When controversy ended the short reign of Brett Ratner, who was originally chosen to co-produce the 84th Academy Awards with Don Mischer, followed by the exit of Ratner’s chosen host Eddie Murphy, it looked like this year’s Oscars were in deep trouble. But Academy president Tom Sherak quickly enlisted Brian Grazer to step in and join Mischer at the helm, and they hit the ground running, persuaded Billy Crystal to agree to host for the first time in nearly a decade and calmed the stormy Oscar seas. But until this morning’s nominations, they weren’t exactly sure just what kind of show they were gonna have. After all, the Academy instituted a new rule that allowed for anywhere between 5 to 10 nominees depending on the level of enthusiasm and first-place votes each film received — instead of the set number of 10 in the last two years or 5 in previous years. That there are 9 films that made the cut (a first for the Academy) had both producers and Sherak breathing a sigh of relief when I talked to them after the announcement. They all seemed genuinely excited at the prospects for the show.
“Remember, we knew way back when we started doing 10 movie nominations for three years that there was a group that felt it should be less than 10, that it should be five again,” Sherak said. “But this way the Academy members told us what it should be. We didn’t tell them. I think that’s a great thing, and I’m really proud of the Academy for us coming up with that and the board going along with it. The members gave us nine movies, not the Academy, and I think that’s a good thing for us.”
Grazer also seemed pleased with the results of the experiment. “Don and I are thrilled with this because it’s going to be very competitive. It’s already somewhat unpredictable,” said Grazer, an Oscar-winning producer himself for A Beautiful Mind. His own 2011 Oscar hopeful J. Edgar received no nominations, but that hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for the gig. “It’s exciting that Hugo got 11 nominations. It’s a big-scale Hollywood film. Marty’s a tremendous director, and we have so many other great films that I think for Don as director it gives him a lot to cut to. It makes it very unpredictable and it gives us some momentum that we wouldn’t actually have anticipated.”
Mischer says he only expected there to be six nominations for Best Picture, so he was pleasantly surprised. “When we got to the nine nominated films this morning, the first thing that popped to my mind was we’re gonna have a very electric audience,” he said. “I think when we go on the air there’s gonna be some uncertainty about who is gonna win. One of the worst things that can happen to us is by the time we get to Oscar time after a long run of awards shows that there is no horse race and everyone knows who is going to win in major categories. That makes it harder for us as producers to create an interesting show, but I think it is not gonna be that way this year.” Perhaps he was remembering last year’s show, which he also produced (with Bruce Cohen) and directed, where everyone knew The King’s Speech was going to win. “Brian and I have no control over this aspect whatsoever, so I think we were kinda blessed this morning by having other films emerge and look competitive.”
Sherak told me he also was thrilled with the outcome of the nominations even when I pointed out that of the nine Best Pic contenders, only one — and an unlikely one as well, The Help — grossed over $100 million domestically. The original move to 10 nominees for 2009 was to alleviate snubs for blockbusters like The Dark Knight. He agreed that it’s important to have box office successes in the mix. “Look, you want as many people to be as invested as they can. But its the 24th of January. We have a month for those studios to get those movies seen and the ones not yet released or in limited release to go wider. You want as many people as possible to see the movies. You want them to root at home and to do that they need to see the movies,” he said, possibly cognizant of the fact that no matter what you do with the show, it’s the interest in the movies themselves that draw the bigger ratings. The highest-rated Oscarcasts of the last few years remain the ones where movies like Titanic and The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King were sweeping the board. In fact, the Academy’s “We Showed You” marketing campaign for the telecast this year is geared to remind viewers of the emotions they felt about past Oscar-winning movies.
For Grazer, a first-time Oscar producer who came to this party very late in the season, it looks like he has no time to spare, eating a banana with one hand and a power bar in the other as we spoke in the Academy’s Goldwyn Theater. “I think the time goes so fast actually,” he said. “We started two months less than we ordinarily would have had, so it is just that everything has accelerated and the time is perishable, and we have to make sure we put on a good show. I think today was a great day for us because of all the nominations. We do want to get the right presenters, and I think it’s all coming together right now. It actually takes more time than I thought. I thought I could do this in a couple of hours a day, but I think it’s a longer exercise than that. But I am exhilarated by it.”
Mischer, who knows his way around live TV having produced everything from presidential inaugurals to Olympics to Oscars, adds: “The fact is until this morning the gun had not sounded. So we are now in the race, and we have four weeks to pull it all together. This is when the fun starts.”