Oscar Producers Play Hard to Get


— At the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, where the Oscars will be staged a week from Sunday, every entrance is decked with a sign that warns unauthorized people to keep out.

This year the closed doors are not just a security measure. They’re a strategy.

Breaking with recent precedent, Brian Grazer and Don Mischer, who are producing the Academy Awards ceremony for broadcast on ABC, have been assembling their show without engaging in a public conversation about it; they have been conspicuously silent on its themes, challenges and the presumably fresh approach they will take to the annual display of movie glamour and gratitude.

Weeks ago a spokesman for Mr. Grazer explained that the producers’ idea was to preserve a bit of mystery: To know what’s in the show, you’ll have to watch it.

Mr. Grazer and Mr. Mischer more recently declined to discuss the ceremony. And Billy Crystal, the evening’s host, will be featured in just one preshow interview, with Entertainment Weekly, according to his publicist, Cindi Berger. (Mr. Crystal, Ms. Berger said, was busy over the weekend filming bits for the show. “He’s consumed” with it, she wrote in an e-mail.)

Their silence is in line with a belief that is deeply ingrained in traditional movie types: that entertainment is best manufactured behind studio walls. “Never let them see you sweat,” runs the maxim.

But reticence carries risk in an era when social media, the amateur camera and the brazen exhibitionism of reality television have made the sweat of process an expected part of the show.

Last year the Oscar ceremony, which was produced by Mr. Mischer and Bruce Cohen, made a bow in that direction with a series of digital ploys and backstage encounters, some of which worked better than others.

A “You’re Invited” fan participation campaign, devised in part by the marketing company Omelet, included an Oscar iPhone app and offered a multiscreen experience by streaming preshow interviews from the “green room.” The mothers of nominees — “mominees,” they were called — were even invited to chime in via Twitter.

With the very senior Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow in the running for acting awards this year, a “mominees” approach would face limits. But the Oscars app is back, and a digital “Celebrate the Movies” exhibition — both online and on electronic billboards in New York and Los Angeles — asks fans to share their impressions of movies like “The Exorcist” and “Apollo 13.”

Some in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had pressed for even deeper change, after last year’s show drew soft ratings and took a critical drubbing. One line of thinking, according to people who were briefed on the discussions but insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for the Academy, proposed throwing the Oscar process wide open to a public that has been trained by “American Idol,” TMZ and an endless feed of Internet moments to expect some grit with their glamour.

Among the suggestions: nominees using smartphones to photograph themselves in the run-up to the show. Or bringing Oscar followers into the backstage hubbub in the press room, or to off-site parties like the annual Vanity Fair extravaganza, where stars who didn’t make the cut comment on those who did. Imagine the comic potential, and promotional punch, of a video snippet from the Oscar-eve rehearsal, when, say, a 60-year-old stand-in pretends to be Reese Witherspoon giving an award.

Some such elements could surface among the surprises still being promised for this year’s show.

But stuff happened. The academy first hired Brett Ratner, a bad-boy film director, to help produce. Mr. Ratner then resigned in a storm over some crude public comments. Eddie Murphy, his planned host, quickly followed him out the door. And by the time Mr. Grazer, a veteran film producer, and Mr. Crystal, in his ninth turn as host, joined in November, the Oscar enterprise was looking for safe havens.

Some old-school touches will be missing. One is the humor of Bruce Vilanch, a comic writer who contributed formally to 23 of the last 25 Oscar shows and phoned in advice for the two he missed, in 2004 and 2005.

“I’m not part of the package,” Mr. Vilanch said on Friday. He fell out when Mr. Ratner became involved and did not fall back in with Mr. Grazer’s arrival because, he said, he was busy writing for Broadway.

Up in the air is another traditional element, the performance of Oscar-nominated songs. Mr. Grazer and Mr. Mischer have chosen to scrap the performances of the two nominated songs, one from Disney’s film “The Muppets” and another from 20th Century Fox’s “Rio.” But as of last week, executives at Fox were still poised to request a last-minute work visa for Carlinhos Brown, one of the “Rio” song’s composers, just in case the producers were to reverse their decision.

Mostly, though, Mr. Grazer appears to be digging for roots. The Kodak Theater, he has said in one of his few public comments, will be decorated to resemble “a timeless movie theater,” like the Pantages or other picture palaces of old.

The idea, Mr. Grazer explained at the Oscar nominees luncheon last week in Beverly Hills, is to demonstrate the power of a theater to magnify entertainment at a time when media like video on demand are quickly pushing us toward smaller, more private viewings of film.

The décor will certainly match the nostalgic tone of three best picture nominees — “The Artist,” “Hugo” and “Midnight in Paris” — which are tributes to the art and literature of the early 20th century, when movies were just coming into their own.

Whether it also suits the mood of a contemporary audience that likes to peek behind the curtain remains to be seen.

By Michael Cieply

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