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Actors might not show, but Oscar will

January 19, 2008|Gina Piccalo and Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writers

The tentative settlement reached this week between the Directors Guild and producers bolstered hopes that talks would resume in the writers strike, but it wasn't enough to relieve the queasy reality settling on Hollywood that the Academy Awards may go the way of the celebrity-free ratings downer that was Sunday's Golden Globes.

However, Gilbert Cates, producer of the award telecast, remains adamant that on Feb. 24 there will be a red carpet outside the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood and an Oscar telecast on ABC despite the Writers Guild of America strike and the threat of a boycott by George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and the rest of the Screen Actors Guild. He hinted that he might not need actors onstage.

"There are enough clips in 80 years of Oscar history to make up a very entertaining show," Cates said in an interview Friday with The Times. "We'd have a lot of people on stage." He declined to give further details but added, "I just hope that the actors are there. I pray that the actors are there. I'm planning that the actors are there."

Still, the joy is already being drained from Tuesday's scheduled Oscar nomination announcement. A group of 30 award-winning writers, actors, producers, directors and authors will protest at Gramercy Park in Manhattan, sending this message: "Awards are nice, but we'd rather the writers get a fair contract." Later that day, in Los Angeles, the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be holding an emergency meeting to discuss the 80th annual Oscar ceremony.

The stakes are incredibly high. Last year's four-hour Oscar telecast drew nearly 40 million viewers and generated an estimated $80 million in ad revenue. In Los Angeles, tourism officials say award season marks the city's highest hotel occupancy of the year, representing 5% of Los Angeles County's annual room revenue. And the city's fashion designers, hairdressers, limo drivers, florists, caterers and celebrity wranglers will be hit especially hard -- unable to benefit from the economic boon award season usually brings -- unless the labor dispute is settled between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers or unless the guild grants the academy a waiver to use union writers.

"The Rose Parade and the Academy Awards are the two biggest events of the year for Los Angeles," said Carol Martinez, spokeswoman for LA Inc., the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Millions of people around the world watch it on television and say, 'It's Hollywood! It's celebrities!' and that makes a lot of them decide to come here on vacation."

Despite Cates' optimism and ABC's intention to move forward with its telecast, there is plenty of anxious speculation as to how a writer-free ceremony might play out. Producer Laura Ziskin, who produced the show last year and considers herself supportive of the WGA, isn't expecting much.

"If [the academy doesn't] get a waiver, and the strike isn't settled, there may be a way to do some kind of show, but it won't be the Oscars we're accustomed to," she said. "The Golden Globes were instructive. As much as people complain about award shows, what the Golden Globes demonstrated [was], an award show ain't much without the show."

The industry is still shellshocked from the ratings drop-off of Globes viewership -- 5.8 million compared with the usual 20 million viewers, which cost NBC a reported $10 million to $20 million in lost ad revenue. Thus far, the Writers Guild has granted waivers to three televised award shows: the Screen Actors Guild Awards, set to air Jan. 27 on TBS and TNT; the NAACP Image Awards, airing on Fox on Feb. 14; and Film Independent's Spirit Awards, scheduled Feb. 23 on IFC. CBS had to scrap plans for a live telecast of the People's Choice Awards earlier this month, airing a taped show with clips of actors accepting their awards on different sets and locations.

Now the Recording Academy awaits a decision from the WGA on its request for a tentative agreement that would allow the 50th Annual Grammy Awards to go forward on CBS on Feb. 10. Grammy chief Neil Portnow told The Times that the show will go on regardless. On Thursday, high-profile nominees Beyonce and the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl announced their plans to attend.

Movie companies, meanwhile, are weighing the marketing fallout of this divisive award season, which usually can be viewed as one long advertisement. Major studios typically spend about $100 million collectively on Oscar campaigns. Without televised award shows that draw a worldwide audience, however, this money isn't so wisely spent.

"Obviously, the Writers Guild is trying to, like all unions do when there is a strike, make it as painful as possible," said entertainment attorney Eric Weissmann, who has represented many of the major studios. "Canceling the Academy Awards would really hurt [the studios] because it hurts the pictures that have a chance to generate more money because of the awards."

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