On February 15, 2010, at the annual luncheon for Oscar nominees, producer Bill Mechanic delivered a simple message: stick a cork in it. “We want you to think about [the speeches] more seriously than you have in the past,” Mechanic told George Clooney, Sandra Bullock, Kathryn Bigelow and the rest of the 2010 Oscars class assembled at the Beverly Hilton hotel, according to the Los Angeles Times. The ritual of rattling off a list of names while the world looks on “isn’t just boring,” declared Mechanic, who co-produced that year's ceremony. “It’s the single most hated thing on the show.”
If only that were true. If only there were a single most hated thing about the Oscars, and a simple way to kill that thing. (Mechanic's idea was to create a "thank-you cam" where grateful nominees could thank their agents, junior high school principals, etc., in videos that would be posted online.) But dull speeches are just one gripe in a chorus that starts up every year without fail: the Oscars are too long, too boring, too white, too bland. Last year, a New York Times article added a new insult, wondering if Hollywood's premier awards institution had finally become “resistible.” Viewership has stalled in the lusted-after 18 to 49 demographic. And desperate attempts to lure the bloc back -- for instance, casting James Franco and Anne Hathaway as co-hosts armed with little experience but plenty of jokes about texting -- only make the Academy seem more out of touch.
On the battleground for relevance that is Twitter, the Oscars are also losing. More people watched the Grammys than the Oscars in 2012 (for the first time since 1984), and there were more tweets about the Grammys too, thanks to the show’s spry reorganization into a Whitney Houston memorial service.
It’s not as if there had been nothing to talk about: Billy Crystal resurfaced as host after years off, looking like a wax version of his younger self (and, at one strange point, appearing in blackface). Iran, catalyst of so much online energy, won the country’s first-ever Oscar, for “A Separation.” Angelina Jolie introduced the world to her leg. But social-media experts still pronounced the night a bore. “We were prepared for big spikes,” Jenn Davis, CEO of the analytics company TweetReach, told TechCrunch. Davis was talking about spikes in tweets per second -- or units of engagement, as a television executive might put it. But, on Oscar night 2012, “We just didn’t see those.”
So, you may be asking, what’s an Academy to do? Assign 100 sham Twitter accounts per member? Return to the untelevised days of old, when the show stretched past 2 AM some years, with no FCC censors (or Twitter) around to ruin the fun?
In the spirit of proposing a problem and also a solution, The Huffington Post canvassed critics, producers, and general know-it-alls to outline a master plan for the future. The prompt was simple: how would you fix the Oscars? The answers, compiled below, aren’t quite so straightforward. But taken together, they speak to the potential of a better night for all involved. All we can hope is that Don Mischer, producer of this year's ceremony, is wearing his reading glasses.
On this matter, "there'll always be a quarrel," the writer Gay Talese told HuffPost over the phone. And yet, among those we polled, one host in particular turned up the same review. Billy Crystal is -- let’s all say it together -- “past his sell-by date, as gallant as he’s been over the years,” said MovieLine editorial director Frank DiGiacomo, who rang HuffPost from the Sundance Film Festival. “They’re trying Seth MacFarlane, because they want young, brash and unpredictable, but he’s got his work cut out for him. The tone is incredibly important. You’re in a room of people whom you want to make laugh, but they’re sensitive. It’s very easy to offend them.”
Is testing the line-toeing skills of every comic in the Western world really the answer? (Or deeming them unfit even before tests, as happened to Sacha Baron Cohen, who was invited, then banned, from the stage in 2010?) Jeremy Boxer, director of the Vimeo Film Festival, a showcase for online videos, suggested “looking at hosts in a different way. They don’t necessarily have to be funny.” At both Vimeo festivals (there have only been two so far), the host functioned as a master of ceremonies, in charge of mild transitions, or “punctuation points,” between moments devoted to the show's true focus: the nominated films and players.
Sparing funny people from the Sisyphean task of simultaneously ripping into and coddling a bunch of touchy actors could revolutionize awards shows (or just neuter the genre once and for all). But reducing the host’s screen time won’t necessarily save our night, unless something can be done about that most hated thing.
“A concise speech is always a good idea. You could give the winners forever, and they still wouldn’t have enough time to thank their grandmother and their piano teacher,” Showbiz411 writer Roger Friedman assured The Huffington Post. “Tell them to be concise,” Friedman suggested, when we asked him how to achieve the desired end. But ... the thank-you cam! Bill Mechanic’s instructions! If it were as simple as telling the nominees why and how to cut things short, why haven’t past tactics worked?
Because everyone wants their gratitude to be heard, and will sneak the lines in no matter how many times they've been asked not to, said Boxer, of Vimeo. He proposed a way to build a winners’ thank-you list into the architecture of the show instead.
Scenario: Catherine, an actress wearing heels and a big dress, wins. “It’s going to take her 45 seconds to get to the podium," Boxer said. "That time could be used by the announcer saying, ‘Catherine wanted to thank her manager and this person and that person.’ By the time she comes to the stage, it’s no longer a fight against the music.”
Also, no repeating your speech from the Golden Globes, or even the Screen Actors Guild Awards, once you’re up there, Catherine! Channel the “wacky and emotionally pure” spirit of Jodie Foster at the 2013 Golden Globes instead, and go off-script, advised MovieLine’s DiGiacomo. “These actors are so relentlessly on-message, it takes away the thrill of the Oscars.”
Or there’s the “scorecard” idea, emailed to HuffPost by humorist Henry Alford. This system works beautifully both as a way to enliven bad speeches and to illustrate how inbred the Hollywood thank-you lists are: “Run tiny icons of Harvey Weinstein, Sam Mendes, all the dialects coaches, etc. on a banner; each time someone thanks, say, Harvey, the Harvey icon's head would swell with volume.”
“I don’t want it to be an opera by Puccini. I don’t want it to be a reading aloud of ‘War And Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy,” Talese told HuffPost, sounding as if he were reading aloud from “Green Eggs and Ham” by Dr. Seuss. “I don’t want to have somebody give me their view of President Karzai. I don’t want to hear about Iraq or Hillary Clinton. Those in Hollywood who think they’re very knowing on policy may want that, but I think it’s stupid. Don’t do it on Oscar night. We’re talking about entertainment.”
The 80-year-old writer described his ideal Oscar night as a tour of Hollywood’s “fantasy factory,” with no view to the outside world.
And yet, watching our favorite actors and actresses fumble through cue cards is rarely a transcendent experience. Alford, he of the expanding Harvey Weinstein head, shared an idea on how to change that: “Film all [the presenters] in advance, off-location. Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry present Best Sound, ringside from a boxing match, or from the womens’ bathroom at Grand Central; Josh Brolin and Kate Hudson present Best Special Effects from Cher's personal day spa.”
And what of the built-in somber moments? The In Memoriams? “We do not need a montage,” insisted Thelma Adams, a contributing editor for Yahoo Movies. “Not even for the dead. That’s why God created websites.”
THE SONG AND DANCE
Live musical numbers are “the worst part of the show,” according to Jack Herrguth, a developer of original programming at Comedy Central. “Forget all the dancing, forget all the singing. It’s fun to watch on the Internet or talk about the next day, but during the broadcast it’s usually pretty painful. It’s bad TV.”
Herrguth proposed playing clips of the movies over each singer’s performance. (“Adele’s singing live? I couldn’t care less!” went his enactment of himself on February 24, 2013.) Cutting away from musical superstars wouldn’t be the subtlest editing maneuver, but then, playing to one’s audience isn’t always a subtle game.
Another possibility: dispensing with the musical performers altogether. (God help the person assigned to give that message to Barbra Streisand, who is scheduled to sing at this year's Academy Awards for the first time in 36 years.) Alford suggested using technology to fillip the Best Original Song category: “Reduce each Best Song down to a ringtone. Put each ringtone on a cellphone given to the composer. Reveal the Best Song winner by calling him in the audience.” Fin.
The critics HuffPost spoke with were unanimous on this: go back to five nominees. Everything got screwy in 2010, when the Academy, under pressure after "The Dark Knight" missed the ballot the year before, increased the number of Best Picture nominees from five to as many as ten.
According to Friedman (fan of concise speeches), the result is a ballot padded with “faux” contenders that waste resources campaigning. “There are five other movies giving people parties, creating stories in the press," he said. "A lot of money is being spent that doesn’t need to be, and a lot of time is taken up.”
This year, nine nominees were chosen; the “real” five, according to AwardsDaily critic Sasha Stone, which tend to also have a Best Director nod (“Lincoln,” “Beasts Of The Southern Wild,” "Life Of Pi," “Silver Linings Playbook” and the ringer-with-a-chance, “Amour”) and the “faux” four (“Argo,” “Les Miserables,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Django Unchained”).
Which will win? Say hello to the next favorite topic for critics to rant about. Due to a “preferential” balloting system, members rank their top five movies, and No. 1's are prioritized, leading to “the least polarizing best picture winner every year,” complained Stone.
“It rewards the movies that people feel the most strongly about,” agreed Scott Feinberg, of The Hollywood Reporter. What's wrong with that? Well, it means a film a smallish number of Academy members go crazy for is basically a mortal lock -- producing results like "Hurt Locker" as Best Picture instead of "Avatar." (Between those who believe a Best Picture should be popular and those who couldn’t be bothered how many people enjoyed it, there is a great philosophical divide.) In the old days, Stone told us, "Avatar" would have at least stood a chance of splitting the vote. But its low final tally of golden statues (won for art direction, cinematography and visual effects) means the blockbuster lacked the fiery Academy support a Big Picture winner needs, according to Stone. The narrative of a battle between ex-spouses (Cameron v. Bigelow!) was likely not a reflection of reality so much as the public's wish for a tight race -- a phenomenon the preferential ballot renders impossible.
So, differences of opinion. But our court rests on this point: back to five, please, Academy, and ditch the new ballot. Oh, and also ...
OPEN THE GATES
“I wouldn’t want to make it like ‘American Idol,' but we’re living in the age of social networking,” Herrguth said. “At Comedy Central, we’re always finding ways to make things more interactive for the audience.”
How about a scaled-down reality-show format, with only a few categories for the general public to vote on, offered Herrguth? Best Dressed, for instance.
New York Magazine film critic David Edelstein added a warning: don't go converting core categories. Best Picture might be tempting to turn over to a popular vote, if only you could compel people to do their homework. Who's going to watch all nine movies?
Edelstein advocated a different kind of outreach. How would he fix the Oscars? By letting everyone know they’re, well, fixed. As in rigged. Predetermined. Let the public in on the particulars: Hollywood has its own campaign season, where stumping means trotting out a pretty actress at enough parties to impress voters with how convincingly she played plain. (That's exactly how the little-known French actress Marion Cotillard became Academy Award-winning French actress Marion Cotillard, according to Edelstein).
Last year, Edelstein said, the critical community knew “The Artist” would win based simply on the aggressive campaigning of Harvey Weinstein, who distributed the black-and-white silent comedy in America. “Why? How did I know 'The Artist' was going to win? How many voters are there? Four thousand? Six thousand?” (By the LA Times’ 2012 count, 5765.) “I don’t know any voters. I didn’t canvass, and yet I knew.”
Edelstein proposed a counter campaign, for public awareness. “The same way that we understand that’s how politics works, or we’re taught at an early age to be suspicious of commercials.”
Not that we'd choose to strip away the show's magic. In truth, we kvetch because we love. Even if James Franco and Anne Hathaway wind up on stage for a reunion next year with a bagful of jokes about Tumblr, it'll be OK. It may not be the night we want, but as Talese, an Oscar-watcher since circa 1940, assured us, "We're generally getting what we deserve."
This story appears in the special Oscar issue of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, Feb. 8.