MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

50 Weeks To Oscar: Fixing The Oscar Show

If you were expecting a run down of next years films, forget it… even though filmmakers are already positioning themselves with consultants for next season.

I am interested, however, in the idea of “fixing” the Oscar show.

Let’s start with the single most incorrectly understood part of the whole shebang. No one knows what the show is going to be each year. So they can’t tune in to see what it is going to be. They tune in because they are either pre-sold, interested in a specific film or films up for awards, or based on the year before. So, for instance, this year’s 10% dip in viewing can reasonably be put at the feet of last year’s show and the lack of Avatar.

Could your choice of hosts boost the ratings? Almost impossible. Pitt & Jolie hosting together might. Will Smith might. But mostly, no. Fewer than 5 million people in the US, for instance, saw Franco & Hathaway’s big fall films this year, combined. Even the #3 film, the biggest grossing post-summer Oscar nominee, True Grit, was seen by less than 20 million people. The economies of scale for movies and a hugely-watched TV show are very different.

And different from a TV comedy show as well. Letterman and Stewart, etc may be heavily represented in the cultural pool, but their audiences are less than 20% of the Oscar audience – often less than 15% – and their viewers are already likely Oscar watchers.

My point? Do a good show. Repeat it. Watch the numbers improve.

But mostly, realize that we are in a world of narrowing popularity of all widely-viewed events. It’s just going to happen. You can’t really expect to grow The Oscars. Maintaining is winning.

And now, my suggestion for the show…

Bill Condon and Larry Mark went down this road as far as a one-year team could go a couple of years ago… take it all back to, in spirit, that Roosevelt Hotel ballroom of the 20s.

Fewer than 500 people are really participating in the show itself. Less than 200 nominees and their +1. 50-100 more shining stars. That’s what people are tuning in to see. Let another 1500 people watch over their shoulders, but focus on the core of 500.

Forget about the public, for a moment. What would you want to see is you were sitting in that room?

I want to get goosebumps about The Movies.

I want to hear from an Academy member who really LOVED each film and to let them pick the clip we will see at home, explaining why this moment defined the movie for them.

I want to hear each Original Song sung by someone other that the person who I heard sing it in the movie… someone really, really good… without an interpretive dance. (Did anyone see The Four Divas at The Grammys doing Aretha? Music was great, but mostly it crackled with the tension of which one would outdo the other three. Great TV.)

The reason comedians are good hosting awards shows is that they have that flexibility. The bad part – more today than ever – is that they desperately want to score every time they get up there. How about if they just get rid of the joke writers and get a couple of actors who have a sense of humor, but aren’t trying to score with big laughs like it was their crack. Bullock & Denzel. Julia and Tom. George and Brad. Damon & Blunt. Fey & Martin. Firth & Rush.

We don’t have raconteurs the way we used to… it’s not a skill set that is valued like it used to be valued. It requires listening. Letterman is, actually, a great listener. But the pressure to tell jokes killed him. Also, it’s not his room. Clooney seems to be the closest we get, but he has chosen, in recent years, to parse himself out in small doses. Hanks is in a funny place, between his 2nd career as a movie star and his 3rd. In a couple of years, he might be The Man for the job.

Pick a producer/director and stick with him or her for a few years. Beth McCarthy-Miller or Troy Miller would be great.

I want to hear from an Oscar winner who is going to whistle aboard the next Oscar winner… but one with some kind of real relationship. It’s a hard thing to do. Getting the actors to show is not as easy as it’s made to look. So if you need to, put it on tape. Make it a package. And then have the ones in the room walk out. And don’t be coy. I want Meryl Streep to do it for Amy Adams. I really want Kathy Bates for Melissa Leo, as they both finally found their stride late in their careers. I want Harvey Weinstein speaking to Colin Firth. I want The Coens for Jeff Bridges. Julie Christie to Michelle Williams. Tatum O’Neal to Hailee Steinfeld.

And insiders will argue, fairly, that it is hard to get people to do this kind of thing, especially if they are also nominated that night. But seriously, time to round up the wagons and say, “This is our family celebrating. Get on board. Besides, it will be a nice distraction for you in a tense evening.” The plea of community is very effective if used consistently. What no one wants to do is to walk out in front of a whole lot of people and read bad jokes off a prompter. That’s why Javier & Josh gave Oscar a great moment of spontaneous fun… they smelled stinky cheese and wanted to do something better. (The question of why Mischer dumped it remains open.)

Think of it like a screenplay… what is the story of the night and how can it be developed best? I have always said about movies that when I am slicing the film up to its detailed elements during the film, the film’s not really working. If I am in the story, I don’t start multitaking in my head, analyzing the detail. This is one of the reasons why Coen Bros movies require multiple viewings. They work as forests and as trees and it takes a few looks to see both in focus.

For me, if the story of Oscar night is, “We are here to celebrate our own. We love movies. We love working in the movie business… and not just because of the money. It is easy to forget in a world of popcorn movies that great art happens, in movies from the largest studio films, like Inception and Toy Story 3, to the smallest studio films, like The Kids Are All Right and 127 Hours. Not everyone in show biz knows everyone else. But tonight, we are a family. Welcome to our annual reunion… not a critics’ reunion… not a foreign press reunion… The Academy represents the veteran life of our movie industry… the symbolic “Hollywood”… this is OUR reunion. Come share in the joy of a year of memories.”

As much as Kirk Douglas was the Charlie Sheen of this year’s show… it was memorable because it felt sincere, if sincerely insane. He was our uncle/father/grandfather who pinches your cheek too hard or tries to get his 15-year-old nephew to arm wrestle. He’s a pain in the ass. But we love him.

Dial it all back.

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13 Responses to “50 Weeks To Oscar: Fixing The Oscar Show”

  1. Jalis says:

    Another critic who has no clue what he’s saying. Beth McCarthy-Miller or Troy Miller are NOT live event directors. They made the right choice by having Mischer produce/ direct this year because that’s his forte. If you actually know the film and tv process scripted fare and live event are night and day. Get your facts straight.

  2. Robb says:

    Want a song and dance man? I hate to say it but hire Justin Timberlake to host. He wants to be in pictures. Let him try to become bob hope. Either way, he’s funny, likable, the people who watch for the fashion and the movie crowd now that he is an actor will love him. He’d even appeal to a younger generation. Bring Billy crystal in to secretly write for him. Let him do a parody.

    As for the show itself: Stop cutting off a speech when its good, everyone knows they go over anyway, so why try and stop good tv from happening. Bring a little bit more gravitas to the in memorium part. that would be a nice start

  3. matt says:

    I used to think the ratings for all big TV shows/specials were declining as a result of the “niche” ifying of American culture too- but the all-time high ratings for this past February’s Super Bowl seem to be an exception to that trend.

    A question I think that would be worthy of discussion (for which I have no sure answers) is- what is going on with the Super Bowl that encourages increasing numbers to watch? And is it replicable with an event like the Oscars or are the two fundamentally different enough that it would be comparing apples to oranges?

  4. David Poland says:

    Saturday Night Live isn’t a live event, Jalis? Nick’s Kid’s Choice Awards?

  5. sanj says:

    DP – why not move it to HBO – 2 hours – no commercials – say whatever you want. HBO actually plays movies.

  6. movieman says:

    Post the winners online and have them pick up their awards at a location in downtown Los Angeles TBA.

  7. adorian says:

    My suggestion–Let Bette Midler host.

    Open with a big splashy production number (Hurray for Hollywood!). Let her get six of the nominees onstage to do a line kick-dance with her. Admit it, you want to see Streep doing a Rockette routine while Bette big-finishes it with There’s No Business Like Show Business.

    During her opening monologue, let her work the front row. “Mud will be flung.” Let her attack a dress or two so that “Joan Rivers won’t have to do it tomorrow.” Let her do some Roman Polanski jokes, breast implant jokes, some booze-pills-and-marriages to gay men jokes, some Harvey Weinstein and Mel Gibson jokes. Just let Bette be Bette for a few minutes.

    Segue immediately into some big name presenters.

    At the mid-point, let her scream that what the show really needs is some drag queens. While she sings When You Wish Upon a Star, out will come drag queens as Monroe, Liza, Miss Ross, Cher, Tina Turner, and Midler herself, who can take exception to her “double.” They can even get into a hair-pulling fight.

    More big-name presenters. How about each presenter must be a past Oscar winner?–no youngsters advertising their upcoming summer blockbusters.

    Big names. Let Streisand present Best Picture. Let Cher present something in one of her wild outfits. People want to see ladies in fantastic gowns. And Clooney in a tux. Something to talk about the morning after. Force the whole thing to be High Energy. Keep it moving. Bette Midler!!!

  8. Mike says:

    No clip montages. None. Every year when they take another look at “Hollywood’s Greatest Movies” or “Action’s Most Action-y Action” the show stops dead. We’ve seen all those clips a million times. Honor the movies that are being honored this year. If you want to make an exception, do a montage of memorable moments from this year’s films. I really don’t need to see Rhett leaving Scarlett, Charles Foster Kane muttering “Rosebud” or E.T.’s finger lighting ever again in an Oscar show.

  9. Hallick says:

    “I want to hear each Best Original Song sung by someone other that the person who I heard sing it in the movie… someone really, really good… without an interpretive dance.”

    I don’t get this one. In past Oscars I always thought it was lame when they offered up somebody else to do the songs. Isn’t this approach like having another actor perform a clip from a Best Actor nominee’s movie during their category? The songs that get nominated are nominated in no small way because of the singers. I didn’t want to see anybody other than Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova performing “Falling Slowly”, it doesn’t matter how great they can sing or not.

    I get that the award is supposed to be about the SONG, not the singer, but that distinction is just a crock and a half.

  10. Erik says:

    I agree with the HBO comment, or pay-per-view… it’s really become a disappointing event. Maybe it would become more entertaining and desirable if you have to pay for it?

  11. Pat says:

    You’re wrong about the host not influencing the viewership. Check the ratings for the last two decades of Oscar telecasts. The highest rated shows all have one thing in common – Billy Crystal. I’ve never been the greatest fan of the man myself. But he knows how to emcee, he can stick to the script, and he can break away from it when the opportunity presents itself. (Think of what he could have done with Kurt Douglas and Melissa Leo.)

  12. Pete says:

    I would can the Best Song category altogether if I headed the music branch of AMPAS and award a special Oscar if there is a truly deserving song in any given year. The songs have been dreadful for years. Talk about bring the show to a halt–the brakes screech when this award comes around. At last, they finally made the talentless Debbie Allen into persona non grata.

    It would be a huge mistake to give the show to HBO or pay-per-view. I daresay much of the at-home audience has neither. AMPAS wants to reach a broad audience so broadcast TV is a must.

  13. Froggy13 says:

    Hosts: Crystal back is a great idea. Tina Fey could also pull it off solo. William Shatner MIGHT be brilliant, and bears something of the raconteur quality that you find wanting in hollywood. Seth Green could co-host and script. No…no…Shatner and Chelsea Handler.

    I also second the axing of all classic cliche movie montages.

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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