Oscars play hard to get

  • Article by: MICHAEL CIEPLY , New York Times
  • Updated: February 24, 2012 - 11:36 AM

The producers behind the Academy Awards are intentionally maintaining secrecy in a bid to attract curious TV viewers.

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A Oscar statue stands at the entrance to the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. The Academy Awards will be held on Sunday.

Photo: Chris Carlson, ASSOCIATED PRESS - AP

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At the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, where the Oscars will be staged next 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 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.

Billy Crystal, the evening's host, will be featured in just one preshow interview, with Entertainment Weekly, according to his publicist

Their silence is in line with a belief that is deeply ingrained in traditional movie types: 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 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 asks fans to share their impressions of movies such as "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.

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. He then resigned in a storm over crude public comments. Eddie Murphy, his planned host, quickly followed him out the door. By the time Grazer, a veteran film producer, and Crystal, in his ninth turn as host, joined in November, the Oscar enterprise was looking for safe havens.

Mostly, though, Grazer appears to be digging for roots. The Kodak, he has said in one of his few public comments, will be decorated to resemble "a timeless movie theater."

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

The decor 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.

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