HOLLYWOOD — If there is one night a year when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences could be forgiven for forgetting about the rest of the world, it’s Oscar night. Yet far from the carpets and the Governors Ball, the evening brings one of the Acad’s most far-reaching and effective charitable efforts, Oscar Night America.
This program lends the org’s support and prestige to one Oscar party in 38 cities across the country. Each do is hosted by a nonprofit and is run as a benefit for local and/or national charities.
Oscar Night America has turned into a huge hit for the Acad. In less than a decade it has raised millions for a vast range of nonprofits, including the Arthritis Foundation, Ronald McDonald House and the Detroit Institute of the Arts. It also has given thousands of people across the country a chance to feel a part of the Oscars and helped turn the Academy Awards into a truly national event.
The oldest Oscar Night America party started in 1988, in the living room of Minneapolis activist Scott Mayer. Mayer had friends over every year to watch the ceremony and would run a winner-take-all pool. That year, Mayer and a dozen of his friends had collected $80 in the pot, and decided to donate it to the Minneapolis AIDS Project.
Mayer realized that this might be a good way to raise money for worthy causes so the following year he made the party public. “It was almost like a potluck,” Mayer tells Variety, “it was very homey and corny.” But 110 people raised around $1,000.
Mayer’s party continued too grow and a few years later, he got an urgent message to call the Academy. “I thought ‘Oh no, I’ve violated some copyright, and they’re going to punish me,'” he recalls. “But they said we hear you’ve got this great event in Minneapolis and we’d like to sanction it and help promote it.”
“The Academy decided it was time to help with these parties,” says Mikel Gordon, AMPAS associate executive administrator.
The Academy permits sanctioned parties to use the trademarked Oscar name and image on programs, posters and promotional materials. It also provides every Oscar Night America partygoer with a copy of the same program handed out at the ceremony and host organizations get copies of the commemorative poster.
As Oscar Night America grew, the Academy first focused its support on markets where the Oscars weren’t generating the high ratings they get in the media centers. The Southeast bit on the concept almost immediately. “Charlotte, (N.C.), was incredibly enthusiastic and has thrown a wonderful party each year.” says Gordon.
Today there are 38 Oscar Night America parties and Mayer’s Minneapolis potluck has grown to a black-tie evening for 3,500 people, with fundraising boosted by a battery of corporate sponsors.
This year boasts two new cities, Memphis, Tenn., and Baltimore, and a new program to generate excitement for the parties. A few years ago, AMPAS decided to lend out some cities actual statuettes so that partygoers could get a close-up look at an Oscar.
“Some cities didn’t seem to know quite what to do with them,” says Gordon. “So this year we asked cities that were interested in having a statuette to tell us how they would welcome the statuette.” As a result, Oscar will get special welcomes in seven cities, arriving in Honolulu by outrigger canoe and rolling into Tuscon, Ariz., on a stagecoach.
Oscar Night America has been so successful that there is even talk of taking it international. “All of South America is roughly at the same time as North America,” says Gordon, “and we’ve had great interest in England, Ireland, Australia and Japan.
“It surprised us how wonderful it turned out to be. We started out very tentatively, but people were so enthusiastic. Just seeing how much people love to watch it was very energizing.”