At the Oscars, the spotlight, as always, is on the stars in their designer gowns and sleek suits. But this year, inside the industry, the high beams have been on Laurence Mark and Bill Condon, who have one of the least enviable jobs in showbiz: producing the Oscars. Like managing a baseball team, it's a job nearly everyone thinks he can do better than you. The dirty little secret about the job, which past producers privately acknowledge, is that you're not even in control of much of the event, since all but about 25 minutes of the show is basically unchangeable.
In its slightly madcap devotion to tradition, the academy insists that all of the awards, no matter how obscure, must be given out on camera -- compared to say, the Grammys, which presents only eight or 10 of their 100-plus awards on the telecast. With the Oscars, once you add the musical numbers, the tribute to deceased luminaries, honorary awards, and host and presenter patter, you don't have much time to try anything new. That hasn't stopped Mark and Condon from broadly hinting to virtually every reporter they've talked to -- including me, at lunch the other day -- that they're determined to freshen up the awards as much as possible.
Besides the most obvious change -- hiring song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman as host -- they've brought in Baz Luhrmann to do a big production number, have Judd Apatow paying tribute to comedies (the wildly popular genre that, ahem, never wins any awards), asked documentary legend Albert Maysles to celebrate documentaries and persuaded Queen Latifah to sing a show tune during the in-memoriam segment. There are sure to be other surprises as well, starting with a new look for the audience seating.
But will it be enough? As if Mark and Condon didn't already have enough pressure, the recent Grammys telecast set the bar higher than ever. Even though award telecasts have been in a steady ratings decline, the Grammys made a surprising rebound, drawing a 10% bigger audience, with an even higher ratings spike among the key 18-to-49 age group. If the Oscars' ratings drop again, the academy won't be able to pin the blame on a showbiz-wide audience decline.
Mark isn't entirely sure it's fair to compare the Oscars to the Grammys. "Don't get me wrong; they put on a great show. It really blew everyone's socks off," he said. "But they have the luxury of staging all those great musical performances and giving out comparatively few awards. But that's just not what the Oscars are all about." I suggested that the show would be dramatically improved if the academy gave out half as many awards, handing out the technical Oscars on a separate broadcast.
The producers weren't buying it, although their answer clearly leaves the door for change slightly ajar. "For the moment," Condon said, "one has to respect the academy for hanging on to its name -- after all, it's the academy of arts and sciences. We have to respect that and figure out a way to live within those parameters while still shaking it up a bit."
So far their efforts to shake things up have yielded mixed results. On the one hand, the producers have clearly raised media expectations, prompting various Oscar pundits to predict that this year's show will have a far more populist air than past shows, which felt stodgy and out of touch with today's culture. On the other hand, they've had a couple of pratfalls, starting with the news that Peter Gabriel had dropped out of the show, refusing to perform his "Wall-E" musical number, clearly believing that the musical numbers -- which have been largely reduced to a glorified medley -- weren't getting proper respect.
Perhaps the smartest change the producing duo have made has been largely overlooked: They've hired a new director, Roger Goodman, a Roone Arledge protege from ABC Sports. Goodman co-directed the 1984 Summer Olympics, directed the 1988 Super Bowl and, more recently, has worked the political beat, directing ABC's coverage of the Democratic National Convention and the Obama inauguration.
I admit that I'm biased, since it's the exact move that I have been advocating for years. The rationale is obvious. As anyone who watches Fox's NFL broadcasts or ESPN's baseball programming can attest, the most innovative work in television is coming out of sports telecasts, which make better use of the visceral nature of the medium than almost anything else on the air.
"If Roger learned from Roone Arledge, then he learned from a true innovator," says Mark. "He was completely excited about the challenge of doing something new. And we think he'll make the show more exciting too."
It's patently obvious that the Oscars are in need of far more systemic change -- it's still a wheezy, old jalopy in a fast-paced new TV era. But I left our lunch feeling the awards were in good hands, since the producers have shown through their own work -- the two had collaborated on "Dreamgirls" -- that they have smarts and class. They both have career challenges to tackle outside of the Academy Awards: Mark is about to produce a new James Brooks movie, while Condon is embarking on directing a film about the late comedian Richard Pryor. But this Sunday, they'll be judged on one thing and one thing only: Did they help reinvent the Oscars?