The 2011 movie awards reflected the chaotic state of the motion picture business which was marked by uncertainty all year. Upheaval within the glacially slow-to-evolve Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences resulted in major changes. But an embarrassingly awkward stumble in selecting the producer and host of this next Oscar show put the brakes on innovation. So the powers-that-be sought comfort in tradition for the time being. With new leadership, new rules, and a stabilized Oscar show that promises a return to tradition rather than rocking the boat, the awards year is poised to close out 2011 with one of the most wide-open races in years. The showbiz community expects upheaval and controversy from within the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globes (more on that below), but not from the staid Movie Academy. Undoubtedly the biggest black eye for the Academy in 2011 was set in motion on August 4th when it was announced that director Brett Ratner would be joining Don Mischer as producer of the 84th Annual Academy Awards. Ratner was considered an off-the-wall choice, clearly aimed at shaking up the telecast in hopes of appealing to more popular tastes. Then Ratner announced his Tower Heist star Eddie Murphy would be the host despite all that actor’s own controversies at past Oscar shows. Just two months later Ratner resigned under pressure after making a gay slur during a Q&A for Tower Heist plus some sexually graphic remarks on Howard Stern’s radio show (reported first by Deadline). Murphy followed Ratner out the door the next day. To resolve the chaos that November 9th, mega-producer Brian Grazer saved the day by quickly stepping in to take the reins of the show with Mischer, and on November 10 the pair announced that 8-time host Billy Crystal had agreed to become Master of Ceremonies. Disaster averted. Even without that turmoil, early November was rough because of the sudden death of 14-time Oscar show producer Gil Cates.
But, frankly, 2011 started out poorly with the terribly reviewed 83rd Oscar show back on February 27th. At least everyone now agrees that hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco flopped as hosts hired to draw a younger audience. Although the ratings were fairly flat compared to the previous year, it was interesting to see even the Academy acknowledge the pair bombed once the critics spoke. For instance, at the Governors Ball immediately after the show, I spoke with several Acad honchos who seemed delighted with their view as part of the audience, with one very prominent Board member even telling me it was “the best show in years”. But it became hard to find defenders of the hosts or producer Bruce Cohen soon afterwards. Even Franco and longtime Oscar show writer Bruce Vilanch publicly sparred about it a month later.
The competition for Oscar itself started off as a lopsided affair with Sony’s The Social Network rolling over every movie in sight in the major metropolitan critics awards. Then the Critics Choice Movie Awards and the Golden Globes followed. But once Industry members beginning with the Producers Guild Awards had their say on January 22nd, Harvey Weinstein began to pull off a shocker. Soon The King’s Speech was rolling over the David Fincher-directed Facebook film. Producer Scott Rudin and Sony executives were glum-faced as they made a hasty retreat from the Bevery Hilton ballroom after the PGA Awards. In the lobby afterward, King’s Speech director Tom Hooper was almost giddy at the surpise win. That was just for starters as a slew of Industry awards followed including DGA, WGA, SAG, and BAFTA. By the time Oscar night came round, there wasn’t much suspense. Everyone knew the King would rule and the once and future King of the modern Oscar campaign — Harvey, of course — was back with his first Best Picture win for The Weinstein Company.
It wasn’t a complete sweep. Natalie Portman grabbed Best Actress for Black Swan while The Fighter took Supporting Actor for Christian Bale and Actress for Melissa Leo (who memorably dropped the F-bomb during her acceptance). The Social Network had to settle for three Oscars, the highest profile being Best Screenplay Adaptation for Aaron Sorkin.
The hubbub overshadowed the Academy’s announcement (on the show itself) that it was extending its agreement with ABC to air the Oscars at least another six years. That brings it to 46 telecasts on that network since the Oscars’ TV life began in 1953. The health of this long-term association was good news as the Academy needed some stability in light of a major announcement on April 7th of a big leadership change in the Academy’s paid staff. After 30 years, Executive Director Bruce Davis was retiring at the end of June. To replace him the Board brought in a surprise choice, Film Independent head Dawn Hudson who would take on the new title of CEO in a “partnership” with new COO Ric Robertson, Davis’ longtime No. 2 and presumed heir. How this new duo would learn to work together was anybody’s guess, and it still is a work in progress by all accounts. But Hudson has clearly taken the reins moving quickly on a number of issues and projects. Too quickly? Like we said the Academy is very slow to change so there have been bumps along the way and not everyone is happy with the pace. But even before Hudson officially arrived at the end of June, some significant changes were taking place.