The Academy Needs to Retool the Oscars to Remain Relevant

Mention the Oscars this week, and everyone’s response is, “Let’s move on.”

It’s not that simple. Having worked for three studios in years past, I well remember the post-Oscar traumas: winners demanding bigger paychecks, runners-up fearing vanishing start dates, studio number-crunchers looking in vain for box office bumps. Indie nominees like “Whiplash” this year clearly won’t get the boost of a past winner like “The King’s Speech.”

Amid these post-Oscar reassessments, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences itself would do well to do some soul-searching on several key issues.

The show, for example: The nasty reality is that the Oscarcast, from an artistic standpoint, is a stilted rerun of the Indie Spirit Awards, minus the cool. On the level of commerce, it’s a rerun of the Globes, with a flaccid script.

The Oscar show strives to be all about Hollywood, but it’s not. There was a curious absence of major stars as presenters this year — the entire Cruise-Pitt-DiCaprio generation disappeared in favor of stars representing the younger demo — and the program got smacked with a 16% ratings decline.

And while I like listening to “The Sound of Music,” it’s time for the Academy to take a more proactive role in mobilizing a new production team for the Oscar show — as well as a new point of view.

That goes for other issues, as well. During the presidency of Hawk Koch, the Academy’s membership seemed energized by several initiatives. Ideas were bandied about at a rare membership meeting -— one that has never been replicated. A subsequent survey of members elicited fresh attitudes toward the Oscar show and electronic voting procedures. No follow-up survey was ever conducted, and the tallies of the initial one have strangely disappeared.

Moreover, members are told that electronic voting has been a big success, but no data is supplied to support that claim. New procedures to distribute screeners and other material have been introduced, with no subsequent study reporting on their effectiveness.

The Academy seems consistently in defensive mode on diversity issues despite its strong initiatives in this area, and despite the fact its current president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, is an African-American woman. The Oscar show itself practically screamed diversity and political correctness.

An immaculate, pocket-sized report was issued last week by AMPAS, reminding members of its various programs: the admission of 271 new members, its continuing student awards (established in 1972), the $7 million gift from Dolby Labs to its new museum. The report, however, reads more like a corporate document than one emanating from an organization of professionals. “We continue to set a standard of excellence for the cinematic arts and sciences worldwide,” the report declared smugly.

During his opening routine at the Oscarcast, Neil Patrick Harris unexpectedly dropped the fact that the eight nominated pictures had grossed a total of $600 million, with Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” accounting for half. This was an oddly mixed message: Was the point to emphasize that, except for Eastwood’s success, the seven other films didn’t do very well at the box office, averaging around $40 million apiece? Or was the idea perversely to stress the fact that the combined grosses of the indie movies didn’t match the losses of “Jupiter Ascending” and “Seventh Son,” the first tentpoles of 2015?

Or was it inserted into the script just to remind us that the Academy itself seems to be stuck somewhere between tentpole heaven and indie hell, and that it doesn’t quite know what to do about it?

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