Tom Sherak on the Old-Fashioned, Billy Crystalized Oscars: ‘We Are Who We Are’

Academy president Sherak: “To celebrate our past and deal with our present, that is who we are — we're never going to forget the past, and we don’t want to”

With Billy Crystal back on board and a (relatively) brisk running time of just over three hours, the third Academy Awards show produced under Tom Sherak's tenure as AMPAS president was certainly the best-received of the three.

But while it avoided the critical brickbats leveled at last year's Anne Hathaway/James Franco mismatch, or to a lesser degree 2010's awkward Steve Martin/Alec Baldwin teaming, the show did strike some as too determined a return to old-fashioned, Oscar-style comfort food.

Billy Crystal at the 84th Academy Awards"[The show] played it safe by rolling out the same old tributes to old movies, which only created the impression that Hollywood's best days are behind it," wrote Tim Molloy at TheWrap.

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Sherak, though, has always been a glass-half-full kind of guy, and TheWrap found him in a resolutely upbeat mood the day after the big show.

Between Billy Crystal hosting and the old-fashioned movie-theater look, there must have been a decision made this year that it's OK to play older and not worry too much about chasing a younger audience.
Yeah, I think that's a fair statement. Here's the thing, and this is what we deal with each year: We're never going to not be who we are as an organization. We are who we are. We have a history.

If you take a studio that's been around forever, what's the difference between that and an independent that's just started in the last five years? The difference isn't the people who are working there – they're as talented at the independent as at the studio. What makes it different is that the studio has a past, it has a present and you believe it will have a future.

I think the Academy is built on that. It has a tremendous foundation based on its brilliant history. It has a present that it's going through, as society changes and as the world changes. And you believe it's going to have a future.

You're not always sure what that future is. So to celebrate our past and deal with our present, that is who we are. We're never going to forget the past, and we don’t want to.

Now, having said that, we know we have to move forward. I totally get that. But we have to do that in a way that's smart for our organization.

Now that it's over, how do you feel about the show?
I feel really good. For one thing, our partners at ABC were happy.

Two, I thought that our producers and our host did a great job. That's why I thanked them. I thought they stayed very focused on what they wanted to do, which is talk about the movies in all of us. I think it felt like Billy was back home, and I felt very happy about that.

And I was happy about the ratings, knowing that this is an awards show, not a variety show.

As opposed to other shows?
Well, I thought the Grammys was the best concert show I've ever seen. But that's what it was: a concert that was giving out awards offscreen. And I'm not knocking them, but that's not who we are. Our show will always be about the awards. A lot of those other shows are entertainment shows, variety shows.

When we spoke a few weeks ago, you said the running time would be three hours and six minutes. I thought you were nuts, but it ended up being only 3:07 or 3:08.
Yeah. Producer Don Mischer, who is a genius, said to me, "Tom, on my word, it will be as close to three hours as I can make it." Although when I said 3:06 to you, I was actually thinking 3:15.

I thought the show had a good pace. We had a host who kept it moving, and not too many people thanked their agents and lawyers and all that. There were a couple of showstoppers, which was good. I don’t know how Cirque played at home, but in the theater it was incredible. And there was also a lot of celebrity there, better than the last few years. The show gave us everything that we hoped for.

Tom Sherak at the 84th Academy AwardsYou mentioned thanking Billy and Mischer and Brian Grazer, which you did in the speech you gave on the show. The president's speech isn’t always a part of the Oscars anymore – did you feel a need to go out there and say that because of this year's circumstances, where Brian and Billy came in and replaced Brett Ratner and Eddie Murphy?
I always believe that if the president's gonna get up there, you need to have something to say. You don’t need Tom Sherak or any president to welcome the world to the show. But I thought that it was important to thank them on behalf of the Academy, on behalf of everybody here.

Given the upheaval with the production, was this the toughest of the three shows since you've been president?
No. I swear to you, no. Look, the change was a big media thing. It happened, and it was big news because it is the Academy Awards. It was sad for Brett. We would have had a different show with Eddie than Billy, and I think it would have been a really good show. But that didn’t make it difficult. The producers run the show, and it's just my job to help them.

My sense is that a Brett Ratner/Eddie Murphy show would have shaken things up more, and maybe gone after a younger audience.
I've seen the demos, and there was no question we were going to play older this year. We're always going to be somewhat controlled by the movies that we nominate. If they're movies that people haven't seen, were going to have a different awards than you'd have when there's competition between movies that everybody has seen. It's about what the academy's voting members believe is excellence for that particular year.