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Five Ways to Fix the Oscars

February 23, 2009
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Well that was it. The 81st Annual Academy Awards. It had a lot of great moments: the recognition of Indian film talent, Sean Penn’s moving acceptance speech on civil rights, and Tina Fey and Steve Martin’s introduction to the best screen play category (it was a highlight for me). Yet while there were plenty of wonderful moments, the only real magic of the night was when Philippe Petit of Man On Wire performed a slight of hand trick during the acceptance speech for Man On Wire.

In the industry there has been a lot of talk about the lack of interest in the annual television special. Last year the Oscar viewership fell to an all-time low, and while this year rose six percent, it still ranked as one of the three lowest viewed Oscars in history. Over the past few years various producers have been trying to spice things up. A few years ago they began handing awards in the audience (which died soon after), and this year they attempted to keep the presenters secret to lure in viewers. But much like the film industry in general, the Academy needs to re-examine the awards, and figure out what exactly they want out the show. Here are five things I would recommend to the producers and the Academy, for next years show.  

1. Pick a demographic and stick to it Certainly as a television program ratings are the number one priority for the show. But the truth is the show is not for the general public, it’s for the artists within the film community. Remember a few years ago when Chris Rock interviewed movie goers and asked them what they thought about the films nominated for best picture? Well most of the public had never heard of any of them. Look at the IMDB box office summary at any time and you will rarely find artistic gems up there. Most likely you will discover main stream block-busters that you will never see in that years Oscars. The Academy either needs to change the program, or come to terms that the show is about the artistry of film, and not about ratings. Either add a comedy category, or keep it traditional. Either keep the historic Oscar moments, or add more animated vignettes to the show (God knows Pixar owes you a few). Either start including Madea films, or come to grips that no one cares about that art house picture. I feel as if the ceremony is sitting on the fence of their own personal values and trying to draw in the public, and the result is a quixotic mix that is hard for either party to watch. 
2. Take advantage of your host Will Smith’s jab at Hugh Grant sleeping was well deserved. Aside from the singing and dancing he was hardly seen. Why hire top notch talent when you hide him back stage for the entire time? In my memory, the best hosts were comedians who added their personal color to their opening monologue, could effortlessly ad-lib between segments, and jab the producers for poor program decisions. There is no doubt Hugh Jackman is an incredibly talented performer. But when the majority of his time on stage is spent in long musical numbers, you suck the air out of the organics of the show. There is no room to improvise, and your entire program will make or break on time consuming numbers which require a lot of practice. Also on the “Don’t Hide Your Host” note, don’t place your host who’s in a black tuxedo in front of a black backdrop (with no back light) for two thirds of the show.
3. Celebrate Film They were very close this year. I did like how they tried to keep a theme throughout the night by showing the viewer the various aspects of film production (even though they were very out of order). But making the stage look like a sound stage (just a bit uglier than an actual warehouse), is not glamming up the awards in anyway. People watch to see what is in front of the cameras, not behind them. If you want to show the viewers how movies are made then follow the Golden rule in film: show don’t tell. Last year for the best editor category they showed the various camera angles on screens below an actual scene from the movie, showing the viewer how the editor cut it together. This year they showed a scene from a film as a narrator read the screen play aloud. And remember when they used to show the actors actual performance? The more you can reveal about the film making process the better. How about mini-documentaries showing the steps it takes to put on Benjamin Button Style make-up, or the mixer working with foley artists to create gun shots, or even an interviews with the actors on their take for best director nominees. I’d much rather watch these than musical numbers.
4. Flaunt what you got Why do people even watch the Oscars? For the same reasons people buy “Us Weekly” and “People” magazine, the stars. That is why the red carpet is practically a separate event altogether. Show back stage interactions between celebrities, instead of hiding the presenters announce who’s going to present the next award, and give the viewer something to stick around for. And why keep it to the show? The Superbowl has ingeniously used the commercial break to create a separate form of entertainment: the Superbowl commercial. Why not use the commercial break to display sneak-previews for the years new movies? Show unseen trailers for the summers blockbusters. Or what about video game commercials (they’re owned by the studios mother companies anyways)? Granted no studio wants to do this now due to the weak ratings, and paying for that time slot might not be worth it. But firstly, I think you could easily sell this idea to studios (show movie trailers during a movie show). And secondly, since the ratings are already low the slots should be cheap. Lastly, offering special trailers will keep the Tivoing audience more finely tuned, a win-win situation for the network and their sponsors. 
5. Make the live items more entertaining, and away from the presentations While I did love Ben Stillers bearded Phoenix impression, I found it incredibly disrespectful to Anthony Do Mantle. And I certainly was not convinced by Hugh Jackman that the musical is back. I liked a few years ago when all of the songs for “Best Song” were performed. And I loved the Will Ferrel and Jack Black song on the ‘Get Off The Stage’ song to set up the “Best Song” category (I do realize I just contradicted myself, but I don’t think anybody was disrespected in my latter example). Nobody wants to see a music montage of movies from the year, show them something new and original. Movie vignettes are great, and an excellent wild card for the director, but they show laziness and unoriginality to the viewer. And on that point, when you present the vingnettes show them on the screen, don’t have wide shots that distort the lettering, like during Queen Latifah’s presentation of the remembrance bit (And on that note, why were they missing the moment of silence?). I say use more comedians. The Oscars may mostly celebrate the dramatic actors, but remember that there were two masks: comedy and tragedy. If you’re there to celebrate the dramatic, and least use comedy to keep the viewer interested.
These are just a few ideas I have, but there are definitely plenty ways to spice up the show. For everyone in “the biz” the Academy Awards is still the Acme of artistic achievement. Almost everyone who spoke on that podium recalled a childhood dream where they were once the viewer, and they pictured themselves up on that podium. Don’t disrespect that dreaming youth by trying to water the show down for the laymen palette. There are plenty of other creative ways to attract viewers. 
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