FOR years, everyone has complained that the summer movie season represents the low ebb of art and original ideas in Hollywood. But when it comes to the triumph of tawdriness and superficiality, nothing quite matches the endless Oscar prognostication monsoon, which now starts in August and doesn't end until the fat lady sings in late February.
It's the new silly season. The Oscar screeners are already arriving at my doorstep, the "For your consideration" ads have already been appearing in the papers and the Oscar pundits have been off and running for months.
Only in Hollywood could the most ambitious movies of the year be turned into grist for the Oscar mill, subjected to an endless fountain of gossip, hype and ill-informed speculation, as if they were starlets at a fashion show.
These days, everybody is an Oscar prognosticator: Sumner Redstone has been boasting everywhere that "World Trade Center" will get a best picture nomination, and Tavis Smiley opened a September interview with "The Last King of Scotland" star Forest Whitaker by saying, "I've got two of my [best actor] slots filled in" with Whitaker and Sean Penn from "All the King's Men."
The sad truth about Oscar season is that it has become a froth-filled marketing event, a publicity circus designed to hype lofty dramas that would otherwise have trouble getting any traction against giant studio releases backed by $40-million marketing campaigns. The old-school academy has completely lost control of its event, which is now overshadowed by a five-month run-up to the award show that -- for the talent, Oscar publicists and journalist hangers-on -- has become a grueling marathon of presentations, galas and Oscar parties disguised as DVD launches.
You rarely hear anyone complain, because everybody has something to gain. The worthy films benefit from the free publicity; the Hollywood trades and newspapers (like this one) reap an incredible bonanza in studio advertising; and little-known bloggers become kingmakers because Oscar consultants treat their websites as incubators for buzz to be picked up by bigger media outlets. And, of course, the actors get tons of free food and libations, not to mention ego-gratifying mentions of their names linked to an upcoming statuette.
The institution that really takes it on the chin is the academy, which has seen much of the air go out of its award show, ratings for which continue to drop as the telecast increasingly feels irrelevant in today's YouTube culture.
The only institution that might look worse is the media, which have become enablers for every academy aspirant, no matter how distant their chances. We now treat the Oscars as a horse race, pure and simple, with every aspect of a film beamed through the prism of award expectations. If Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) had been a film star, the headlines from our breathless pundits would have read: "GOP Congressman Resigns After Sending Sexually Explicit E-Mail to 16-Year-Old Page; Could Scandal Damage Foley's Oscar Chances?"
I wish I could argue that the media should exercise some sort of self-restraint, but I'd be laughed out of the building. That cat is out of the bag. The academy will have to help itself out of this jam. Since it can't stop studios from spending millions on Oscar ads or rein in the media's 24/7 Oscar obsession, it should focus on the one problem it can fix: an Oscar telecast that has grown hideously dull and anticlimactic. Everyone keeps suggesting new hosts, but that would be like hiring a new band to play on the deck of the Titanic.
What the telecast really needs is a new director, preferably someone who's worked at Fox Sports. Give the Oscars some sizzle: play-by-play commentators, sideline reporters, cool graphics, instant replay, super slow-motion and a little bit of that intoxicating big-game thrill in which you're glued to your seat, thinking anything could happen. It's time for the academy to admit that if you have a lemon, at least make some lemonade.