Hollywood media leader: "Have to do something" to keep Oscars viewers

That much is obvious. It’s the identification of the “something” that’s got Hollywood up in arms, and the rest of the country largely yawning. Variety’s Marc Malkin spoke with the president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association about the changes announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to the Oscar broadcast and process, who offered a lukewarm endorsement … at best:

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association knows what it takes to put on a major televised awards show — they do it every year with the Golden Globes.

So, it’s no surprise that HFPA president Meher Tatna understands why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is shaking up the Oscar rulebook again.

“I feel for them,” Tatna told Variety on Thursday night at the HFPA’s annual grants banquet at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. “They have to do something to keep the viewers engaged and this is what they thought was a good idea.”

If that was’t exactly a full-throated endorsement, it’s still better than what most others had to say about the changes — especially the decision to create a new category for “achievement in popular film.” No one really knows what that even means, or whether it’s calculated to distance blockbusters from any sense of artistic achievement. Producer Jason Blum, whose Get Out was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, hailed the move while admitting that he’s not sure what it means either:

“I know it was a very hard thing to do politically, and I commend them for doing so,” Blum told Variety at the “BlacKkKlansman” premiere on Wednesday night, held at The Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater. “The Academy Awards have to be entertaining to watch, and I really think they took a step in the right direction with this.”

However, Blum isn’t sure what to make of the new contentious category of outstanding achievement in popular film. “I think that remains to be seen,” Blum said.

For the most part, however, the idea has been as popular as a special award for Ishtar:

“The film business passed away today with the announcement of the ‘popular’ film Oscar,” actor Rob Lowe tweeted. “It had been in poor health for a number of years. It is survived by sequels, tentpoles, and vertical integration.”

Focus Features CEO James Schamus was equally vocal. “So excited that the Academy is going to hand out the new Popular Movie Oscars award during its own TV spot in the middle of a Super Bowl ad break, thus assuring the biggest possible audience for it,” he cheekily tweeted.

The most dominant complaint in Variety‘s conversations with voters was that the Academy did not properly consult the full membership for input on such a consequential decision. It instead relegated the process to committee discussions (spurred by network pressure), and, ultimately, the board of governors’ approval. “They should have opened this up to everyone,” one voter said. “They haven’t heard from members. They heard from people who run the show.”

Added another: “If I were running things, I would be sitting down on a one-on-one basis with a handful of people [outside the organization] and saying, ‘We might do this. What is your take?’ This is PR 101.”

Golly — you mean Hollywood leadership might be as insular as Hollywood itself? Go figure.

If they want input from outside the organization, my column at The Week has an explanation of the real problem with the Oscars, and with awards shows in general. It even includes a solution:

Why does it take nearly four hours to hand out 24 awards? Assuming 44 minutes per hour of broadcast time after commercials, that would still allow 5.5 minutes per category in a three-hour broadcast. Trimming just a minute off of each presentation would allow for an extra eight minutes for musical numbers or presentations each hour.

Really, how long does it take to read five to 10 names, show a few short clips for select categories, open an envelope, and announce the winner? Two minutes for most categories? Maybe three or four for the acting awards? Why can’t this all be done more quickly?

This brings us to the real problem with the Oscars shows, both in terms of length and entertainment: the speeches. While there is technically a 45-second limit on these speeches, in many cases, the winners go on forever, seemingly unmindful of the difference between an acceptance speech and the end credits to a film, even when the speech is otherwise innocuous. …

Too often, the recipients forego gratitude to the Academy and to the audiences that buy their product, instead indulging themselves in an opportunity to lecture the audience on what they should think. It makes the awards show as entertaining as a four-hour political rally, because it has been a four-hour political rally for a very long time. Simply turning the show into a three-hour political rally won’t fix its broken entertainment value.

And so, if the Academy truly wants to fix the Oscars, the board and the producers should eliminate the speeches altogether, both before and after the envelope opening. Meet the winners on stage, present them with their trophies, and then walk them backstage to give their remarks to the press. That might free up enough time to stage a couple of musical numbers an hour, which would be — what’s the word for it again? — entertaining. That way, people who want to see their favorite entertainers can enjoy a fast-moving presentation without getting lectured into catalepsy. Heck, the show might even come in under two hours.

For those who really want to see the remarks, AMPAS can live-stream the rolling press conference on its website. They can watch that on their computers while catching the changes on television. The rest of the audience can choose to be entertained rather than lectured.

Until Hollywood realizes that its politicization has created the bloat, and that neither are entertaining, expect ratings to keep falling faster than Battlefield Earth’s box office.

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