MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20W2O: All Over But The “And The Oscar Goes To”ing

And so the voting finally begins.

The Academy, in its infinite wisdom (or is it jest?) created a 4-week window between the nominations announcement and final voting… which has created the most unpleasant case of artistic, intellectual, competitive constipation in the history of awards.

If the goal of the January 3 closing date (later moved to January 4) for nominations voting was meant to make Oscar nominations seem less significant and more just another part of the blur of early January activity, it was effective. The Globes are not being positioned as an Academy influencer, even though with just 10 categories that correspond to Oscar, 7 or 8 of the Globes winners are expected to win Oscars. Ironically, this would be one of The Globes’ best years in corresponding to Oscar in the last decade. (Of course, it could all turn out not to match much at all.) However, The Globes were the dominant event of that week… more so than the much more important Oscar nominations.

And since then, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

It’s not all The Academy’s fault. They also got stuck with an unusually boring series of quite good and successful movies. This may seem counterintuitive, but that’s always been the problem with The Academy Awards as a TV show in the modern era. What are people actually tuning in for when they watch the Oscars? If you take the published number from last year, 39 million viewers, that’s about a $350m domestic gross… if they were paying to see a single movie. Only the Potter and the Transformers films did that in 2011. My point is… the theory that people tune in to Oscar based on what movies are being honored doesn’t really fly. It’s more than that. And it’s less than that.

The Grammys are the new king of award shows. Why? Because they figured out what they are and what they can be. Live performance drives the music business. And the people who run The Grammys abandoned the focus on the awards and, quite simply, put on an all-star live performance show that now stands as the single best broad-based live performance event of the year… for free… on TV.

Every time that Lady Gaga performs live, on TV or not, she is expected to offer up variations and new ideas which people are anxious to see, lest they lose their seat on the hip bus. (Eventually, people will worry about Gaga breaking a hip and her seat being loose… that’s a different column.) But The Avengers is not going to change because the cast puts on tuxedos and comes to the Dolby together to give an award. It is a completed, finite piece of work. Moreover, The Oscars is not a movie. The actors are not acting. The directors are not directing. Etc, etc, etc.

So what is The Academy Awards show? It is a celebration of film and everything that film means to people. People tune in because it presents itself as the definer of quality (however ridiculous that may seem at times). People are interested in the story behind the story… the glamor… what actors are really like behind the mask of performance. People tune in for the race of it all. And people tune in because they are hoping to be surprised in some exciting way in real time.

So how do these five interests of people get addressed every year, year after year after year? The host. Promos. And this year, social media hype.

The problem is, none of those things—except when a host repeats over a series of years—has any/much direct effect on people tuning in… because in television, people tune in again to experience something they enjoyed before… or they tune out to avoid it or just not be bothered by it.

So this year’s show has already either benefited or is hamstrung by Billy Crystal’s show from last year. But if it’s is going to benefit, it’s a little more challenging because Billy is not there this year. Seth is. And if Seth is great this year and people talk about that, whoever hosts next year will have to work hard to try to benefit from that.

Truth be told, I think that Seth MacFarlane is being positioned to do this every year… the next Billy. With just one movie under his belt, he is not a movie guy. But he is a part of the community via TV and his TV shows have attracted a lot of movie star talent to do voice work. He’s wanted to be on-stage talent for years, it seems… his only real experience is in shows he has done himself. So maybe that’s the upside. And maybe he’ll be just what the doctor ordered. Maybe not.

Stability in the host slot would be a great benefit to the Oscar show. But what about the rest?

1. Celebrate Film: What made 2012 a unique year in movies in the US? Has anyone ever answered that question at The Oscars? I’m not talking about a clip package of all the big films, slung together artfully. I mean, this is the theme… not f-ing music of the movies. Why would we be looking for any other theme? The year in movies changes every year. Why do anything more abstract than establishing this as the theme of the show every year, which will evolve ever year?

It’s not about the cast of The Avengers standing there in dress clothes trying to crack jokes. It’s a year that brought us a funny, unrepentantly violent Hulk and Quvenzhané Wallis as an innocent trying to survive her life being invaded in a way just as threatening as aliens attacking NYC. Why not bring them together on film… and Quvenzhané & Ruffalo on stage?

Three movies centered on history are nominated (four if you count Django Unchained). A tribute to the great movies about history… and how they aren’t documentaries… could offer surprise and insight and perspective.

Death is a big theme at The Oscars this year. Take it on. Let the eloquence of Pi speak for the others… because how do we choose to remember those hard moments of our lives? Often, through movies.

2. Define Quality: Why are all these films so special? Really simple. Shoot all the nominees you can and ask them to speak to the virtue of any of the BP nominees other than the one they are in. Who is more qualified to have opinions about movies? And what is The Academy but 6000 people who have earned their place in the conversation by being veterans of the movie business. Pat your own back a bit. The Academy is more than just another group. A little hubris can be good.

3. Who Are The Actors, Really?: There are dozens of ways to create intimacies with actors—however false—but not so much on the night of the show. It needs to be prepped. What does the map of the nominees hometowns look like? Can they share a memory of going to a movie when they were kids? All it takes is 30 seconds here and 30 seconds there to create a sense of faux intimacy that people will love.

4. The Race: The Academy really hasn’t pushed this much, historically. I don’t really have a good idea about how they should try to make it into a part of the show. There is a line that should never be crossed. But maybe seat the actors grouped by category and not just with their film’s group or, as so often seems the case, randomly? Would a shot of a section of 10 people (actor & guest) with the 5 competing performers all in one shot really be so bad… particularly if they are enjoying being around one another?

5. Surprise!: This is the one that they are trying for every show. And when things are good, they are great. And when things aren’t so good, they are tragic. The thing about surprises. Academy, is that you cannot market them ahead of time. And which medley of Hamilisch songs Barbra Stresiand does is not a surprise… unless there are lyrics to the score of The Informant! Streisand is exactly the kind of surprise that works ON the show and not as bait to get people to watch the show.

The problem with The Academy an The Oscar show is that they are running around like chickens with their heads cut off to try to find The Answer to fix something that is not nearly as broken as they think. There is no one-year solution. Television doesn’t work that way. And if you are just spending every off-season praying for the next Titanic, good f-ing luck with that, but you are an idiot. There is no Magic Host. There is no ANSWER. You put a show on TV that your core of 35 million really likes and then you build on that with stability and consistency. “The same but different” is what the filmed entertainment business has been built on for 100 years.

Instead, you have created the atmosphere of a new movie opening every year with all the anxieties and problems of opening new movies. But you’re making television. People want comfort. They want to know what they are getting. They are thrilled to be surprised by just how vulgar the cook on “2 Broke Girls” can get on network TV, but they aren’t looking to be surprised by him popping out of the kitchen with half his face deformed by acid. Get it?!?!

With all respect to Argo and Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook… no one (and by that, I mean 8700 people and their pets) really gives a good gosh darn who wins Best Picture this year. Yet no fewer than 35 million people are going to tune in to watch the show anyway. What does that tell you?

People want you on that fence, Academy. They want you to be the stuffy, old people’s club that doesn’t drink too heavily and tell fart jokes or embarrass itself by demanding a champagne dinner after every screening. That is your brand. And there will be no other one for AMPAS that is ever as successful.

Your attitude has to be, “Who’ll win?” “Who cares? We’re going to knock you off your feet if Beasts of the Southern Wild sweeps and you never see a single person you recognize accept an award!” Not “Ooooooohhhh… look…. Oscar is touring a mall in Roanoke, Virginia. Come touch him! His story is your story.”

Go be the star you were always born to be. And when you do, no one will ever mention the double Spanx or the tape tha’s making those A-cups look like C-cups… cause no one wants to know. They want to believe you are magic. And unless you believe, they will never believe again. Put that in your voting formula and tweet it!

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2 Responses to “20W2O: All Over But The “And The Oscar Goes To”ing”

  1. movielocke says:

    Actually, the early oscar nominations made the rest of january boring and were the highlight of the week. I was less interested in the globes, not more interested in them. And I didn’t give a damn about the guild nominations or awards that came after the oscar nominations.

    What the early date did give me is a lot of weeks to schedule in the dozen or so films I hadn’t seen. Snow White and the Huntsmen, Mirror Mirror, Ted, The Invisible War, Searching for Sugar Man, Hitchcock, Anna Karenina etc

    and I sort of feel like the extra time has given some of the lower teired category awards teams and specialty venues like the American Cinematheque an opportunity to program some extra oscar stuff in. They did a week of DeNiro stuff at the Aero. A last minute public screneing of Invisible War. Invisible war suddenly found a slot at Arclight this weekend. Gatekeepers got out of the Gate. Laemmle secured the Doc Shorts at the Music Hall, 5 Broken Cameras made it to the traditional saturday sunday AM doc slot (which is usually the only way the public can see oscar nominated docs in the theatre during oscar season). Sugar Man and How to Survive a Plague got on itunes and amazon streaming (and probably netflix and hulu, which I don’t have) for rental.

    I for one, am really appreciating the extra time between nominations and the ceremony.

  2. Marc V. says:

    Although I do not agree with many things you say (I do not personally think a wider window between nominations and voting is a bad thing), I absolutely agree with you when it comes to point #5 “Surprise”. I still remember how delighted I was when Woody Allen showed up unannounced to introduce the tribute to New York City, post 9/11.. And I agree with you that having Streisand taking the stage and singing without it being heralded a month before, would have made for a much bigger impact.

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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