EXCLUSIVE: Calling this a “critical Juncture in our Academy history,” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences CEO Dawn Hudson and president David Rubin joined me for a 30-minute conversation Monday night in their first media interview since changes were announced last week, trying to clarify and explain what is actually going on with the Oscar telecast.
Of course, the key change is in presenting eight categories in the hour before the live broadcast on ABC and then weaving edited versions of those moments into the telecast with the other 15 categories and other show elements. There has been considerable pushback to the move from some guilds and organizations representing nominees involved — the categories impacted are Documentary (Short Subject), Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Music (Original Score), Production Design, Short Film (Animated), Short Film (Live Action) and Sound — and some have called for the Academy to change course and return to the tradition of presenting all categories live on the show.
However, according to Hudson, the time had come to make dramatic change, and despite the criticism from some quarters the Academy is forging ahead. She also wants to make sure people understand that this was done with respect and care, and clarify any misunderstanding about what is actually planned as they say since many leaks out there have not gotten the facts correct in their view.
“The board has discussed and agreed on the need to make changes to the broadcast, to allow for a celebratory show that also doesn’t run well over three hours. That discussion has been ongoing but with more urgency for this year’s show,” Hudson said. “The decision to show eight categories in our first hour in the Dolby Theatre was the creative solution arrived at by our producers, our officers, and our awards committee. We chose a mix of categories which would then be folded into our live broadcast.
“Every category will be celebrated on our live broadcast,” Hudson told me in explaining that the board had given permission to make unspecified changes but that the particulars and categories were chosen collectively by the producers, AMPAS executives and the awards committee. “We thought how do we preserve our values which are have all 23 awards on the show, but still allow for a three-hour show that the TV audience wants to tune into, and other ways to celebrate movies within that show? And we looked at a lot of different ideas of taking categories, and doing like the Emmys, and presenting them on another night, or another way. But, we thought If we can be the most respectful to all of our nominees and winners, how do we do that? And so, this year, a critical year where we knew we had to make changes, we worked out this plan.”
The Academy, in an effort to bring more understanding, has been having Zoom meetings with the affected nominees and branch members. Some of the organizations for these affected artisans have been publicly vocal in their anger over these changes, including groups representing Sound, Editors, Set Decorators and Music, and the Academy has been listening and feels the changes have been misunderstood since an original Zoom call with nominees and affected parties resulted in some bad feelings and leaks to the press reflecting that.
Rubin particularly wants to clarify that the Oscar show — whether off air or on — will be starting at 4 pm. PT sharp rather than the official 5 p.m. PT start for the ABC broadcast, and he told me that is what it will say on the ticket, so that the nominees can rest assured it will be a full audience in their seats, not seat fillers. There will still be the red carpet show airing live on ABC at the same time as these categories will be pre-recorded and presented, but they are instituting timed arrivals for those stars to avoid the usual crush and will make sure that everyone connected with the nominated films in the eight categories will be inside the Dolby to join in the “celebration” of their nominees.
AMPAS looks at it as two productions going at the same time and will treat it as such to make sure it goes off without a hitch, the execs tell me.
“It was very important for us to have these nominees, have the full nominee experience, to be in the Dolby Theatre, on the Dolby set, looking out at those enrapt faces. And also, the filmmakers and the studios and the distributors, who have been involved in the films of those nominees, will be there to applaud both, their nominees and their winners,” Rubin says. “(It came together) when the idea came around to assemble everybody an hour early, and to have a number of award presentations in that first hour, where we can have the same environment, the same energy, the same celebration as we do during the live broadcast, and then preserve those awards and interweave them into the live broadcast seamlessly, so that they are all part of a cadence of 23 awards. Because again, our priority is to acknowledge excellence in all areas of movie making. And truthfully, most people, most attendees of the Oscars, love coming early anyway,”
In other words everything is moving up, with the audience at the Dolby in for a four-hour show (at minimum), but the television audience will, with any luck see one that only runs three hours and still includes tastefully edited versions of the previously presented eight categories. How that will look and who will be presenting them is to be determined, but Rubin gives a preview.
“This is really essentially, what every nominee experiences,” he said. “But, the creative team and the production team will highlight the moments that count the most, the potent emotional speeches, likely the reaction when a name is called. But there’s also a lot of that other time, that’s involved in getting up onto that stage and finding that piece of paper and just looking to see if it’s time to speak. All of that stuff is part of it, but we’ll get to the most potent affecting emotional parts of the event.”
It has always been a red line for the Academy to present all categories on the broadcast (unlike just about every other awards show) and they have never strayed, though an idea quite similar to this was announced in 2019, and later rescinded when the criticism became too intense. I asked Rubin if this time the decision to pre-record these categories is locked in stone, especially with some guilds protesting, and some of the affected nominees feeling it is a slight to their profession to be singled out.
“We think it’s going to be an amazing experience, so we’re really enthusiastic about it,” he answered, and doubled down when I pointed out again that they reversed course the last time it was tried. “I can’t imagine that we’re not going to deliver the Oscar experience that both the nominees and the audience have been wanting and are dreaming about. We feel really good about this plan. It feels inclusive and respectful and celebratory.”
Just how much time it will actually save isn’t clear, but in Friday’s Notes on the Season column I ran a quote of support for the plan from veteran past Oscar and Emmy show producer Don Mischer, who years ago proposed a similar time-shifting idea to the AMPAS board and is convinced it sheds enough time to have a real shot of bringing the show in at three hours while still including the necessary entertainment elements to keep viewers tuned in. Hudson explains that part of the ratings problem is when the broadcast begins heading into that fourth hour. “So, after 11 o’clock, the viewership on the East Coast goes down, and you measure viewership up until the last commercial break. This is way granular, but if your last commercial break is after 11 o’clock or way after 11 o’clock, now you’re just absorbing all that declining audience and it impacts your entire ratings, which impacts your advertisers for the next,” she said.
“We’re focused on three hours,” added Rubin.
It seems every producer who takes on this job has tried to make cuts or revisions to the format but was always vetoed by the Academy if it involved messing with any one category. The late Gil Cates, who produced 14 times once, even lined up nominees on the stage, announced the winner, and had them step forward for the acceptance speech as if it was a Miss America pageant. It saved some time but it wasn’t tried again. In recent years they have taken nominees from their seats and grouped them closer to the stage as their category nears.
However, I have heard of at least one nominee who is so upset about the changes to his category that he is not intending to come to the show, the Nominees Lunch or any other event this season. Are Hudson and Rubin worried about nominees thinking about skipping out because of the new plan?
“I hope that once they get all of the information about how celebratory this will be, this Oscar show will be, from 4 o’clock on,” Hudson says. “And how respectful it will be they will choose to come and not only receive the praise and attention for their work, but they will have that opportunity to support their colleagues too.”
Rubin adds: “It would be a shame if they missed an opportunity to celebrate the great work of this year and give us an opportunity to celebrate their great work. Change is challenging. But, we’re all doing this for one goal, which is to allow as much celebration of the year’s movies on the live broadcast as possible. And everybody involved in that first hour is a huge contributing factor to our ability to produce this great show. And we had limitations in last year’s Oscar show, because of Covid. And now, we’re really reaching a place where we can deliver the Oscar’s broadcast that people expect.”
Says Hudson: “We’re not losing any of those great moments. The point is we want all those great speeches that you’ve heard, and all the moving speeches that you heard will be in the Oscar show for all of the categories. And that was important to us. And that’s not an easy feat. Maybe people offered other ideas. There were some not including all of the 23 categories and we really pushed that, that was just essential for us.” Rubin was even more adamant: “We would not make any change that would involve taking a seminal craft, an essential contributor to moviemaking, off the show this year. It just would never happen.”
So how involved was ABC in these changes? Hudson was blunt.”Well, I don’t think it’s any secret, Pete, of the viewership decline for award shows or live television. ABC’s been such strong creative partners with us and we’ve allowed for a lot of experimentation on our show for many, many years, but it became imperative. We just had to make changes. We had to look for the future for this show and for the organization. Is this the right answer? I don’t know. We need to try this, assess, and move forward.”
“I mean, we’re also trying to find a new way of celebrating, to find a new vision for the show. There’s a large audience out there in the past years that has changed, that we have not been attracting, and we’re looking to have a bigger tent to bring everybody into it,” Rubin said.
As for some insight into what we may expect on the show with the theme “movie lovers unite” that Will Packer is producing this year? “There’ll be some surprises. There’ll be some unexpected faces in the show. Movie lovers exist in all walks of life, in all parts to the world, and there are hugely accomplished people in many facets apart from moviemaking that are movie lovers and we want to include those testimonies on our show,” Rubin says.
As for the rumor that Packer is trying to reunite famous movie casts as presenters, Rubin indicated those specifics on types of presenters and pairings are underway but not yet settled on. One past Oscar show producer told me they would be crazy not to bring together the cast of The Godfather for its 50th anniversary celebration. Who would be better to present Best Picture, folks?
Rubin also didn’t confirm if all five nominated songs would be performed by the artists who sang them in the movie, but said it would certainly be a shame if they weren’t — that list includes Billie Eilish, Beyoncé and Van Morrison. I am also told you can expect lots of film clips, new and old no doubt, something sorely missing from last year’s slimmed-down show that drew the lowest ratings in Oscar history, a paltry 10 million viewers (much of that loss caused by Covid, fewer movies and theaters being closed). You can be assured also that Best Picture will be saved for last.
Of course I had to ask about the initiative with Twitter, #OscarsFanFavorite, where the winner, chosen by fans who get up to 20 votes per day, will get a spot on the show but will not be presented with any kind of physical award (I am told by sources who say the “Oscar” is the only award given on this show, and the fan favorite definitely won’t be getting one of those, unlike the debacle of the “Popular Movie” category that was quickly dropped after outcry from the industry a few years back). A look at the site where the contest is still active until March 3 indicates a dedicated fan base pushing Amazon’s musical pickup from Sony, Cinderella, and just about anything by Zack Snyder thanks to his rabid fans who first tried to get his cut of Justice League on top but it was ineligible so attention has now turned to his Army of the Dead Vegas zombie movie for Netflix. Even the director himself tweeted encouragement Friday to fans to keep them voting. And you thought Spider-Man: No Way Home had this in the bag?
“There is huge engagement. And that’s what I mean by there are a lot of movie lovers who didn’t necessarily feel as connected to the Oscars,” says Hudson. “Our mission is to advocate for the arts and sciences of movies. And so the more people who come to us, connect with us, however they do, we’re fulfilling our mission. But it is fun to see how many people are engaged with it.” Rubin, perhaps wryly noting some of the films being mentioned and pushed by very organized groups who know how to jam the net, said, “Well, enthusiasm is enthusiasm.”
As for the look of the show, and for Covid safety measures, the orchestra section of the Dolby will see many rows of seats removed so there will be decked seating instead with a floor for the section where the nominees will sit. It makes social distancing easier and will give a vivid new style to the show in that regard. “It has its own unique look but we don’t want to reveal too much,” said Rubin. Overall there will be 800 fewer seats in the Dolby available that usual, something devised when Omicron was just beginning to spread; the Academy developed a plan for flexibility based on its spread over the months, whether there would be a surge or a retreat, I am told.
As for hosts Amy Schumer, Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes? Hudson mentioned they were at a promo shoot with them Saturday said it was really entertaining to just watch a photo shoot, describing the chemistry among the three of them as palpable.
“These are three amazing, funny women who are hosting this year, and each with a different style, but really, really able to be funny, to be off-the-cuff, to be charismatic. Really we could not be in better hands,” said Rubin. “They’re fantastic. People will be thinking, ‘How has this never happened before?'”
So the 94th annual Academy Awards is full-steam ahead, despite blowback to the prerecorded categories, and both Rubin and Hudson just want to get through this year and move on from there. With Rubin being termed out and Hudson leaving the Academy at the end of her contract (as first reported by Deadline), there will be new leaders to eventually take Oscar into the future. But this is about a year where Oscar is coming out of intensive care (and hopefully improved ratings), plus they pray a show that the nominees and industry will be proud of after the controversy about change dies down.
It will either work or it won’t, but if all goes to plan either way it will be in three hours and with an audience at the Dolby that accepts that change along with their Oscars.
“Well, we really want to see what works this year. We acknowledge that it’s something that we’re trying. And you mentioned the various things that have been tried before, but no one has tried this,” says Rubin. “It made a great deal of sense to us because we can deliver the full nominee experience for all the people being honored. And we stand a good chance to deliver.”
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