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David Poland

By David Poland

Time For Change (Again) At The Academy

The last three years at The Academy have been a bit of a mess.

Bruce Davis’ exit, after 30 years, was symbolic of the strengths and weaknesses of The Academy as an organization. The internal bureaucracy really ran the place and kept the trains running. The bosses, in the form of the Governors, made certain specific decisions and when there was a conflict between The Bureaucrats and The Talent, the home team often calmed the waves and kept those trains on time.

As a result, the slow deterioration of the ratings for The Oscars, the source of a significant majority of AMPAS’ annual revenue often led to finger-pointing at long-held traditions. The Academy, which knows it is old and white and living on the west side of LA and Manhattan, needed, in the eyes of some, to get hipper. The problem, aside from tradition, was and is that even with smaller audiences for the show, the numbers were and are still much bigger than all the other awards shows. So how to spruce things up without throwing out what is so successful, not matter how much media abuse the organization takes?

Seven months after Bill Condon and Larry Mark produced the 81st Academy Awards, Tom Sherak was elected President of the Academy. One of Condon’s clearest ideas for how to change the awards profile was expanding the Best Picture nominations back to 10. Sherak bought. Next was the producing team. Condon & Mark had gotten good marks, so another film producer and associated-with-musicals director. Sherak brought in his old boss, Bill Mechanic, and Adam Shankman. And Steve Martin is always bandied about as the elegant, smart host… so team with red hot TV star Alec Baldwin, it had to be great, right? Not so great. Audiences really want the duo to host as a team… and that’s not so easy, even for greatly talented performers, who are not actually a team. And the dozen or so places where producers can have a notable influence on the show… almost none of them worked. Not a disaster. Not a win.

And then came The Youth Patrol, hiring Anne Hathaway & James Franco, two actors with some added skills, but actors first and last, to host for The Producer and The Musical Guy, aka Don MIscher and Bruce Cohen. Mischer was kind of an inspired choice, in that he had more real live television credentials than anyone since Gil Cates. But what would “the creative half,” Cohen deliver? Well, this one was a disaster. It’s not completely fair to put it all on Cohen. The marriage of two very different kinds of charm by the hosts did not work at all. And they were given so much rope that they could barely keep from hanging themselves.

As all of this was ramping up in November, Bruce Davis announced his exit. Who would replace him?

There was a hunger for new blood… new ideas. But AMPAS is an institution of tradition and the wrong person could throw the baby out with the bathwater without even realizing they’d done it.

The biggest thing on the table before Davis left would be a renewal with ABC. That occurred a few days before the Oscar telecast last year. (No backing out!) He could leave The Academy with an 8 year safety buffer with ABC before the contract had to be renewed again. Fears that somehow the show’s ratings drop would lead to ABC backing away were no longer of concern.

Also on the list of unfinished business was the potential Academy museum, for which AMPAS had sunk millions into real estate in Hollywood over the years. There would be no resolution there.

Before he left, the were a number of minor tweaks. One of the most significant ended up being the Davis push to change the Best Picture race yet again and to create a surprise in the number of nominees. This was credited to Davis as the initial change was credited to Tom Sherak. And it had – and has – all the feel of a cat taking one last pee on the carpet on the way out the door. (Hopefully, that mess of an idea will be cleaned up this off-season.)

So who would come in and replace the person that most of the staff had worked for through their entire Academy careers? Over at Film Independent, Dawn Hudson had built a small empire with and in spite of a board made up mostly of active execs from studio Dependents. Was she ready to become “CEO” at a much bigger, much more self-serious organization with a president who invariably had the time for the job and a lot of Governors who were likewise available to offer opinions?

Well, it’s hard to know just how the roles will play out… how much of a game changer Dawn would seek to be from early on… how much room there really was for change. She was hired in April, heavily promoted by Sherak as the right choice. And she came to The Academy, to work, in July.

Shortly thereafter, Christina Kounelias was hired for the new job of Chief Marketing Officer for The Academy. This was Hudson’s first big move and Christina answered only to Dawn from the start. Another new leader of an old bureaucracy.

In August, one of Hollywood’s greatest salesmen and subject of some of the most divided opinions you’ll ever hear about anyone, Tom Sherak, was renewed for a third year as Academy president.

Also in August, the Oscar producers were hired. Don Mischer stayed on… but the surprising “creative guy” he was teamed with was Brett Ratner, for whom this gig was likely the closest he’d ever get to being at the show with purpose.

On September 6, Eddie Murphy. a previously impossible get, was hired as host. Ratner’s stock was up, though there were some boo birds who saw Murphy as somehow dangerous. Others feared that the show would somehow become connected too closely to the commercial comedy caper.

Also in September, there were changes to the Academy campaigning rules that were positioned as a tightening, but turned out to be the rules equivalent of putting the award season in doctor’s stirrups. As the “new Academy team” seemed committed to pushing in a new direction, the near-immediate result was a free-for-all that saw new adventures in directly soliciting Academy members, more money spent on wildly extravagant lunches (which didn’t seem to work very well), and a general consensus amongst the consultants that there were no rules being enforced… until nominations were announced, at which time, things would be much quieter.

Months ago, the question of how or whether this genie was going to be put back in the bottle was being asked widely… and left unanswered by The Academy.

In October, Hudson’s second big move was announced… the long unstarted Academy museum, for which approximately $50m in land had been bought over the previous decade, was not going to be a building project on the purchased land, but part of a rebuilding deal with LACMA, an organization with which Hudson had an existing relationship from FIND. There still has been no explanation as to what the organization expects to do with the land they own in Hollywood, south of the Arclight. And the announcement of the LACMA deal didn’t come with a lot of detail. But it was progress in as much as it was movement.

Things were quiet with Ratner for a few months, as he finished work on his November release, Tower Heist. But as soon as he started doing press for his movie, as a representative of The Academy, he couldn’t keep his random, smirky thoughts to himself.

And then, he had to go away.

A week after Ratner went away, 19 year Academy veteran Leslie Unger was shoved out the door… or resigned. Ratner was, obviously, not her call. But her exit seemed inevitable from back when Kounelias was hired. Unger and Robertson were the senior members of the old bureaucracy. And this is how things tend to go.

But going into an Oscar show in less than 3 months, suddenly without the veteran Unger, seemed counter-intuitive, whatever tension there was. An embarrassed Board of Governors, who had taken the leap on Ratner in the first place, went to their comfort zone… Billy Crystal. They also had to find a producer who was capable and willing to handle the job at the last minute. Brian Grazer was the call. Grazer is a bit of an eccentric, but he is also a pro who seems to know where and when to let things fly.

On January 6, The LA Times ran a story about Hudson already being under fire from one part of the Board of Governors. And I jumped to Hudson’s defense, in that the story was poorly sourced, nastily personal, and I felt an overreach that was likely initiated by some who had been pushed out of the bureaucracy. But it was like a warning shot across her bow. And it isn’t clear that she appreciated what it meant… which would make her character similar to what is described in the story… a little tone deaf and a bit reckless.

And now this Sacha Baron Cohen idiocy.

Presenters on the show are often there to promote their upcoming movie, even if it barely is spoken of outside of the introductory voice of God. Cohen presenting as The Dictator was not a bad idea. A little dangerous. But a little dangerous can be good.

Regardless of how the idea of putting him on the red carpet in costume came about… it is a mistake equal to, if not worse, than hiring Brett Ratner to produce the show. In the Ratner case, you know the potential for his personal excess leaking onto his representation of The Academy and you hope that he’s going to keep it together, as he claimed he would. Putting a character from an upcoming movie on the carpet, which has been very carefully kept pristine for many years, as a place where talent is coming together for what can be a life-changing night… well, besides being unprecedented, it leads to the inevitable planning for how other studios will rape the opportunity in years to come.

First thing that comes to mind is Disney trotting out Mickey & Minnie in costume. I mean, why not? Same difference, right?

Maybe they should have a section of the carpet when Uggie and other Oscar-related dogs can jumps though rings of fire?

Daniel Day-Lewis will certainly not be dressed as Lincoln next year. But why not have all Disney/Dreamworks people wear Lincoln beards on the carpet. That would be fun, no? Or maybe this year, they should have Taylor Kitsch walk the red carpet in his loin cloth?

Maybe Sir Ben Kingsley can do a magic show on the red carpet. After all, the DVD will be coming out soon.

Yes, it’s all so fun and different. Why not? Lighten up, Academy!

And here’s the part where this group can no longer be trusted with the future of The Academy. It’s a two-parter.

1. The first rule of movie marketing is to figure out what you are selling and then sell the living hell out of it. If you are selling something other than what you actually have to sell, you will get caught and be embarrassed. Sometimes, you can get away with an opening weekend… and that’s great when you have crap to sell. But if you believe in your product and you expect it to have legs, you better sell what you have and not some whimsical notion of what people might buy.

The Academy Awards is tight dresses and tight bow ties and excessive nervousness and a stick up the butt and an absolute faith in the glory of celebrating your self and your industry colleagues. It is not the MTV Music Awards or The People’s Choice or even The Golden Globes. It is much bigger than all of those because of what it is. You can change some things, but you can’t change what it is… or it is nothing.

This choice by The Academy indicates an absolute lack of understanding about what their brand is.

2. They already got a mulligan. (And not Carey.)

Ratner was an epic screw up. And they saved their dignity with some old school Billy Crystal. Not as exciting as Eddie Murphy getting out there, but like a warm, salty pretzel with just enough mustard to keep it from just being a bunch of boring, chewy dough at the ball game.

And instead of just playing that card and thanking God almighty that they got away from the blunder, they went and decided to raise the stakes.

Worse, no one outside of the small circle still knows the truth about what happened. Who initiated? Was it a presenting situation that got out of control? Was it all a publicity stunt?

Whatever the truth, this new Academy team is still playing it out by saying nothing… by letting the media and Paramount and WME run their show by way of their absence.

How can the Board of Governors trust people who handle The Academy’s business that way?

The Academy is not a wannabe seeking attention any way they can get it. For better or worse, they are the gold standard by which all other awards shows and most of television is judged. But this event is being treated as though Sacha Baron Cohen – $138m worldwide on his last film… less than The Help, Midnight in Paris, War Horse, and The Descendants have already done – is doing them a favor.

I LOVE SBC’s work. I have embraced and defended him tirelessly. But this is not about his work. This is about the standards The Academy sets for itself.

How do you trust people who survive a tsunami and then run into a burning house in hopes that something interesting will happen in there?

Maybe this will pass without The Academy firing Hudson and handing the keys to Ric Robertson. Maybe Dawn, a bright and lovely person, will survive this moment and make The Academy better than ever.

But this is the third time in 6 months that I have read the message loud and clear that The Academy is no longer understood by its leadership, no longer respected by its leadership, and no longer committed to a path that speaks as much to the history that got them to these massive TV contracts as to a future, which is unclear at best and likely to be pitch black if The Academy loses touch with that history.

I am a more forgiving person than many of the Governors. On the other hand, I am less concerned about controversy. So we’ll see what actually happens.

Maybe they can lay it all on Tom Sherak. He certainly deserves some of the heat. But he’s a very smart opponent when challenged politically, so that could be a suicide move as well.

I’m betting that Ric Robertson is The Academy’s next Billy Crystal.

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6 Responses to “Time For Change (Again) At The Academy”

  1. CaroleLyne says:

    Humour me just a bit.
    Last year the TV audience was down to 37.nnn million supposed to be the smallest TV audience of the show ever, or may be the second. I would be curious about the first five or six years of the Oscars. Weren’t they limited to just the Red Carpet. LAUGHTER That was way back before even I was born. The earlest shows I can remember are back in the late 50’s when not every family had a TV and cable and sat service was pre-telstar, if it was even there.
    Now if the measure is “percent of viewing audience” why be so cheap with the words, or does lying with the facts misreped just make for an Oscar worthy story.

  2. film fanatic says:

    While I’m with you on outrage over Nikki Finke using her role as an ostensible journalist to transparently lead a PR campaign for Paramount’s upcoming “The Dictator,” I hardly think there is anything sacred about the stupid, usually deadly-dull “official” red-carpet pre-show, which is a recent addition instituted solely to keep E! et al from garnering ad revenue by riding Oscar’s coattails. You complain about it becoming commercialized, but it’s already a 30 minute commercial for all the fashion designers who provide their dresses gratis in exchange for plugs and exposure. Not to mention the fact that most presenters chosen usually have an upcoming movie to plug that is announced during their introductions. Get outraged about something worth getting outraged about….

    It’s become clear, in the wake of the Today show video released Friday, that this wasn’t just Ari Emmanuel and Rob Moore playing Nikki, but that her other “reliable source” Tom Sherak was trying to drum up some fake controversy, too, to potentially give the pre-show bigger ratings. I certainly don’t think it can be layed at Dawn Hudson’s feet.

    Also, while a Ratner Oscars may, indeed, have been a fiasco, doesn’t it seem silly in retrospect, in this day of shrinking windows and blink-and-you-miss-em releases, that people were actually complaining that a late February show might be tainted by being viewed as a commercial for a movie that came out in early November and hardly made a ripple? I still think Eddie Murphy would have made for a better host. The Oscars are viewed WORLDWIDE, not just in the U.S., and Eddie Murphy means a hell of a lot more to people overseas that Billy Crystal, whose self-congratulatory “aren’t I cute?” smugness and recent David Gest-esque plastic surgery is probably going to make this year’s edition as insufferable as ever.

    Oh well.

  3. yancyskancy says:

    I fear the Academy will actually start adopting some of the dumber “fixes” that clueless pundits have been suggesting, ad nauseam, in recent years. The latest, and possibly dumbest, is an article at titled “Save the Oscars with Live Voting and Hindsight.” Virginia Postrel advocates splitting Best Picture into two categories — films that sold more than 10 million tickets and films that sold less than 10 million tickets — and adding a Hindsight Award that would honor previously snubbed films while adding campaigning and live voting to the mix.

    Here’s the link:

  4. bulldog68 says:

    I am now an hour and ten minutes into Tree of Life. The word that springs to mind right now is pretentious.

  5. cadavra says:

    If you wanna watch a faux Douglas Sirk melodrama, FAR FROM HEAVEN is much better, even without dinosaurs.

  6. movielocke says:

    I must say, it will be deeply hilarious if the 6-10 nominees rule that was created to help the academy stop fucking themselves so badly with films like the Dark Knight was eliminated the year that Dark Knight Rises is released. Nolan really can’t catch a break.

    I maintain that more than five nominees is a massive improvement and I hope they stick with it.

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