Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ways to Shine Up the Oscar Telecast

On Sunday comes the king of all award shows, the Academy Awards. Its ratings have dropped over the years, and many people have pointed to the show's length and format as potential culprits. The Oscars usually run in excess of three hours, and its bylaws require that every competitive award it gives out be included in the televised broadcast, something the Grammys and Tonys don't have to worry about. The MTV Movie Awards, by comparison, scarcely run two hours, though MTV's video awards ceremonies and many other kudocasts rival Oscar's running times. In recent years, various producers have tried to make the show faster, leaner, and more appealing to younger audiences. Best Song performances have been cut to save time, but on Sunday they're staging a comeback. Montages were all the rage in 2010, but in 2011 they're out. We've seen experiments with different presentation options, scripted segments, pre-recorded videos, monologues, and all manner of wacky set designs. Some have come out better than others. And of course, like any random passerby, I have my own suggestions.

Cut down the number of presenters. I know that the Oscars are supposed to be a prime opportunity for stargazing, but there's no reason why you need different presenters for every single award, clip package, tribute, memorium, nominee spotlight, and to introduce Academy president Tom Sherak and the accountants. Every time you have a new presenter you need a new introduction, a new bit, and have to wait for that acknowledging round of applause. In some cases an introduction of a presenter can be longer than the presenter's actual appearance. Better to shift some of those duties to the hosts and the announcers instead of bombarding us with cameos by every bankable star in the Hollywood. Quality counts more than quantity. Fewer presenters also means that the ones who do get picked for the honor will have more time to actually do something memorable onstage. Besides, the endless Oscar red carpet preshows give audiences plenty of stargazing opportunities already.

Show, don't tell. Some Oscar telecasts have turned themselves into mini-film schools, explaining what certain categories are meant to honor, especially the more obscure technical ones like "Sound Editing." The categories for Best Shorts came under fire recently, and some suggested that they ought to be eliminated. This led to an Oscar telecast segment with familiar directors explaining why the categories were important and should be kept. It was a nice gesture, but highlights a key problem I have with the approach. I used to anticipate seeing the Animated Shorts category every year, because they would show brief clips of the nominees. In many recent broadcasts these have been eliminated, along with clips from other smaller categories, taking away the only chance for the national audience to see a couple of seconds of what's actually being nominated. The Oscars seem terrified of simply letting the work speak for itself, which is a shame. I'd rather look at the costume designs, production artwork, and special effects reels for a few moments more instead of listening to a presenter awkwardly try to convince us why these categories are worth our time.

Stop rushing. There's nothing that makes an award ceremony feel overlong than the people on stage trying to hurry their way through material and the orchestra being on a hair-trigger, ready to go off at the slightest sign of an acceptance speech that may go longer than twenty seconds. By all means, be jerks and cut people off in the name of expediency, but every time the music swells the audience is left straining to hear the poor recipient, and unconsciously expecting something climactic to happen. Maybe the orchestra cues could be replaced with the flashing light system from political debates. Or Charlie Rose calling time once they hit the limit. Or semaphore signals. And if the show is running long, for pete's sake, pretend that nothing is wrong. That extra five or ten minutes will go by a lot faster if the host doesn't suddenly stop quipping, and the presenters aren't rushing around like headless chickens. Some of those poor actresses simply can't move very fast in the getups they wear on Oscar night, and I'm always worried someone is going to take a spill. And then the show is just going to be longer, isn't it?

Loosen up a little. I'm all for tradition and I'm all for preserving Oscar's legacy of good taste and Hollywood elegance, but there's no reason why the atmosphere has to be so stuffy and self-important so often. An award show should be entertaining, be it through pageantry or jokes or just sheer star wattage. Instead of trying to micromanage the time it takes to hand out the awards, why not just insert a few more purely frivolous segments to keep the show's momentum going? Add a halftime show, like the similarly lengthy Superbowl uses to break things up. This doesn't necessarily mean song numbers and dance routines. Pretaped comedy segments, mashups, running jokes and parodies have worked in the past. There's no reason why the fun stuff has to be confined to the opening number, and they may work better if interspersed throughout the show. If montages are out, send Tina Fey and Will Ferrell on stage to re-enact the year's best moments in comedy. Or have the nominated directors quickly remake each other's films on the fly for laughs. Offer to have professional award recipients fill in for those winners who are too overwhelmed to talk coherently. With all this talent in the room, why not use it?

Finally, if the Academy Awards producers want to pander to the Internet generation, they should take a little inspiration from their target audience. Right now enterprising Youtube remixers and vidders do a better job of presenting the nominated material in ways we haven't seen before. Everyone's familiar with the same few clips of "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network" by this point. I know I'm sick to death of Jesse Eisenberg's "Do I have your full attention?" scene. Instead, when spotlighting "The Social Network," why not intercut his takedown with one of Colin Firth's stuttering fits as King George VI? Why not recruit the actors and shoot a quick alternate ending that reveals Facebook was the product of an "Inception" job by Leonardo DiCaprio? It's silly, sure, but it's the kind of material that keeps the audience on its toes and boredom at bay. One of my favorite Oscar skits in recent years was Seth Rogen and James Franco, as their marijuana-loving "Pineapple Express" characters, watching and commenting on the 2008 nominated films. At one point they convince celebrated cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (with his Oscars in tow!) to join them on the couch. The Academy could stand to poke more fun at itself, and a little irreverence never hurt anybody.

Or they could always hire Ricky Gervais to host. And duck.

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