Can Bruce Wring Out A Show For This Year’s Oscars?

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February 2, 2009
Oscars Suspense: Will People Watch?

LOS ANGELES — Flanking the grand staircase of the Kodak Theater here are pillars with spots reserved for the titles of Academy Award-winning best pictures through 2071.

But right now Hollywood will be happy just to wring a show from the movies of 2008.

The nominations of a still relatively little-seen crop of best-picture contenders — “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Milk,” “The Reader” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” which together have accumulated less than half the box office of “The Dark Knight,” which was snubbed — are making it harder for producers of the Oscar ceremony to deliver on an earlier promise: to create a big night for the movies, even if some of the movies are not so big. Operatives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are quietly scrambling to assemble an event that would make some extraordinary bows in the direction of the crowd while trying to do right by the honorees.

Producers of the show — to be hosted by Hugh Jackman and broadcast Feb. 22 on ABC — are even trying to liven up the proceedings by asking studios and others to provide scenes from future films, according to a request sent to various companies last month.

The idea, if the clips prove watchable, is for Mr. Jackman to sign off the broadcast with fresh 10-second snippets of two dozen new movies, to run on a split screen with the end credits.

That and other changes are aimed at raising low ratings for what the academy, which depends on the Oscars for almost all of its roughly $70 million in annual revenue, has been calling “The Biggest Movie Event of the Year.”

There is inherent drama in an off-center Oscar race that finds what many consider the presumptive best picture, “Slumdog Millionaire,” with no acting nominations while “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which leads the pack with 13 nominations, is viewed as an underdog.

But some of Hollywood’s most prominent players — including several with films in this year’s race — are privately grumbling that the rituals of Oscar night have outlived any real sense of excitement about the event.

After the American audience for last year’s Oscar show hit an all-time low of about 32 million viewers, ABC cut its rate for a 30-second ad on this year’s broadcast to $1.4 million from $1.7 million, according to Advertising Age.

The academy’s deal with ABC runs through 2014. But Walt Disney’s international television unit, which distributes the Oscar telecast abroad, has yet to renew the foreign-rights contract, which expires after next year’s show.

Kevin Brockman, executive vice president for Disney’s global communications, declined to say whether the company had begun negotiating a new deal for foreign rights or to say how much revenue comes from those sales abroad. But published reports have put the figure at about $15 million, and international interest in the Oscars appears to have remained strong while American ratings languished.

Laurence Mark, the show’s producer, and Bill Condon, its executive producer, declined to discuss further specifics of a broadcast they had said would have surprises and a party atmosphere. But a number of people involved with the production — most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid conflict with the academy — described details of a ceremony that would try to reconnect with the moviegoing culture.

A production team under the immediate supervision of Michael Seligman, who has been a behind-the-scenes manager of Oscar shows since the 1980s, closed the Kodak Theater to its usual daily tourist visits as preparations began in earnest last week.

“They’re always obsessive about keeping things secret, but especially this year,” said the writer Bruce Vilanch, another Oscar perennial who is again working on the show.

That Mr. Seligman, Mr. Vilanch and Danette Herman, a longtime talent coordinator for the Oscars, remain on board signals that not everything is changing. All of the awards, other than those for scientific and technical achievement, for instance, will still be presented on screen, despite repeated attempts over the years to push some of the less exciting categories — say, documentary short subject — to an off-camera forum.

Though tight-lipped, Mr. Vilanch, whose role has expanded from supplying his usual one-liners to more elaborate script work, let slip that there might be a shift in what he called “the grouping” of awards, though he declined to say what that might mean.

Others said the show itself would have a narrative line, with the awards arranged to tell a story that will involve presenters as well as nominees. In all, it is a bit of show business elaborate enough to require guidance from Fatima Robinson, who worked with Mr. Condon as choreographer of his film of the musical “Dreamgirls.”

Exactly who the presenters might be remains something of a mystery. Academy officials said last month that they planned to preserve an element of surprise this year by declining to identify in advance the stars who will hand out the prizes.

There has been a whisper as well that some celebrity arrivals on Oscar night might not walk the red carpet at all — a twist that would force the curious actually to watch the show itself to see all the celebrities and the gowns, rather than getting their fill from outside news media that cover the arrivals for a host of outlets.

One of the more ticklish situations has involved the nominated songs. Mr. Mark and Mr. Condon lost a ratings draw when Bruce Springsteen, an Oscar winner for “Streets of Philadelphia,” was not nominated for his theme song for “The Wrestler.” Meanwhile the nomination of two songs from “Slumdog Millionaire” could give the evening a Bollywood flavor if the songs were performed onstage, as has often been done. The other nominated song, by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman, is from “Wall-E.”

As of last week the plan was to build part of each song into a single production number. Mr. Jackman was expected to sing in another sequence assembled by the director Baz Luhrmann, whose credits include the movie musical “Moulin Rouge!,” and by the Broadway choreographer Rob Ashford.

Yet another film director, Bennett Miller, who was nominated in 2006 for his work on “Capote,” has been putting together a similarly novel sequence. It will feature some of the nominated filmmakers swapping thoughts with what the show’s insiders are calling “civilians,” the ordinary moviegoers who have drifted away from the last few broadcasts.

The biggest challenge, given the record, may be getting viewers to check out the retooled show at all. To that end ABC and the academy have for the first time begun a joint promotional program, coordinated by the Omelet advertising agency. “We decided that we’d get more bang for our buck if we had a fully integrated campaign with a consistent message,” said Janet Weiss, director of marketing for the academy.

The message, on posters and Web sites and in televised ads, aims to tell people that this year’s show has something even for viewers who may not care much for the nominees.

Anyway, Ms. Weiss said in a recent telephone interview, the more pop-minded fans should find a glimmer of comfort in the supporting actor nominations that went to Heath Ledger, as the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” and Robert Downey Jr., for his blackface turn in “Tropic Thunder.”

“The Oscars,” she said, “is a show for them too.”

Rebecca Cathcart contributed reporting.