Awards show lesson: Innovate, but not too much

Let’s be blunt about it:

It looks like Jim Cameron will save old Oscar yet again.

“Avatar” is the betting favorite to win best picture. Since it takes a populist movie to pump life into the Oscar ratings, “Avatar’s” box office largesse will likely translate into another “Titanic”-like bonanza. Back in 1998 some 55 million viewers tuned in, while last year’s “Slumdog” siesta totaled a mere 36.3 million.

But here’s the other possible scenario: If Kathryn Bigelow’s “Hurt Locker” wins best picture and her ex-husband has to settle for best director, that could create strong melodrama as well as strong ratings. The Cameron-Bigelow union was put into turnaround in 1991. They’re still friendly, however, and even trade notes on each other’s first cuts.

We realize that the Oscar show’s new producing team of Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic is hard at work on plans to enliven the broadcast, but they are also keenly aware of the ratings realities. A movie like “There Will Be Blood” does not mean there will be audiences. The awards process is energized when folks out there have actually seen at least one or two of the movies being honored.

That’s why Cameron and Bigelow seem like a lot sexier casting as star players than, say, the Coen brothers.

While Shankman and Mechanic may have been dealt a lucky hand this year, we’d still urge them to read a new book titled “Party Animals,” written by Variety’s Robert Hofler.

The book will remind them what happened when a previous Oscar producer, Allan Carr, decided to introduce a few innovations in 1989. Carr was a flamboyant showman who had struck paydirt with “Grease.” He decided to glitz up the Oscar show with flashy fashions and big production numbers.

In one famous number, Rob Lowe, cast as Prince Charming, did a song-and-dance routine with Snow White. It was a catastrophe; in fact, the Disney company promptly sued.

In another number, a chorus line of aspiring young performers did a song titled “I Want to Win an Oscar.” The group included Patrick Dempsey, Christian Slater and Tyrone Power Jr. None of them could sing and dance. It was a miracle their careers survived the evening.

The show did not help either the Academy or Allan Carr. The headline in the Los Angeles Times described the Oscar show as a “Carr Crash.” The night after the broadcast the Academy received a formal letter of protest from a group of stars and star filmmakers including Gregory Peck, Paul Newman and Billy Wilder.

The basic lesson of the evening: It’s OK to say you’re going to mess around with the Oscar show, but don’t really mess around with the Oscar show.

At least the good news for Shankman and Mechanic is that lots of people will be watching. That in itself represents positive change.

AOL-TW merger begets regrets

I have known many CEOs over the years, but until Gerald Levin came along I never knew one who admitted a mistake.

Mergers have collapsed, companies have gone up in smoke, but CEOs never play the blame game — that is, the self-blame game.

Now along comes the former CEO of AOL Time Warner who acknowledged on a CNBC show broadcast Jan. 6 that the idea of combining AOL and Time “Warner was one he now regrets. Indeed, the fact that Levin would agree to appear on a show titled “Marriage From Hell: The Breakup of AOL Time Warner,” reflects Levin’s revisionist thinking.

“The aftermath was terribly painful,” Levin said (10 years later). “I would criticize myself for believing strongly in the power of an idea … a transforming transaction.” What he didn’t say was that the transaction involved merging a very profitable media company with what would become a very unprofitable new media company.

David Faber, his interviewer, pushed too far when he asked Levin if he would describe the AOL deal as “the worst deal of the century.” Levin declined to agree.

For the sake of CEOs everywhere, I’m glad he drew the line.

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