Org taps Bill Condon, Laurence Mark

Signaling a move to energize the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has tapped two Oscarcast first-timers to oversee the 81st annual event, with Laurence Mark as producer and writer-director Bill Condon as executive producer.

Vowing there will be surprises, Mark told Daily Variety, “We respect the tradition of the Oscars, and we’re happy to uphold those traditions. But it might be a kick to pay attention to the format and vary it — to do both. The show should be classy and fun.”

Recent kudocasts — including Sunday’s dismal Emmy ceremony — have been criticized for having become formulaic and stodgy. Mark and Condon are aware of this and of their responsibility with the mother of all awards shows.

However, the Academy board members have rigid ideas of what the show should entail, and every producer has to confront that while balancing the goal of tightening and lightening the show.

Condon said Wednesday one of their objectives “is bringing surprise back to the show and maybe a sense of mystery.”

This year’s Oscarcast hit an all-time ratings low, with an average audience for the three-plus hours of 32 million U.S. viewers (down from 40.2 million in 2007). February’s event reached an 18.7 household rating/29 share.

Mark said they’re very aware of the show’s running time, saying, “One of the key words here is ‘streamline.’ The fanny quotient has to be considered.”

Aside from honoring excellence in the year’s films in the 81st Oscarcast, Mark and Condon plan to celebrate the experience of movies — i.e., to acknowledge some of the audience favorites. That will certainly make the show more viewer-friendly, since last year’s lineup included such pics as “No Country for Old Men,” “There Will Be Blood” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which, despite their merits, were not exactly populist films.

But Mark said he and Condon were not given a mandate to come up with a ratings winner. “As with films, it’s first and foremost about the work and making it good. The intention is to put on the most entertaining show possible — and then pray to the ratings gods.”

Casting them as overseers of the show is a signal that the Acad did not want to go the “safe” and familiar route.

The two had a long lunch with Acad prexy Sid Ganis that “turned into a mini-think tank” about the show, Mark said.

Ganis told Daily Variety, “I walked away from that lunch saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if the two of them were willing to actually produce the show?’ Both of them are busy, working filmmakers, both are smart, tasteful, elegant — and they’re fun.

“We have the challenge of holding up the highest standards of the Academy and presenting the Oscars in their best light, and to do it in a way that’s entertaining as all get out,” Ganis concluded.

As for a host, Mark said some names have been bandied about, but nothing is set. It will probably be a single host and, as with movies, “The casting here is crucial. The host sets the tone.”

Mark produced “Dreamgirls,” which Condon wrote and directed, and which won two awards (sound mixing and supporting actress Jennifer Hudson) and eight nominations. In addition, Mark was nominated as producer of best-pic contender “Jerry Maguire,” and Condon won an adapted screenplay nod for “Gods and Monsters,” with another nom for his “Chicago” script.

While the Academy press release Wednesday played up the duo’s association with “Dreamgirls,” that doesn’t signal a more music-heavy show, Mark said. “It’s because the two of us have worked together, so there’s a shorthand,” he explained.

Condon is writing a film about Richard Pryor for the Weinstein Co., which he will direct. He also wrote and directed “Kinsey.”

Mark is in post-production on “Julie and Julia,” starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams and written and directed by Nora Ephron, for release next year.

Nominations will be announced Jan. 22. The Academy Awards presentation will be telecast live by ABC on Feb. 22.

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