world of film — when it has been looking for a producer to stage the Oscars, it has passed over several top candidates in recent years because they didn't possess enough serious movie credentials.

It should have used the same criteria with Winfrey. If the academy felt duty-bound to honor an African American icon this year, it could have easily picked Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte, who've both done great humanitarian work. With her megawatt personality, Winfrey has all the qualifications to be an Oscar host. But a Hersholt award winner? She is famous for making her audiences feel good, but by being given this award, she is making the academy look bad.

-- Patrick Goldstein

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Photo: Oprah Winfrey, who is being honored with the motion picture academy's Jean Hersholt award, giving a commencement address at Stanford in 2008. Credit: Kimberly White / Reuters


Will 'Harry Potter' finally get some respect from Oscar voters?

Harry_potter I hate to ask a question that I already know the answer to, but if you've been wondering whether "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" is going to win a best picture award next spring, the simple answer is: No. On paper, you'd think the movie would have a real shot at Oscar glory. After all, it's a box-office phenomenon, easily on its way to being one of the biggest blockbusters in recent memory. It's also perhaps the best-reviewed movie of the year so far, having notched a sky-high 97% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, with nearly all the top critics gushing with praise.

Being the last, and arguably the best, in a long series of respected films, you'd think that the academy would let its emotions run wild, as they often do when a similarly beloved old actor--think Peter O'Toole in "Venus," Christopher Plummer in "The Last Station" or Hal Holbrook in "Into the Wild"--has one last shot at the Oscar brass ring.

But sentiment will only get you so far with the academy. Even though this looks like an especially weak year for Oscar contenders, it's hard to imagine the academy suddenly changing its tune when it comes to "Potter" mania. After all, it has shown precious little love for the "Potter" series. Even though the first seven films all scored highly with critics, ranging from a 79% for "Deathly Hallows 1" to a 91% for "The Prisoner of Azkaban," the academy doled out only nine nominations for the first seven films combined--and even then only in the technical categories, such as cinematography, art direction, costumes and visual effects.

Even though the Warner Bros.-produced films have been populated with a murderer's row of stellar British actors and all but one of the movies in the series was written by the noted screenwriter Steve Kloves, the "Potter" series has never earned a major acting, writing or directing nomination. And the films' batting average, when it comes to actual Oscar wins? 0 for 9.

This is why it's wrong-headed to compare "Potter" with the seemingly similar "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which racked up all sorts of Oscar nominations during its run, earning three straight best picture nominations and going 11 for 11 in its final outing, including a best picture victory. "Lord of the Rings" had more cachet with the academy, perhaps because it wasn't seen as a kid's delight, perhaps because its stories were loaded with what voters viewed as weightier mythic significance.

The "Potter" series has also been burdened, in terms of Oscardom, by its first two movies, which were directed by Chris Columbus, who was viewed as a middlebrow filmmaker, not someone whose work could be taken seriously.

If the academy were still playing by its 2009-10 rules, in which 10 movies would qualify as best picture nominees, you could probably reserve a slot for "Deathly Hallows 2." But the academy's new rules require that a film receive at least 5% of first-place votes during the first round of balloting to earn a best picture nomination. That translates into roughly 300 votes from the 6,000-plus member academy.

It's easy to imagine 300 academy voters viewing "Deathly Hallows 2" as a worthy best picture candidate. But would 300 academy voters make the film their first choice? That might be an insurmountable obstacle, even in a not especially competitive year, where the leading early contenders include Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar," Alexander Payne's "The Descendants," the George Clooney-directed political drama "Ides of March" and, ahem, the prospect of something classy from the Harvey Weinstein Oscar hit factory.

When it comes to best picture nods, the "Harry Potter" films are in essentially the same category with Oscar voters as Pixar films. They are great examples of filmmaking craft, even if, for my money, they've never quite displayed the humanity or magic of J.K. Rowling's books. But as Pixar's creative team has discovered, best picture voters don't really reward craft anymore, certainly not craft as practiced by films that are geared to youthful moviegoers. 

The academy is far more appreciative of weighty historical drama ("The King's Speech"), searing antiwar broadsides ("The Hurt Locker") or broad social statements ("Crash") than films that can be dismissed as pure entertainment, like the Pixar offerings or the "Potter" series. That doesn't mean that Warners will give up without a fight. Having made untold hundreds of millions on the series, Warners can surely afford to throw away a little bit of that loot on a classy Oscar campaign.

But will it be money wisely spent? I doubt it. In Hollywood, stereotypes die hard. Once the academy has written your film off as light entertainment, even the most powerful sorcerer in the world would have trouble persuading Oscar voters to change their minds.

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--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Fans at opening night of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. Credit: David Livingston/Getty Images        


Who's the loser in the latest Oscar best picture shake-up?

James_franco After spending two years promoting its effort to enlarge the best picture field to 10 nominees, the motion picture academy finally has acknowledged the obvious--there aren't ever, ever, never-ever going to be 10 serious best picture nominees. The new system, announced Tuesday  night, requires that a film receive at least 5% of the first place votes in the first round of balloting to receive a best picture nomination.

The academy, which usually treats its voting records with CIA-like secrecy, actually admitted that a study it commissioned had determined that if the new 5% rule had been in effect between 2001 and 2008, there would never have been a year when 10 films made the cutoff. Some years there would have been as few as five nominees; other years six, seven, eight or nine. But never 10.

Let's face it. The best picture race is a wonderful marketing tool for films that need the extra Oscar boost to draw adult audiences into the theaters. Studios spend like drunken sailors all fall to nab a best picture nomination, because it often results in a significant box-office bump for an art-house or specialty division picture that otherwise wouldn't be on most moviegoers' radar screens. But having covered the Oscars for way too many years, I can assure you that the vast majority of the best picture nominees are also-rans from the moment the nominations are made public.

The 2011 Oscars were a two-movie horse race between "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network"
from the start. There were only two films in serious contention in 2010--"The Hurt Locker" vs. "Avatar." In 2009, there wasn't a real race at all--"Slumdog Millionaire" was an obvious winner months before the nominations were even announced. "No Country for Old Men" was a consensus pick early on, with only a smattering of competition from "Juno." In 2007, "The Departed" pulled away from the field early on. There was a lively horse race in 2006, but it was always between two films--"Crash" and "Brokeback Mountain." Ditto for 2005, which had a two-movie rivalry--"Million Dollar Baby" vs. "The Aviator."

I could go on, but you get the point. By the time the academy announces its best picture nominees, the field is already pretty well separated into one or two serious contenders--and a host of films that are happy just to hear their names called out, knowing that having that "best picture nominee" label on their ads will give them some juice with reluctant moviegoers. So what the academy has done won't really have any  major impact on the best picture race, simply on the number of films that might benefit from the Oscar pedigree.

Who does it hurt the most? No one knows for sure, but I'd guess that the smaller indie films are the ones most likely to be left out, since they are the ones that have the biggest uphill struggle to persuade Oscar voters to watch their screeners. The academy wouldn't reveal how many films received more than 5% of first-place best picture votes in 2011 or 2010, the two years that have featured ten nominees. But under the new rule, I'd bet that there might have only been eight 2011 best picture nominees, with "127 Hours" and "Winter's Bone" not making the cut. In 2010, there might have only been seven nominees, with "An Education," "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" and "District 9" not receiving enough first-place votes.

Even if it turned out that some of the big, successful studio films were left out--like "The Blind Side" or "Inception"--it would hardly be a disaster, since those films didn't need the best picture stamp of approval anyway, having already made their money in the marketplace long before the nominations were announced. If anyone tells you this will hurt a deserving film, please advise them to take a chill pill. It's simply the academy's way of thinning out the pack, pushing aside a couple of also-rans and helping its members focus on the real priority in Oscar life, which is reading all of the breathless media speculation about who's up and who's down.

Come Feb. 26, when someone opens the best picture envelope, there will still only be one winner's name inside.

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-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: James Franco, left, with Anne Hathaway, the co-hosts of the 83rd Academy Awards. Credit: Bob D'Amico/ABC



Oy vey! Showbiz pundits are already hyping Oscar season

Leonardo_decaprio Go ahead and gag with a spoon. It's not even officially summer yet, but the Hollywood Reporter's Gregg Kilday has already weighed in with a dreary thumbsucker about the early front-runners for 2012 Oscar stardom. I'm with the unnamed Oscar consultant who groaned: "I've been trying not to think about it." If there were such a thing as Oscar porn, this would be it, as Kilday runs though all of the serious and not-so-serious contenders months before anyone has seen a frame of footage (unless you actually believe that Terence Malick's "Tree of Life" is really a "must-see" film with stodgy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters).

The worst thing about these kind of stories isn't that they feel like naked hustles for early advertising, but that they come chock-full of so much obligatory conventional wisdom. When you start prognosticating about movies before you've seen most of them, you end up touting the most obvious films, not the pleasant surprises or left-field hits.

So Kilday ends up promoting Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" as a legitimate best picture contender even though academy voters have shown virtually no interest in the previous entries in the "Potter" series. He also gives a plug to J.J. Abrams' "Super 8," saying it's positioned itself as the "populist" entry on the best picture ballot because it was designed as a tribute to Steven Spielberg hits "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" and "Jaws," which both earned best picture nominations.

Kilday also touts Leonardo DiCaprio, arguing that "every year, a consensus develops that at least one performer or filmmaker is 'due,' " with DiCaprio benefiting this year from his role as J. Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar." And for sizzle factor, Kilday also hypes the rivalry between Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein, who both have supposed contenders in the race, even though Kilday acknowledges that Weinstein hasn't actually dated any of his prestige releases yet.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. Wherever you look, crystal ball gazing is in fashion. In politics, the cable news networks have been full of breathless punditry about the presidential race oh-so-many months before the New Hampshire primary voters arrive at their polling places. In sports, the pro basketball writers were already placing bets on who'd make it to the 2012 NBA finals before LeBron James had even left the loser's locker room after this weekend's decisive championship game. 

The bad news for the movie business is that this sort of nonstop forecasting is exactly what has wiped out any of the anticipation we might have for the Oscar race. Having to imagine an academy season that never ends is exactly the kind of buzz kill that makes you want to tune out the Oscars on a regular basis.

--Patrick Goldstein         

Photo: Leonardo DiCaprio playing Frank Wheeler in the film "Revolutionary Road."

Credit: Francois Duhamel/Dreamworks


Life after NBC: Is there an Oscar in Dick Ebersol's future?

Dick_eberole This is the time of year when the Motion Picture Academy is being flooded with resumes from all sorts of film producers who for some reason have an insane urge to produce the Academy Awards. It's a thankless job, since the show's ratings have been spiraling downward in recent years and the media, after it's done blaming the hosts, usually takes aim on the producer. And -- oh, yeah -- the Academy is so resistant to change that the vast majority of the show is untouchable, so the producer can only fiddle with about 8% of the broadcast.

All that said, if I were an Academy board member, I'd be bombarding president Tom Sherak with phone calls, saying -- didn't you read the papers last Friday? Dick Ebersol is available! If there were ever a producer born to wrestle the Oscars into the 21st century, it's Ebersol, one of the most magnetic talents in modern-day broadcasting who just resigned as head of NBC Sports after producing the last eight Olympics.

As my colleagues Joe Flint and Meg James noted in their story, Ebersol had a flair for creating excitement and drama while also understanding how to handle entertainment talent, being the co-creator with Lorne Michaels of "Saturday Night Live" and a key behind-the-scenes negotiator in NBC's efforts to return Jay Leno to late night after the network's prime-time experiment flopped. 

Ebersol would be a natural to helm the Oscars, especially because of his Olympics coverage, which created an emotional bond between viewers and a host of often obscure athletes by crafting emotional featurettes delving into the triumphs and tragedies in their personal lives. This is exactly what the Oscars should be doing so that its audience might actually have a rooting interest in the unknowns who are up for honors in the best art direction or best sound editing categories.

Ironically, Ebersol is a long shot to earn an Oscar producing nod, because he's -- gasp -- simply a brilliant TV producer. Despite the fact that the Oscars are a TV show, the Academy selects a producer, or producers, for the show based on their film background. From the Academy's point of view, if you don't have an armful of movie credits, you don't have the necessary gravitas to be an Oscars producer.

They've never realized that they have a ridiculously outdated way of looking at the Oscars. It is a TV show and it is judged, in terms of its success, by its entertainment value and its TV ratings. Hence the need for a bona fide TV producer. At the very least, the Academy should hire Ebersol and team him up with a classy film producer who has the kind of Rolodex necessary to woo big-name talent as presenters and hosts. But the Academy should leave the big picture thinking to Ebersol, who is the kind of innovative, strategic thinker who could bring some verve and vitality to what has become a dreary, self-congratulatory event.

When Ebersol left NBC last week, one of his old competitors, ex-CBS Sports Chairman Neil Pilson, said "[Dick] had a lot of Hollywood in him." In other words, Ebersol is a showman, which is just what Hollywood's oldest institution desperately needs right now.

-- Patrick Goldstein  

Photo: Former NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol, right, with Boston Red Sox Chairman Tom Werner. Credit: Adam Hunger / Reuters


The Oscars take another dive: Can anyone save this sinking ship?

Colin_irth The Academy Awards are in trouble. Trouble with a capital T, as they say in “The Music Man.”

This year's show was roundly panned by critics, and viewership was down 10%, with an even bigger drop in the key 18-49 age category. It's not that people don't want to watch award shows: In January, the Grammys had their highest audience in 11 years. The Emmys, the Golden Globes and even MTV's Video Music Awards were all up over the previous year. But this year's Oscars, which were supposed to be new, young and fizzy, fell flat like New Coke. At 83, the Oscars definitely need some Viagra.

On the Web, most of the negative buzz focused on Anne Hathaway and James Franco, the Oscars' youngest-ever host combo. (One of the raging post-show debates revolved around the question: Was Franco stoned or just pretending?) But hosts are the least of the Oscars' troubles.

The issue wasn't the crop of movies, either. The five best picture favorites — those movies whose filmmakers were up for best director — were sizable hits. “Inception” and “Toy Story 3,” also among the best picture nominees, were box-office behemoths. People do tune in to watch the Oscars when they've seen the nominated movies. But even the 2006 telecast, which had the five lowest-grossing best picture nominees in recent history, had higher numbers than this year's show.

The real problem is that the Oscars are like a thriller where everyone knows who the killer is before the movie has even begun.

The Academy Awards have spawned a six-month-long orgy of air-headed punditry and marketing hype. In September, with the arrival of the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, the lineup of Oscar contenders was already being sliced and diced. By early December, you could go to virtually any Oscar pundit website and find an accurate forecast of the 10 best picture nominees. By the time the guild awards were finished in early February, the suspense was long gone — even a casual fan could've easily picked the vast majority of winners of the major awards. And when Franco and Hathaway took the stage, not only did everyone know who was going to win, they had already heard their acceptance speeches at any number of lesser shows.

Today's Oscars are the news you already know. These days, no one waits for news, which is why no one watches network news broadcasts or reads newsmagazines anymore.

The motion picture academy's board isn't totally clueless — they know they've got big problems. But like oh-so-many boards of directors, they're a serious-minded but clubby group of insiders who've only made cosmetic nips and tucks when major surgery is needed.

The academy has resisted the one fix that could change the downward ratings trajectory: moving the show to the first half of January, which would give it a chance of regaining control of its own destiny. All the other award shows — starting with the Golden Globes — owe their clout to the fact that they are viewed as bellwethers for the Oscar race. If the Oscars leapfrogged the Globes, the show would have an immediacy it hasn't had in years.

One proposal that makes sense is organizing a World Series-style awards week in early-to-mid-January. The four major guild awards could unfold on consecutive nights from Wednesday through Saturday, and the week could culminate with the Oscars on Sunday. Instead of the slow drip-drip of award show results, the predictive guild prizes would come at such a dizzying pace that the Oscars might regain some element of surprise, since no one would have time to do much pondering over all the other shows before the big night.

The academy is worried about technology issues, because an earlier Oscar date would require members to vote online. That would provide instant results but open up the possibility of WikiLeaks-style mayhem. Of course, it seems hard to believe that the industry that developed such sophisticated 3-D technology and video on demand couldn't find a way to keep the academy's sainted Oscar ballots secret.

The academy has another bullet to bite: It has to acknowledge that it's putting on a TV show. As one studio executive told me this week: “We're supposed to be in the entertainment business, yet we can't even put on an entertaining show.” If the academy was willing to bump its Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award to a separate ceremony, reducing the peerless Francis Ford Coppola to an embarrassingly wordless cameo while other winners got to thank their agents and managers, then it should be pragmatic enough to move its technical awards like makeup and sound mixing to another ceremony, with taped highlights on the Oscar telecast.

That would leave room for something the show has been missing in spades — an emotional bond with its audience. Just as NBC tapes featurettes introducing obscure athletes to Olympic viewers, the academy needs to give casual fans a rooting interest in the back stories of the gifted artists who are up for major awards but aren't household names.

Whether it's a supporting actress, screenwriter or documentary filmmaker, if we got a window into their world earlier in the show, maybe we'd stick around to see how they did when their category came along. If the nominees are willing to endure months of mindless cocktail chatter with showbiz journalists to boost their Oscar chances, then surely they'd spend a day with an Oscar TV crew taping a background story.

This isn't exactly rocket science. Any half-smart marketing expert could offer the academy a dozen more bright ideas. But it's time for the academy to stop dithering and start reinventing a show that bears an unfortunate resemblance to a dinosaur — very big and on its way to extinction.

--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Colin Firth after winning the Oscar for actor in a leading role at the 83rd Academy Awards. Credit: Chris Carlson/Associated Press        

 

 


Oscars: Most embarrassing moments -- so many to choose from!

Melissa_leo This was the year my son, who is 12, decided to watch the Oscars with me. He's normally much more of a fan of the Grammys--which at least has a little hip-hop street cred--but he'd seen a few of the Oscar movies and was curious to figure out what all the hoopla was about. Well, all that curiosity lasted for about 90 minutes. Then, clearly bored, he left the room, saying he had to--gasp--do his homework. As for the show itself, he asked, "Do you really have to watch the whole thing?"

My theory is that he was turned off by all of the winners who thanked their parents, since at 12, the idea of parents being even remotely cool is a horrible prospect to consider. And it was weird to see how much parental love was in the air. In fact, so many winners thanked their parents that I almost thought I was watching the Country Music Awards, although at the CMAs most of the winners give an extra shout-out to God, not to their agents and publicists. The show itself was pretty snoozy. You know things have gone badly when the most endearing acceptance speech of the night was given by a boyishly, frizzy-haired winner of the best live-action short, who also thanked his mother.

As for the most embarrassing moments:

--Having academy boss Tom Sherak and ABC's Anne Sweeney eating up two minutes of airtime bragging about the academy extending their deal with the network. Who cares a fig about that?

--Of all the people in the world, why did the academy pick Oprah to introduce the best documentary feature? Tell me, exactly how many of those documentary filmmakers have ever appeared on her show?

--Why was the orchestra playing Aaron Sorkin off the stage halfway through his acceptance speech, drowning out the man who would clearly be the most articulate person to take the stage all night long? 

--If the academy wants the winner's speeches to be shorter, couldn't they simply tell everyone that they can't thank their agents, managers, publicists, fitness instructors and any other support personnel? It's gotten so bad I was worried that one of the winners was going to thank the reporter who did the nice puff piece in Entertainment Weekly too. 

--What exactly was Billy Crystal doing on stage, trying to milk a few laughs from the crowd? As Ken Levine wonderfully put it: "Watching Billy Crystal deliver that painfully desperate monologue was like looking at the nude photos of Nancy Sinatra in Playboy that she took when she was 54."

--I'm betting $100 that the academy gave that extra special "in memoriam" tribute to Lena Horne because--whoops!--the academy was feeling guilty that it didn't nominate any black people for Oscars this year.  

--Kirk Douglas is a movie god, but after having suffered a stroke, his speech is so slurred it's often impossible to understand him. Did the academy really think it was a good idea to make him a presenter, especially when his ad-libs clearly unhinged poor Melissa Leo so much that she shot off an F-bomb when she took the stage?

--In the midst of his otherwise coherent acceptance speech, did Christian Bale actually forget his wife's name? Or was he just really choked up?

--And maybe I'm just sensitive about this because I'm a writer, but wasn't it a little embarrassing for all those actors--Colin Firth excepted--who managed to thank their team of publicists and agents, but not the person who wrote the script that propelled them to Oscar glory?

--Patrick Goldstein 

Photo: Melissa Leo after receiving the supporting actress trophy from Kirk Douglas at the Oscars.

Credit: Gabriel Bouys / AFP/Getty Images

 


'The King's Speech': The triumph of Hollywood conservative values

Ksp
As one essayist wrote not long ago, it's become an article of faith in Conservative America that Hollywood is a “collection of hopeless la-la-land liberals — or worse, an elitist gaggle of heartland-bashing snobs.” Conservatives have routinely ridiculed Oscar movies for attacking the military (“Avatar”), promoting homosexuality (“Milk” and “Brokeback Mountain”) and depicting corporate executives as evil villains (“The Constant Gardener” and “Syriana”).

So it must've been quite a shock to watch all the la-la-liberals at the Oscars Sunday night honoring their elders and celebrating tradition on a show where the first clip of the night was from “Gone With the Wind” and the two guys who may have had the most screen time were Kirk Douglas and Bob Hope. Outside of a couple of lesbian jokes and one tiny barb directed at Wall Street from documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson, the awards were drearily free of controversy, outrage or anything remotely resembling lefty sanctimony.

On the other hand, the Academy Awards were true to the spirit of this past year's movies. As this year's show demonstrated, Hollywood isn't so easily stereotyped. It may be a town full of liberals, but when it comes to its most prestigious awards show, the most exalted statuettes went to films that espouse conservative values. “The King's Speech,” which won four Oscars, including the climactic one for best picture, is a profoundly conservative film, paying tribute to King George VI, an aristocratic English monarch who, humbled by a humiliating stutter, develops a deep friendship with a commoner, his speech therapist.

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