The Academy screened the 1987 Rob Reiner comedy “The Princess Bride” in Beverly Hills on Thursday night, but it was often hard to hear the film’s soundtrack over the sound of two people talking loudly throughout the movie.
Of course, the voluble duo weren’t rude audience members drowning out the audio on the new print created by the Academy Film Archive – instead, they were Reiner and moderator Jason Reitman, who provided a highly entertaining and entirely AMPAS-sanctioned live commentary while the movie was projected.
The evening was a first – the Academy encouraging people to talk over a film in the state-of-the-art Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Even a sound system known for bringing out every nuance of a movie’s soundtrack couldn’t compete with anecdotes from Reiner and Elwes, or from the uproarious laughter that followed stories about Billy Crystal‘s improvisations, Mandy Patinkin’s ever-changeable hair or Andre the Giant’s bad back.
“Yes, movies are fun,” said Academy CEO Dawn Hudson as she introduced the evening, which grew out of a suggestion that Reitman made during a meeting with AMPAS officials.
That “movies are fun” attitude is indicative of a changing programming strategy at Academy events. While AMPAS still screens unassailable classics like Charlie Chaplin’s “Limelight,” Stanley Kubrick‘s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” and its just-announced, extensive tribute to Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, it also has been having fun with its programming lately.
“I think we’re evolving,” AMPAS managing director of programming, education and preservation Randy Haberkamp told TheWrap at the screening. “We’re still doing silent Hitchcock and coming up with Satyajit Ray films, which we’ve been preserving for 20 years. So it’s not like we’re throwing our pedigree away.
“But I think the pool now is broader and more inclusive. Whatever excitement walks through the door, we’re able to do.”
As Haberkamp spoke just off the main lobby in the Academy’s Beverly Hills headquarters, he was surrounded by vintage posters from kung fu movies – a donation to the planned Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, and one that inspired a spate of spring and summer programming that included the poster exhibit, a screening of Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon,” a tribute to Jackie Chan and a showing of Wong Kar Wai’s new martial-arts epic “The Grandmaster,” with a Q&A with the filmmaker done by “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner.
Before that was a 21st anniversary tribute to “Wayne’s World,” announced in a press release whose headline was “The Academy To Host a ‘Wayne’s World’ Reunion … No way. Way.”
And the Oscars Outdoors summer program of open-air screenings in Hollywood, which takes place in a makeshift theater without actual seats nestled between a former Pic ‘N’ Save and the Arclight parking structure, is long on popcorn movies. This summer’s lineup included the 1933 “King Kong,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Groundhog Day,” “Clueless,” “Point Break,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and this weekend’s program of “Born in East L.A.” on Friday and “Rushmore” on Saturday. Rghtly or wrongly, none of those films landed any Oscar nominations.
(To be fair, Oscars Outdoors is showing a few films that were nominated, including “Beetlejuice,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Big,” “Cinema Paradiso” and “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”)
“Maybe I shouldn’t use this word, but the idea was to get more commercial,” said Tom Sherak, who was president of the Academy during the time when AMPAS events began to change. “The idea was to lighten up a very buttoned-down organization, and I think it has lightened up.
“It’s always going to be the Academy, but I think now it’s having some fun with itself, and with the movies that are made.”
Sherak attributed the change to the April 2012 promotion of longtime Academy staffer Haberkamp, and to the board's approval of the Oscars Outdoor theater shortly after that. (At the opening of the theater in May 2012, Sherak showed that the theater was made for popcorn movies by manning the popcorn machine with former president Bob Rehme.)
“When Randy got the job, he ran with it,” Sherak told TheWrap. “It’s his genius, and I use that word deliberately, that has helped us grow. He knows that there’s room for every kind of movie at our programs – and when I see something like ‘Princess Bride’ or ‘Blazing Saddles’ on the schedule, it puts a big smile on my face.”
Haberkamp agreed that the Oscars Outdoors venue was crucial, partly because it encouraged new kinds of programming and partly because it attracted a younger audience to Academy events.
“The outdoor venue really changed things,” said Haberkamp, who grew up going to a drive-in theater with his family. “When we talked about the programming there, people said, ‘Oh, let’s show “The Godfather.”‘ And I thought, ‘The Godfather’ belongs on the big screen indoors. But something like ‘Clueless’ or ‘King Kong’ or silent Buster Keaton movies, those can be outside.”
At the same time, he added, preparations for the Academy Museum, which is currently on schedule to open in 2017, made the Academy realize that its programming should play to a bigger audience.
“The museum project is making us look at everything with fresh eyes,” he said. “For many years, our programming has been more about members. I don’t want to say it’s been closed, but it’s had a particular approach that the museum by its very nature changes.
“Because when you’re suddenly going to be open seven days a week to the world, with the numbers of people that have to go through there, you need to create something where everybody can share in what movies can be.”
On Thursday night, the “Princess Bride” live commentary took the Academy in a new direction, with what Reitman admitted was an experiment in his opening remarks. “If you came here tonight to watch ‘The Princess Bride’ totally uninterrupted, you really should just leave right now,” he said.
When Reiner took the stage to a huge ovation, he looked into the audience. “How many people here are under 30?” he asked, nodding approvingly when about half the audience raised their hands. “So you’re used to multi-tasking and not paying attention to anything anyway.”
But the audience members paid rapt attention to the commentary, which covered the casting (“Robin Wright, Cary Elwes and Andre the Giant were the only three people in the world who could have played those parts”), the one condition Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler demanded before he agreed to score the movie (Reiner had to put something from “This Is Spinal Tap” in the film, which he accomplished by hanging his character’s baseball cap in the bedroom of Fred Savage’s character) and the pitch Reiner used to get Billy Crystal to appear as an ancient medicine man (“You wanna be Mel Brooks in a movie?”).
In another sign of the changing times, the Academy live-blogged and tweeted during the screening.
“There are lots of changes, and I’m exhausted by some of the things we’re doing,” said Haberkamp. “But it’s exciting, and it’s really fun.”