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The Oscars still growing at 80

Academy setting ambitious, global projects

Eighty is not generally an age for new ventures or grand plans, but for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which enters its ninth decade this year, growth and optimism are bywords.

“We’re bursting at the seams,” says Sid Ganis, the Acad’s prexy since August 2005. “We have projects working in every direction, all relating to the art of film and the world of film. We’re financially healthy. And we’re embarking on the most major project we’ve ever considered, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.”

Groundbreaking on that project is a ways off, but the Paris-based firm Atelier Christian de Portzamparc was recently commissioned to design the museum campus. Various sites were debated, but the final choice, in the heart of Hollywood, seems perfect: eight acres adjacent to the Acad’s Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study, which stands at Vine Street and Fountain Avenue. (A tiny portion of the soon-to-be-developed acreage remains unsecured, but Ganis seems confident that it will find its way into the fold.)

“We’re hoping to open in 2012,” says Ganis, who describes the museum as “depicting the art of film from its beginning to now,” with a history of the Academy paralleling cinema’s progress.

Bruce Davis, AMPAS’s exec director since 1990, calls the museum project “far and away the most ambitious thing the Academy has taken on,” noting that seeing it to fruition will require the Acad to undertake its first major fundraising campaign.

“We once said it would cost $250 million,” says Davis, “and we now know it will take more than $300 million. But we don’t want it to spiral out of control. We are a nonprofit, after all.”

To get a sense of the museum project’s scope, consider the org’s last fund-raising campaign, the comparatively minor drive in the early 1990s to endow the Margaret Herrick Library, which since 1991 has occupied the refurbished Beverly Hills waterworks on La Cienega Boulevard, a location renamed the Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study in 2002. That drive netted $15 million for the Herrick, and in good years, the endowment — which now stands at more than $20 million — generates enough investment income to cover the library’s annual expenses.

Academy monies are generated from various sources, including investment income, membership dues, even theater rentals. But the fees derived from the annual Oscar telecast are what keep the org in the black. “It’s what keeps us going,” says Ganis.

With 170 full-time employees, various educational and preservation initiatives and the upkeep of three facilities — the Pickford and Fairbanks centers and the Acad’s Beverly Hills headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard — there are plenty of costs to defray. Heck, the Oscars and Oscar-related events and expenses themselves cost the org roughly $30 million per annum. But the Acad rakes in more than double that in revenues relating to the Big Night.

Even in flush times, the Acad never rests on its laurels. With close to 80% of its income originating from a single night of TV, it can’t afford to.

“It’s not a problem,” says Davis. “We don’t have be the Super Bowl in terms of ratings — we are the most-watched night of entertainment on television — but there’s a growing disparity between the young, male, popcorn, summertime movie audience and the older female group that watches our show, and that’s because we nominate smaller, more difficult films. And whether or not the discrepancy will erode our TV audience, we don’t know, but we kind of keep an eye on that.”

This year, for the 14th time, Cates has been selected to produce the telecast, but he demurs that his experience makes the job any easier. “You’re more familiar with process,” he says, “but at the end of the day, it’s no easier to do. I’m constantly feeling pressure to make the show relevant — relevant to the world, which is eager for entertainment but also very disconnected. How do you make the show relevant to that? That’s the big issue.”

Concerns about relevance, though, go well beyond the upcoming telecast, or even the several that will follow. With technology allowing people to create ever more sophisticated home theaters, and downloadable movies increasingly more easy to get, the Acad is likely to find its very foundation threatened.

Ganis grants that the org mustn’t ignore changes to the marketplace. “We’re going to have to understand and live with what technology has to offer,” he acknowledges.

But he stands firm in defending the filmgoing experience as we know it. “Movies suggest presentation,” he says, “and the best way to see what we represent is in a movie theater, with people next to you, and you laughing and crying. The challenge is to preserve the basis of this.”

Davis echoes Ganis’ views. “I think it’s a potential long-term challenge,” he says about new technologies. “We’ve really pitched our tent on the theatrical experience, and if that should ever disappear entirely, we’d have to find a new basis for the Academy Awards or become a historical institution dedicated to what the cinematic experience once was. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”

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