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Academy’s Oscar dilemma

Biz has to let go of old business models

And the winner is… certainly not the Academy.

The big surprise was not the exit of Brett Ratner as Oscar producer but the fact that he was hired in the first place. It was yet another illustration of AMPAS executives’ dogged and misguided “let’s get hip” push to lure TV viewers. And once again, that tactic has turned around and bitten Oscar on his golden hind.

Eddie Murphy’s withdrawal as host on Wednesday was pretty much the other shoe dropping. But the whole flap points up the central dilemma for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences: In a world that’s rapidly changing due to the economy, technology and audience tastes, the entertainment business has to let go of old business models. The format for the kudocast was radical in 1953, but the Academy and producers of all other televised awards shows, which simply imitate the Oscars, need to make bold decisions to bring the kudocasts into the 21st century.

The hiring of Ratner, to bring new perspective to the show, wasn’t exactly bold: Cosmetic tweaks to a set-in-stone structure are not the solution.

If Academy honchos want to have an event that honors 24 categories equally on the air, that’s their right; if they and ABC execs want to have a gangbusters TV show that draws huge audiences, that’s great. But, clearly, they can’t have both. And they have to decide which they want.

Somehow, somebody got the idea that the solution is to bring in fresh contributors but force them to adhere to the old format. Trust me, AMPAS execs could hire Justin Bieber and the entire Kardashian family to host the show and it still won’t get the ratings they desire.

The backlash against James Franco’s hosting in February was out of proportion to his performance (the media was far less critical of co-host Anne Hathaway). Franco is a talented actor and a multifaceted intellectual, which are not the first qualities one seeks in an Oscar host. Casting is crucial in Hollywood, and Franco and Ratner were both oddly cast. And the media fury over Franco’s work seemed a veiled slap at the Academy for having hired him.

Similarly, Ratner has proven a successful director, but he’s also cultivated a party-fratboy image. When he continued to push that image in his interview on “The Howard Stern Show” Monday, AMPAS execs were mortified. But what did they expect?

Ratner’s homophobic remark was appalling and deserved to be addressed. Almost as appalling was AMPAS president Tom Sherak’s Monday whitewash of the comment: “He apologized and we will move forward … He has many friends who are members of the gay and lesbian community.” That’s a 2011 variation of the old “some of my best friends are…” excuse.

Tom, I think you’re a great guy, but if I’m ever in a PR scrape, please don’t come to my defense.

Sherak took a decidedly different tone in his comments after Ratner’s bow-out Tuesday, saying Ratner “did the right thing for the Academy and for himself … His comments were unacceptable.”

On Wednesday afternoon, AMPAS announced its new producer: Brian Grazer (incidentally, a producer of “The Dilemma,” which featured an unfunny anti-gay joke that Imagine refused to remove despite protests).

Grazer. Hmm. Clearly, the Academy is not ready for a bold decision. But maybe next year.

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