MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

‘Tis the Oscar Season

December, once cherished for its singular place on the religious calendar, now serves primarily as a month-long orgy of conspicuous consumption and glorification of dubious cultural achievements. A tiding of comfort and joy has been drowned out by gifting concerns, and, in in the western precincts of Los Angeles, at least, anxiety over box-office tallies, awards nominations and top-10 lists.

Anyone at a loss for something at a loss for something to between Christmas and New Year’s Day can drop by the local megaplex to catch Opening Weekend presentations of The Spirit, Bedtime Stories, Valkyrie, Marley & Me, Last Chance Harvey, Waltz With Bashir and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Holdovers include Nothing But the Truth, The Wrestler, Yes Man, The Wrestler, Seven Pounds and The Tale of Despereaux.Those who live somewhere other than New York, Los Angeles and other “select” locations will have to content themselves with such leftovers as Australia, Four Christmases, Bolt, Quantum of Solace and Twilight.

Now, some folks would consider this to be an embarrassment of riches … others, holiday gridlock.

Hollywood doesn’t mind offending movie lovers in flyover markets. No matter how often the theory has been disproven, the guiding principle remains, “If we show it they will come.”

With rare exceptions, though, pictures that flop in limited release in December rarely catch a second breath in January. By the time the high-profile pictures go wide, there’s hardly any money left for advertising and marketing; the critics’ favorable opinions, if any, have grown stale; and the talk-show circuit has been repopulated by the teenage stars of movies destined for release over the Martin Luther King weekend.

Ten years removed from the slow-to-develop Titanic juggernaut, word-of-mouth tends to favor movies more humbly scaled. This year, The Wrestler and Slumdog Millionaire likely will benefit most from buzz and megaplex fatigue. It takes a lot of persuasion to convince Americans to sample arthouse fare, but, once the negative inertia is reversed, low-budget films stand to win friends and make big killings.

It’s no longer unusual to see big holiday turkeys – no matter how well they do on the critics’ lists – disappear completely from view after the Golden Globes and announcement of Academy Award finalists. The fewer the nominations, the sooner an under-performer will show up in DVD and Blu-ray. In some cases, that window has been reduced from 4-6 months, to 8-10 weeks.

For their part, exhibitors have long clamored for a more balanced distribution schedule, one that would accommodate grown-ups, teens and kiddies simultaneously. Typically, they’ve been ignored. Instead, by moving up Academy Awards a month, the studios gave the theater owners less time to exploit nominated pictures and make room for the populist fare that arrives in January and February. Gridlock isn’t limited to Christmas in limited markets. Then, too, by the time the Oscar and Independent Spirit awards unspool, television viewers will already have had their fill of awards shows, a trend reflected in plummeting ratings for all such telecasts.

Still, hope springs eternal, and the first 90 minutes of the Oscar-cast garner huge numbers. The audience worldwide is nowhere close to the one billion viewers AMPAS once would have us believe, but, nonetheless, impressive.

That’s because, as much as Americans say their sympathies lie with the little guy, they enjoy the pomp and circumstance associated with pageants and championships. If nothing else, we relish the opportunity to take potshots at the hosts, nominees, their spouses, production numbers and acceptance speeches. Winners are envied more than respected, unless, of course, they speak in foreign tongues and subtitles … in which case, they’re despised.

Only a few sporting events each year engender such passion, but not without reservations. Everything shuts down for the Super Bowl, but that’s because everyone has money on it; ditto the NCAA Final Four, thanks to office pools; the Stanley Cup belongs to Canada, no matter who wins it; the NBA playoffs are fun to watch, but, absent Michael Jordan, eminently forgettable; and the World Series hasn’t been the same since free-agency. No one likes the BCS’ method of determining a national college-football championship, if only because it’s cumbersome and inconclusive.

Likewise, only three entertainment award shows resonate beyond the night of the ceremony itself — the Grammys, Emmys and Oscars – and, increasingly, for reasons related less to rewarding achievement than to such peripherals as fashion, star sightings, the opening monologues and the possibility someone will mess up and say something unscripted. The Golden Globes only really matter to Hollywood publicists, 80-plus HFPA freeloaders, NBC and the Beverly Hilton’s catering staff. None of the awards shows engineered by Dick Clark Productions can be trusted; the People’s Choice Awards, which benefit from by coming before the Globes, feel even less genuine; and the MTV Movie Awards are pure theater.

It’s also possible Americans are suffering from reality fatigue, and even the major awards shows suffer by comparison to American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, The Amazing Race and Survivor, which combine drama, suspense and other cheap thrills every night of the week. The contestants in these and such niche competitions as Iron Chef and America‘s Top Modelassume the roles of hero and villain, underdog and prohibitive favorite, amateur and professional, upstart and veteran. (Cloris Leachman … dance? Top that, AMPAS.) As scripted, staged, unrealistic and manipulative as the reality shows have become, the participants resemble real human beings in ways today’s generation of superstars don’t.

In the run-up to the Academy Award nominations, those of us who comment on popular culture for a living, however meager, have begun pondering various aspects of the impending awards season. It’s what comes after the filing of top-10 lists. Newspaper reporters have begun profiling awards consultants – the cinematic counterparts to Rahm Emanuel andDavid Axelrod – profiling likely nominees and making suggestions as to how they would fix the ceremony. By “fix,” they really mean, “make the show more entertaining for me and my friends.”

Before that could happen, though, AMPAS executives first would have to acknowledge there was problem to fix and ABC would have to demand the reforms necessary to plug the ratings drain, neither of which are likely to happen. Typically, their concerns are manifest in the annual quandary over who should host the show. By choosing the handsome Aussie leading man, Hugh Jackman, it’s clear that TV-based celebrities no longer can be expected to reverse the negative tides. It also helps that he’s popular with the theater community and readers of People magazine.

At ABC, though, I suspect executives are lighting candles at this very moment, summoning divine intervention. Their best-case scenario would find both Wall-E and The Dark Knightamong the Best Picture finalists. It could happen. Both pictures were terrific entertainments, box-office smashes and critically acclaimed. The only thing not in their favor is tradition.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say Wall-E and The Dark Knight are nominated for Best Picture, and Heath Ledger is among the Best Actor nominees. What, then, if ratings still don’t spike upward. Well, first of all, Jackman would likely take the fall for such a disaster, even if, under similar circumstances, Billy Crystal would have trouble drawing eyes. The call also will go out to eliminate such allegedly show-stopping categories as short-form documentary and short-form animation. The enthusiastic response to the short-subject finalists at public screenings – and via iPod — has demonstrated, however, that they also deserve a seat at the grown-ups’ table.

The more viable solution might come from the world of sports, which has a better hold on crowd control.

If one were inclined to compare the annual Academy Awards ceremony to a single sporting event, it wouldn’t be the Super Bowl or World Cup, as the folks at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard would have it. The last time the Oscar-cast bore even a passing resemblance to those monumental championships was the year Titanic captured the hearts and minds of audiences, critics and academy voters.

Such a consensus of opinion is rare these days, on or off the fields of play. When it comes to movies, though, it’s a near impossibility, especially when comedies, musicals, documentaries and animated features aren’t welcome at the big dance. If the voting wasn’t so slanted toward drama and period biopics, the people who actually pay for their tickets – something no one in the academy or media does – would develop a rooting interest in the ceremony. If this disconnect doesn’t bother Academy officials, it’s likely a sports-driven operation like ABC/ESPN/Disney does.

America isn’t alone in loving winners: in sports, business, game shows and politics (although not so much in politics). The NCAA has so blundered the choosing of a national collegiate football championship, it’s rendered all but one of the traditional bowls meaningless and the BCS showdown anticlimactic. The Oscars have reached a similar crossroads.

If the Academy Awards pageant resembles any highly prestigious competition, it would be the Masters Golf Tournament.

Unlike most other tournaments the Masters limits participants to the elite of the game, and only those lucky few civilians on a “patron list” are allowed on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National to watch. (The list has only been opened to new applicants twice in the last 30 years). The hoi-polloi is invited to apply for practice-round tickets, but the procedure is complicated and weighted against anyone not privy to the magic passwords. Like ABC, the CBS network serves mostly as a shill for the good ol’ boys in charge of the tournament, and its commentators are discouraged from asking tough questions about club policies or cracking wise about course conditions.

Likewise, on the Industry’s biggest night of the year, tickets are limited to nominees, past winners and Hollywood royalty. Fans fortunate enough to gain access to the bleachers are screened as if the Red Carpet led not to the Kodak Theater, but to Baghdad’s Green Zone. Even the reporters, who never get closer to the TV cameras than the press ghetto, are required to wear tuxedos and gowns. Commentators who work the red carpet risk permanent expulsion if they ask questions any tougher than, “How does it feel?” and “Who made your gown?”

The difference between the two events is that the talent and grit of a Masters champion will never be open to question. Only a few Best Picture winners have been held in such high regard.

Otherwise, the people in charge of both contests consider themselves to be above the fray. They control everything from the dress code to the number of commercials (the Masters) and type of advertisers (the academy) allowed in their broadcasts. Learning what individual competitors earned after 72 holes practically requires a court order, while potential Oscar candidates are encouraged to memorize the One Great Lie, “It would be an honor just to be nominated.” Winners and their heirs are forbidden from selling the statuettes.

Unlike promoters of the Super Bowl and World Cup, however, AMPAS executives can’t take audience loyalty for granted. (If the point-spread and office pool hadn’t been invented, the Super Bowl would be a hit-and-miss affair, as well.)

Just as ABC benefited hugely from the Titanic juggernaut in 1997, CBS simultaneously found its savior in Tiger Woods. In the 10 years that Tiger’s prowled Augusta, weekend broadcasts have annually benefitted to the tune of roughly 2.2 ratings points, or more than 2 million households. In 1997 and 2001, the numbers spiked 6 ratings points. It can be argued that Tiger’s acceptance by the predominantly white, wealthy and Republican golf community paved the way for Barak Obama, who also was a product of mixed-race parentage.

Tiger couldn’t have arrived at a better time for sponsors and tournament organizers around the world. Such international stars as Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Craig Stadler, Bernard Langer, Ben Crenshaw and Nick Faldo were losing ground to a mostly anonymous collection of technically sound, but virtually colorless frat boys. Although the current generation of actors can hardly be described as colorless, or lacking in talent, only a very few carry themselves with the same gravitas as yesterday’s matinee idols. If they aren’t overexposed, like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, they’re hiding away in places like Montana and Paris.

The more money the studios pour into publicity campaigns for movie openings and awards recognition, it seems, the less certain they’ve become of box-office success and nominations for prestigious prizes. This also coincides with declines in TV ratings and the growing media obsession with the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and anything to do with celebrity. One can argue that Miramax raised the stakes, by, in effect, buying nominations for low-profile, if highly deserving indie and foreign titles. It’s also possible that by opening the eyes of the voters and nominating committees, Miramax simply was reminding them of a time when the works of Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Cacoyannis, Dassin, Teshigahara, Lelouch, Pontecorvo, Forman, Bertolucci, Cassavetes, Wertmuller and Truffaut were viewed in the same light as those by Ford, Minnelli, Cukor, Huston, Reed, Kazan, DeMille, Wyler, Stevens and Mankiewicz.

Today, the theory goes, the more times a title or name is mentioned in print or on a website, the more likely it is that voters will actually watch the screeners sent to them … or go with what they’ve been led to believe is the flow, sight unseen. No news or gossip item is too trivial for analysis by entertainment writers in MSM and trades, bloggers and their blogettes.

God bless, Meryl Streep, for admitting, on The View, “I hate the whole campaigning thing now for awards. I find it just unseemly. These campaigns are launched, like a political campaign. You run for this award. It should be that you’re honored with an award, not that your campaign was that much better or well-financed.”

Streep, no novice in the awards game, said this while plugging Doubt, and, ostensibly, its chances for being nominated. And, it came on a show that wouldn’t exist if celebrities and movie stars weren’t contractually obligated to plug their titles.

When pundits ask, “Can the Oscars be saved?,” they’re really focusing on are ratings, common wisdom and their own impatience with the academy.

As a marketing tool, the brand is in no danger of losing any luster, no matter how boring is the show. Because the public’s awareness of the logo is right up there with Mickey Mouse, Playboy and Nike, AMPAS protects it with the same fervor as the army guards the gold in Ft. Knox. A nomination can enhance the marketability of a DVD, even if it’s in a tech category, and the obituary of any winner will include “Oscar-winning …” before his or her name. Photos taken on the Red Carpet fill the pages of fashion and gossip magazines – at virtually no cost to the publications – for months, sometimes years to come.

Judged solely on the ceremony’s entertainment value to viewers, though, once the opening monologue and fashion parade are finished, the thrill is mostly gone … unless they have a dog in the fight. In the Glory Years of Hollywood, the co-hosts and presenters seemed larger than life and the Best Picture candidates either were epic in scale or wildly popular. Today, those duties are performed by actors most people over 40 would have a difficult time recognizing. The bigger the star, the more important the category and less likely the presenter has a movie in the pipeline.

With all due respect to gag-meister Bruce Vilanch, what spontaneity is left in the evening generally is reserved for the ritual walk down the Red Carpet, where the ladies risk having their boobs fall out of their gowns and the guys show up with their 19-year-old girlfriends. When the winners began thanking their agents and managers, before acknowledging co-stars, directors, spouses and God, all hope was lost.

So, what keeps us coming back for more? Mostly, the possibility that the opening monologue will contain something so outrageous it will be discussed at water coolers for weeks to come. Then, too, there are the rare moments, when something truly heart-jerking or weird is built into the show, or a winner goes completely off-script: Rob Lowe and Snow White’s production number, which will forever live in infamy (and the Internet); Sally Field‘s unforgettable “You really love me” acceptance speech; fake Indian Sacheen Littlefeather standing in for Marlon Brando; David Niven‘s ad-lib, after being upstaged by a streaker; Roberto Benigni‘s impromptu decision to take the overland route to the podium; Jack Palance‘s one-arm push-ups; host David Letterman‘s riff on Oprah and “Uma”; Three 6 Mafia performing, “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp”; Cher’s gowns and hair-dos; the outpouring of love for Charlie Chaplin, whose political views forced him into exile; and the arrival on stage of a wheelchair-bound Christopher Reeve.

These moments are rare enough now to be treated as anomalies by pundits, but they’re always the chance someone’s innocent faux pas or entrance will wind up in next year’s lists of 50 most-memorable (or embarrassing) moments in Oscar history. This year, for example, I can hardly wait for Jerry Lewis to pick up the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. If he walks to the podium on his ankles, sporting black-frame glasses, buck teeth and high-water pants, it could zoom right into the top-10.

Other than that, the Academy Awards aren’t all that different than the honors handed out at any trade show, convention or reunion. The audience is larger and the stakes are greater, but the quirks and likelihood of running late are pretty much the same.

One can certainly argue that the academy’s nominating procedures are out of date, that its long-tenured members are out of touch with audiences and minorities are under-represented. The same is true of the Masters. If viewers are bored or unhappy, they can vote with their remote controls, just have audiences have voted with their feet by not playing along with seasonal gridlock.

By moving the ceremony from Monday night to Sunday and extending the length of its own Red Carpet telecast by a half-hour — effectively denying niche cable networks timely access to the Beautiful People — the academy revealed a strategy designed to make the Academy Awards a daylong celebration, not unlike the Super Bowl. So far, so not so good. ABC’s pre-show is as fawning as it is inconsequential: every gown is sensational, all of the actors are mahvalous and the show-to-follow will be the best ever. And, yet, ratings haven’t improved.

Any radical change would require that the Best Picture category be expanded to include a few more finalists, or, as with the Globes, be completely restructured. By acknowledging that its members have unfairly weighted their votes toward drama and period biopics, it can return comedies and musicals to the status they enjoyed for the first 50-years of the show’s existence. Adding a Best Ensemble prize also would add something bright and peppy to the proceedings. If that’s too great a leap, allow the nominating committees to nominate fewer than five finalists, as is done in other categories, or, God forbid, more than five. Rating-wise, it’s win-win.

As it is, too many academy members relieve their indecisiveness by relegating excellent, if less grand indie fare to the province of the Indie Spirit crowd. If any movies suffer from an inability to mount an awards campaign, it’s movies the size of Ballast and Let the Right One In, their stars and directors.

In PGA events, “sponsor’s exemptions” cure a multitude of ills. It permits a tournament’s sponsor to give a golfer on its pro staff or their product spokesman a free pass, when they’re otherwise ineligible for entry. By extension, ABC could reserve its right to choose a suitable candidate from a short list formulated by a select committee of voters. (It might be difficult to avoid the conflict of interest implicit in ABC being owned by Disney.) A sixth slot would be added to each of the major categories, but the ringer wouldn’t be identified, as such.

Of course, there’s always the worst-case option, which would require succumbing to the commercial imperative. The Academy Awards could rip a page from the Grammy playbook, by stage the ceremony at the Staples Center or Dodgers Stadium. Tickets to the upper tiers could be sold to rabid fans, who would scream on cue. Judd Apatow could produce the show and populate the production numbers with members of his slacker ensemble. Jim Carrey might be persuaded to host, and, as he once threatened, fart the monologue out of his butt.

It wouldn’t be pretty, that’s for sure. But it might be fun for a while. It should be noted, however, that ratings for this year’s 2008 Grammy Awards followed the same downward trend as the Oscars. So, maybe that’s not the answer, either.

For professional movie critics, 2008 was a watershed year, albeit a calamitous one. Newspapers shed reviewers like pack animals in springtime, in some cases eliminating the position, entirely. No one outside the film community has raised much of a fuss, if only because the Internet is alive with the sound of chattering pundits.

It’s in December, though, when the continuing role played by critics is most obvious. After 11 months of being treated like punching bags by editors and publicists, who insist they’re out of touch with their readers, the reviewers’ top-10 lists are scavenged for anything positive that could be used in ads and awards campaigns.

Teenagers may not require guidance in their choice of summer popcorn movies, but such adult-themed movies as Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler, Rachel Getting Married and Frost/Nixon certainly need help getting the buzz going. Conversely, for movies like Wall-E and The Dark Knight to be considered for Best Picture consideration, a critic’s approval validates popular taste.

The elimination and consolidation of critics from influential publications would mark a significantly more tragic reality, if it weren’t for the fact that almost every one of them has found an Internet outlet for their opinions. At this juncture, studio publicists can’t help but pay attention to the blogosphere. It’s been a long time coming.

– Gary Dretzka

December 26, 2008

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon