Last in Line: Oscars Crippled by the Calendar

As acceptance speeches provide big helpings of deja vu, the Academy continues to work on the logistics of moving the show earlier

Last Updated: February 10, 2011 @ 10:20 PM

You know it's coming. On February 27, a well dressed movie star will walk to the stage of the Kodak Theater, cradle a shiny golden statue, step to the microphone with a huge grin, and start to talk. 

Natalie Portman SAGAnd around the world, millions of people will think to themselves, haven't I heard this before?

After all, we've already seen Natalie Portman thank her parents on the Critics Choice Awards and the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and Colin Firth make self-deprecating comments on those same shows, and Aaron Sorkin say nice things about Mark Zuckerberg at the Globes and the Writers Guild and the Scripters and others.

By the time of the Oscars – particularly in a year in which the same people seem to be winning one precursor award after another – we've all heard the acceptance speeches before. It happened last year (though Christoph Waltz did find a new metaphor to torture every time he stepped to the microphone), and it’s happening again this year.

Natalie Portman Golden GlobesJust as "The Social Network" won all the critics awards, so the same folks keep coming to the stage show after show. Colin Firth. Natalie Portman. Christian Bale. Melissa Leo. Aaron Sorkin. "The King's Speech."

Will any of them find new things to say on Oscar night? And if they don't, will the overpowering air of déjà vu be enough to make viewers change the channel? 

And will the parade of similar shows finally force the Academy to bring back the idea of moving its show earlier? It might just do that, AMPAS president Tom Sherak told TheWrap this week.

One of the themes of Monday's nominees luncheon was a push for more creative, memorable speeches – but similar pitches are made almost every year, usually without much effect.

Natalie Portman CCMA"I don’t know that you can ever do enough to create the way it used to be, before all these other things," Sherak said in a conversation on Tuesday. "I know that the stars and other people get burnt out from all these things."

And the bigger problem is that if the stars get burnt out, the audience can be burnt out before the Oscars arrive as well. 

Last year's Oscars saw the viewership increase by more than four million over the previous year, to 41.6 million. But the three smallest Oscar audiences ever have all been for shows over the past eight years, including the record low of 31.8 million viewers in 2008, when "No Country for Old Men" was named Best Picture.

The Golden Globes have also seen a ratings increase over the past two years, though its audience is less than half the size of the Oscar viewership.

The largest Oscar audience ever came in 1998, when 57.2 million viewers watched as "Titanic" was crowned Best Picture. The Academy is still working under a television contract negotiated with ABC in the aftermath of that show — and negotiations have now begun to extend that contract, making the show's ratings all the more crucial for AMPAS.

What's an Academy to do? One solution, which has been bandied about for the past year and a half, is to move the Oscars into January so viewers haven't endured such a marathon of other awards shows by the time the Academy's big night arrives. But that would most likely just force all the other shows to move their own dates: we'd see the Golden Globes on Thanksgiving weekend before we'd see them abandon their lucrative TV contract.

Tom SherakStill, Sherak (right) thinks the idea of moving the show is still worth considering, even though it's been officially tabled through the show in 2012.

"The feeling," he said, "is that if the shows weren't so spread out, it might get a little easier on the stars and the people who are watching."

To that end, Sherak said, an Academy committee is still exploring ideas for moving the show up, trying to come up with a workable plan for all the logistics a move would entail. The committee was originally scheduled to recommend a move to the AMPAS Board of Governors before the upcoming Oscar show, but Sherak cancelled that plan: "I stopped it," he said, "because we weren't ready to request moving up yet. This is an interesting board, and you don't bring something to them without having all the information." 

One piece of information that needs to be worked out is the actual date to which the Oscars would be moved. AMPAS, he said, is unwilling to abandon its January-to-December eligibility calendar, which restricts how much it could move.

"Unless you're willing to change the calendar, and we're not, you can only move up so far," he said. "Everybody forgets, but we used to be in April. We moved to March, to February. Where do you move to?"

The obvious answer – late January or early February – presents its own problems, because it comes at a prime time for the National Football League.  "The most-watched shows on the air are the Super Bowl, the NFC Championship and the AFC Championship," he said. "Then us. But we don't want to go on the same day as any of those. I don't mind competing, but that's not the right place to compete."

The NFL schedule in future years isn't set, and could even be imperiled by a lockout. But, said Sherak, one obvious target for the Academy could be the Sunday of a bye week between the league championship games and the Super Bowl.

Still, the effects of the move would reverberate throughout the Oscar process. To give voters the chance to see the films in time, it would probably necessitate an online streaming option  — about which Sherak seems resigned but unenthusiastic.

"You want people to see movies the way they were made, on the screen," he said. "We can't make  'em see it that way, but you still want to have the opportunity to say to somebody, 'Come see it on a screen.'

"Will movies be streamed on the Internet? Yeah, I guess they will be some day. Maybe sooner than later. But they're made for the big screen."

And the voting process, he added, would also have to change. "We're still trying to figure out how to take that process and do it electronically," he said. "I'm pretty old school, but if you can have a lot of different locks, I think there might be a way now. And we're working with a number of different companies to see if we can figure that out."

While none of this is on the table for next year's Oscars, Sherak says that it "definitely will be considered," and that the committee will at some point recommend to the board that the show be moved earlier.

"We're working hard at it to come up with the right plan so that we can go back to the board and see how they actually feel about it," he said. "They told us to go figure it out and come back, and we will."

And in the meantime, maybe we could make the show more interesting by inviting viewers to predict more than just the winners. How about a "predict the acceptance speeches" contest, too?