Stymied by format, show plots secret changes

The Academy Awards are always built around suspense. But this year, the level of anxiety is a lot more than anyone expected.

At this point, the question of who will win at the Feb. 22 event is almost incidental to key execs at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which produces the show, and at ABC — which pays the Acad more than $50 million annually in license fees.

Both groups are particularly concerned over ratings after last year’s event hit a record low.

And network honchos have an added layer of suspense: They’re not sure what the show will look like, since kudocast producer Laurence Mark and exec producer Bill Condon have created an extraordinary amount of secrecy about the show — even keeping details away from ABC honchos.

The Academy, meanwhile, is hoping the show will mark a reversal of fortune after a tough year. Aside from the ratings and criticisms over the show, the org’s long-planned Hollywood museum has been put on indefinite hold, after initial costs kept rising and fund-raising hit a snag even before the global fiscal crisis.

Mark and Condon have promised surprises in the show, but skeptics wonder whether these will be mere tweaks rather than a reinvention. The Academy board insists that all 24 categories be presented during the telecast. When you factor in special awards, the tribute to the dearly departed and other kudocast staples, the producing duo have a challenge in bringing in a show at three hours.

The decision to hire stage and screen star Hugh Jackman to emcee — a departure from the show’s traditional reliance on comedians — was the first signal that the producers were planning something different. Word has also leaked that the show may shuffle the order in which awards are presented, or even alter altogether how the statuettes are passed out.

Mark, Condon and the Academy are even keeping the presenters a secret, which thwarts ABC in trying to promote star power.

That would have been an especially welcome angle this year as network execs groaned again that the Acad’s contenders for the 81st annual awards may not be enough of an audience lure. The lack of a popular big picture nominee like “The Dark Knight” may have cost the kudofest several share points; the assumption that “Slumdog Millionaire” is a shoo-in for the top prize may cost a few more.

The nominations of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie will help, but the five best pic choices are not household names. Paramount-Warner Bros.’ “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” has grossed $117 million, but the other four have earned that amount collectively.

In a Fandango/Comcast.net poll of more than 3,000 moviegoers at end of day on Jan. 22, the day of the nom announcement, 41% said that Oscar’s “biggest snub” was the omission of The Dark Knight” in the best picture category.

But Miley Cyrus and Bruce Springsteen, for example, also failed to score Oscar noms for their songs (“Bolt” and “The Wrestler,” respectively) and their presence might have brought in both younger demos (for Cyrus) and music fans (for Springsteen).

According to a separate Fandango poll (conducted before the noms), 81% of moviegoers say the Academy is out of touch with the tastes of mainstream moviegoers.

But the Motion Picture Academy isn’t the only org struggling to keep up with the times. In this age of fragmentation, every kudocast is finding it difficult to appeal to the broadest possible audience. On the TV side, Emmy winners “Mad Men” and “30 Rock” are little-viewed series; and in music, there are fewer and fewer mass-appeal artists — which is why the Grammys tend to invite the same performers every year.

The conundrum for awards show producers is coming up with a radical redesign that still stays true to the sanctity and decorum of the event. The¬†Emmys have attempted more tweaks than just about any other awards show, in an attempt to reverse that kudocast’s annual ratings plunge — but so far, those gimmicks have fallen flat.

Two years ago, the Emmys were presented in a “theater-in-the-round” format — and only succeeded in angering the audience members sitting behind the stage. One year the show stuck celebs on stage doing karaoke renditions of famous TV theme songs — but came off as a crass “American Idol” rip-off.

As for the Oscars, at least ABC dodged a bullet with the Feb. 4 decision to postpone TV’s digital transition.

Network execs were sweating for months that Oscars were the first major TV event to air after the originally scheduled date for the transition, Feb. 17 — only five days before the kudocast. Had it not changed, analog TV viewers like your Aunt Gertie might have tuned in for the Oscars, only to find static.

ABC is usually hands-off on the ceremony, which is produced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

But the net execs are at least looped into the Acad’s plans earlier in the process. This year, they were kept in the dark until late in the game; Acad officials were scheduled to finally fill the network in on its changes late last week.

Mark and Condon are first-timers at the event and even broke with tradition Feb. 2 by declining to address the 112 contenders assembled for the Academy’s 28th annual nominees luncheon. But AMPAS prexy Sid Ganis said the producers message to nominees: “Tell them to stay alert,” with hints that there would be surprises in the way the acting awards, for example, are presented.

There have been rumors floating for weeks in print and on the Internet about changing the seating arrangement at the Kodak Theater, and about Jackman’s participation in abbreviated production numbers of the three nominated songs.

Mark and Condon are talented, clever and enthused — but their challenge is daunting. They are determined to keep the kudocast at under three hours, even with the two dozen categories. As the production team and hosts discover every year, that leaves little time to actually reinvent the show.

Michael Schneider contributed to this report.

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