EXCLUSIVE: It’s official. Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, producers of the Oscar show for the past three years, will not be returning for round four and the Academy is now beginning a search for a new producer(s).
Although Zadan had hinted about this in a cryptic tweet shortly after this year’s show, reps for the Academy and the producers maintained that nothing had been decided. Now it has. The Academy’s Board Of Governors met Tuesday night for the first time since Oscar night and the question of whether the producers would be retained was indeed discussed, as was what the future of the Oscar show should be (and that includes the much media-driven speculation on whether they should go back to five Best Picture nominees). But sources tell me nothing at that meeting was decided about anything. One Governor told me yesterday they will be assessing every aspect of the show and make major recommendations.
But the vibe I get is that after three years (the longest consecutive run since Gil Cates did three in a row 16 years ago) there was a distinct feeling the show needed fresh eyes. In an exclusive conversation though, Zadan and Meron told me they had been thinking they wouldn’t return and that this is their decision. “Frankly before the Oscars this year were even broadcast, we were questioning whether or not, if we were ever asked, whether we wanted to do it again, and we had long talked about it, and also had casual discussions with (President) Cheryl (Boone Isaacs) and (CEO) Dawn (Hudson) about it way back when, and the past couple of years have been incredible, but at the same time, we’ve also put a lot of projects on hold, and they haven’t been getting our full attention,” Meron told me in a nearly hour-long phone call with the producing team.
And Zadan pointed out they were at the end of their agreement as well. “What people don’t know is that we signed a three-year deal with the Academy, and it was never announced, and it was never revealed to anybody, and they had asked us when we came on would we sign for three years. They said this idea came about because of having people come on for a year, they learned how to do the show, and then they’re gone. So there’s no continuity, and the ability to work with people for several years in a row seems like a really better way to go. So it was at that point we committed to three years,” he said. Simultaneous with their agreement with the Academy expiring, Zadan said they have signed a new three-year deal with the Shubert Organization to develop Broadway shows (past hits included revivals of Promises Promises and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying), as well as a new three-year deal with NBCUniversal Television to do series and continue with their live events musicals such as The Sound Of Music and Peter Pan which aired over the past two holiday seasons. In fact, though it hasn’t yet been announced, they confirmed a third live musical for the 2015 holiday season, but the title is under wraps (speculation is it’s The Music Man, but they wouldn’t bite when I asked). The pair also have a three-year deal with Sony for TV movies and miniseries, and are developing feature films, including a movie musical version of Pippin for The Weinstein Company, which is moving along in the script stages right now.
“We’ve got to go back to our day job. So it just sort of worked out where we just thought we feel like we’ve accomplished what we wanted to accomplish by doing the show for three years,” Zadan said. Ratings for their first two shows, hosted respectively by Seth MacFarlane and Ellen DeGeneres, increased with the 2014 show posting the best numbers since 2004. This year, following a trend of other kudos shows like the Golden Globes and the Grammys, ratings dropped 16% for the Neil Patrick Harris hosted edition. Though the show was heavily criticized both outside and, from what I am told, inside the Board of Governors, that ratings drop was expected no matter what took place on stage or if any of Harris’ bits from underwear to magic tricks worked (most fell flat – or worse). Still, the Academy Awards remains annually the highest-rated event on TV other than the Super Bowl, and the ratings discussion is really about the Oscars competing against their own past performance.
But the fact is, other than American Sniper, the Best Picture nominees were not widely seen by the public and there was no rooting factor. Zadan says the Academy was not shocked. “In our discussions before the show was telecast, we all said it’s going to go down the way all the other award shows are going down. The morning the nominations came out we put everything on a board and then we looked at each other, and we said ‘okay, these are really good movies with really good people…but nobody has seen these movies (Sniper had only played on four screens at that point). The country and most of the world don’t know who these people are because you don’t have a year with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and George Clooney and all of these people and there’s no way in television that you’re going to bring in an audience who don’t know the movies, don’t know the actors, and not have substantial decline in ratings. There’s just no way. At the end of the day we thought this is possibly problematic and it’s going to be a long haul,” he said.
They also aren’t blaming their host. “I think people were genuinely excited to see Neil as the host, and people love him. So it has nothing to do with Neil,” said Meron about the four-time Tony and two-time Emmy host, who had what many called a bumpy night. Critics and many Academy members with whom I have spoken felt differently about the show and repeatedly faulted the writing and a number of Harris’ comic attempts, from a drawn out magic trick with Octavia Spencer to a tasteless joke about an Oscar winner’s dress after she just poured her heart out over the suicide of her son. There was particular head scratching and even anger when he came out in his underwear in a Birdman take-off (probably lost on anyone who hadn’t seen the film). One Governor, who serves on the show review committee, told me that moment was the single lowest they have ever seen on an Oscar show. Conversely though, he praised the staging of the Oscar winning song, “Glory” and said it was one of the greatest emotional moments he had ever seen on an Oscar show.
Zadan and Meron were also hugely proud of the Lady Gaga The Sound Of Music segment which drew wide praise and lots of social media reaction as well as one of the night’s numerous standing ovations. Zadan said it had been planned for six months and Lady Gaga threw everything into the performance which ended with an emotional surprise on stage appearance by Julie Andrews. Meron, who says their mission was to add much more live entertainment, indicated according to ABC research those are the kind of moments most people care about, and Zadan added that the highest spikes in the network’s minute-by-minute ratings study supports that.
Still despite highs like that, the knives came out for the (very) long telecast. There was even talk among Board members Tuesday night about possibly taking some of the bigger categories, usually saved for the end of the show, and put them earlier to keep East Coast viewers engaged at their late hour. One Governor used the word “fiasco” in describing his opinion of the 2015 Oscarcast, but Zadan and Meron are used to the slings and arrows of critics of all stripes. “I’ll show you the scars,” Meron laughed. “But they heal quickly. When aren’t they harsh? It’s like, to which degree? At a certain point, you just have to do the best job you can and tune everything else out, because when so many people watch this and so many people are invested, you’re going to hear a lot of noise, and you just have to hunker down and do the job,” he said adding that people are still complaining about their first year when MacFarlane hosted and drew controversy for his “We Saw Your Boobs” musical parody. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Zadan. “I think we’ll go to our graves and they’ll be talking about that. The most famous song in Oscar history,” he laughed. He said at a recent lunch that MacFarlane said he was attempting to do a Monty Python-style number and nobody got it.
Zadan says in many ways it is a no-win situation. “We get attacked, or have been attacked as the producers, for things we have nothing to do with. We are viciously attacked for In Memoriam, and nobody understands that the Academy board picks the people in the reel. We have nothing to do with it. We had a lot of people attacking us saying ‘how dare you not put Joan Rivers in? And the same thing happened this year to us at the beginning of the cycle when we got the most horrible, awful emails, texts and tweets from people calling us racist, calling the Academy racist, calling the Oscars racist, and it’s like we have to say we don’t have anything to do with the voting (ed note: both are Academy members though),” he said in reference to the fact that all 20 acting nominees were white, and the perceived snubs against Best Picture nominee, Selma. Meron adds, “As a matter of fact our shows have included the most diversity out of all the shows that we’ve done in the past. For the past three years, for us it was never really an issue because as Shonda Rhimes likes to point out, ‘it’s normal’. It was never like we had to have a quota system. It’s not. This is the world.”
“So we didn’t react to the racist thing and then book a lot of (presenters) for that reason. They were booked before we even knew who was going to be nominated. But I do think that in the last couple of years, and especially this past year, I think we’ve had more diversity than I think anyone’s ever had before on the show,” Zadan said.
Now that they are moving on, the pair point to many things and innovations they are proud to have brought to the Oscars, including Team Oscar in which college students were chosen as statuette presenters; having all 24 categories announced live on nomination morning; putting all the nominees in many creative craft categories together in one of the boxes to eliminate long walks to the stage, and many others. And among the highlights of their stint they point to bringing in a rare singing appearance by Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler’s first performance on an Oscar show, Shirley Bassey singing “Goldfinger”, anniversary celebrations like Pink singing “Over The Rainbow” for The Wizard Of Oz’s 75th, or Lady Gaga’s turn for The Sound Of Music’s 50th. They were especially animated in talking about how DeGeneres’ selfie and pizza bits worked, as the producers were flying without a net on those. So, any regrets?
“I think that you have regrets about every show. I think that is because it an unproducible show. It’s a show that is so enormous, that has so many elements to it, that has so many stars that you’re dealing with and so many aspects to it, that you’re barely about to get it up and running on stage by the time you’re telecast,” Zadan said without ruling out that someday they might want to do it again. “It’s the only job that I know that we’ve ever had where we’ve never been more stressed out, we’ve never been more exhausted, and we’ve never had more fun.”
As for the Academy, the search is on and by the time we get to the 88th Annual Academy Awards in 2016, the Oscars could have a whole new look. Again.