The Motion Picture Academy's move to a speedier online voting system next year begs the question: Is it getting ready to move up the Oscar telecast as well?
In an exclusive interview with Academy president Tom Sherak and COO Ric Robertson, Sherak told TheWrap that any decision to speed up the date would come as early as March.
If it happens, it would only be the latest in a series of unexpected number of twists and turns Oscar has seen, with the Feb. 26 telecast less than a month away.
Brett Ratner was hired to produce the show, and then resigned; Eddie Murphy was going to host, but now Billy Crystal is returning instead; the Academy has exercised an escape clause that could allow it to leave the theater that was built for it, the Kodak; and this week, Eastman Kodak told a bankruptcy court that it wanted out of the $75 million naming deal.
A few minutes after Oscar ballots were put in the mail for what could be the last time Sherak (left) and Robertson sat down with TheWrap in Sherak's office to discuss the possibility of moving the Oscar show earlier in the year, a move away from the Kodak Theater — and why Sherak really wanted to use the announcement of Best Picture nominations to tweak Harvey Weinstein. (Robertson didn't let him.)
You've announced the move to online voting. Are you getting ready to pull the trigger and move the show?
RIC ROBERTSON: We couldn't announce the nominations very much earlier in January and keep the calendar year the eligibility period without electronic voting. But the decision about moving the show has not yet been made. It makes sense to do electronic voting for several reasons, one of them being the calendar, the other being relying on the postal service to deliver this precious cargo. But the decision about the date of the show hasn't been made yet.
TOM SHERAK: The 43 members of the Board of Governors will make that decision. And if you said to me, "Tom, how do you think it's going to go?" I really don't know. I really don't.
Is it scheduled to be taken up at a specific board meeting?
SHERAK: As soon as the people doing the work are ready to present, then it'll come up. There's a board meeting in March, and then there's another one in June, before the election in August. I would say, it's got to come up by June.
ROBERTSON: Oh yeah.
SHERAK: The board that's seated now is the board that will make that decision.
Is an expanded use of streaming to deliver films to the members in the works?
SHERAK: One of the things that we want more than anything is for our constituency who vote to see all the movies that they vote on: the movies, the shorts, the documentaries, the foreign language films. How do we get them to see them all, so that when they vote they know what they’re voting for?
And of course we would love them to see the movies on the big screen. Unfortunately, you're not going to get many shorts into the movie theaters. So we needed to come up with ways where if they wanted to see the films they could. Then their vote would really mean something, not just checking off a box.
ROBERTSON: The Academy still has the point of view that for the studio films, what they do and how they distribute those screeners is their business. But yes, we are trying to figure out ways to take some of the other categories and make them more accessible to our members.
When I spoke to Jean Dujardin from "The Artist" at the DGA Awards over the weekend, I asked how he was holding up, and he said he was doing fine. And then I said, "You've only got a month to go," and his face just fell. Is awards season too long?
ROBERTSON: Speaking as someone going through his first season as a voting member, there are a lot of movies to see. And I want to see all the movies in the specialized categories. We don't want to do something that actually reduces the number of movies that our members see. We want to increase that.
(Robertson and AMPAS CEO Dawn Hudson at the Governors Awards)
SHERAK: So there's a lot of stuff going on. The board will be given that information that the people at the Academy put together. And then the board will make a decision on what to do. It will be a very healthy discussion, because these 43 people have strong opinions and are not shy about saying what they think.
In theory, this week's ballot mailing was the last one ever. But it's hard to imagine that there aren’t some members who won't still want paper ballots.
SHERAK: There's still stuff to know and to be done. We're not forgetting those members who haven't gotten into the 21st century and don't want to get to the 21st century. I could have been that person a couple of years ago.
And the other thing is, we know there is nothing a hacker won't do to try to get into the Academy Awards results. And we know that nothing is 100 percent. But we're going to be sure that we're going to be as protected as we can be as we move forward. I said this from the very beginning as other organizations went into online: That's fine for them, but we’re the gold standard, and we're looking to protect ourselves.
ROBERTSON: When you get down to it, the Academy has relatively few assets. The integrity of the Oscar, the belief that the vote has integrity and it's ethical, the secrecy of it. Those are several of our most valuable assets, and we can't risk those.
SHERAK: Some of the things that we hold sacred, people on the outside can say, "What are they talking about?" It’s the way this place is. I think sometimes that can be misinterpreted as being pompous. That's not it at all. I know that I'm here in this short period of time to protect and defend something that was built 85 years ago, and has grown. I know that sounds crazy, but that's really what I do.
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And also, I want to have fun. As Ric and I have become friendly over the last three years, the idea comes up of how do you protect and defend, but also take this place and have fun? I know you criticized us recently for doing something differently.
Right. I didn't see the point of announcing the Best Picture nominees in random order, rather than alphabetically.
You said, "They're trying to 'F' with us." I wasn't trying to "F" with you guys, I swear to you. I just said to Ric, "We do the same thing every year! Let's do something different!" He said, "Okay, what do you want to do?"
(At right, Sherak with Jennifer Lawrence at the nominations announcement)
Now, to be honest, Ric said, "Tom, here's how we're gonna do it." Once we knew the nine movies, he took the names, wrote them on a piece of paper, and then he put them in a hat and picked the names out of the hat and that was how we were going to announce them. I said, "I didn't want to do it that way! I want to leave 'The Artist' 'til last!"
Oh, so you only wanted to "F" with Harvey Weinstein.
I thought that would be kinda fun. Maybe I wanted to screw with Harvey a little, but I love Harvey. I do. And Ric said, "Tom, that's not the way we do things around here." My sense of humor does sometimes go overboard. But the bottom line was, it wasn't to futz with anybody, it was just to be a little different.
We're always the same. How can you be a little different, and be smart doing it?
News came out this week about Kodak wanting to get out of its deal for the naming rights to the Kodak Theater. Is that less of a concern to you now that you've exercised the escape clause in your contract, giving you the right to move the Oscars?
SHERAK: No. We've said this from the very beginning, this was a business decision. Everybody tried to read things into it and make it sound like we're leaving. But this is a business decision. Ric came and said that if we exercised this clause, we could make a better deal. And we exercised it, and now we're in the process of negotiating with them a deal that will be better for the Academy. These people [CIM, which owns Hollywood & Highland] are nice people. They want us there. We want to be there. Let's negotiate. That's what we're doing.
Do you believe that you will end up at the theater formerly known as Kodak?
SHERAK: My hope would be absolutely, we stay in Hollywood. There's no reason in my mind to leave Hollywood. Hollywood is where we want to be. This was always about a business deal that could be good for the Academy.
If we wind up not being there, I would be surprised. But is it possible? Anything's possible. We're negotiating with them now.
Are you negotiating with anybody else?
SHERAK: No. Only CIM.
Let's talk about the Oscar show. How long is it going to be?
SHERAK: Well, the hope will be that the show will run about three hours … plus.
SHERAK: Plus. It won't be three-and-a-half hours, that I can promise you. The unknown is what people are gonna say. If I had to guess, I would tell you somewhere around three hours and six minutes. 3:06 is an unsophisticated guess on my part.
Obviously, the biggest influence on the ratings has historically been the films that are in contention. At the moment, only one of the Best Picture nominees has made more than $100 million. Is this group of nine going to get you the viewers you want?
SHERAK: Some of the hope is this month, as the studios keep those films out there, more and more people who haven't seen them will come see them.
I think there are two things that are good for us this year, even though we don’t have an "Avatar" or a "Titanic" or a "Lord of the Rings." One, I think there are going to be some horse races with people and movies – people, especially – who the audience knows. Stars.
And then, you know, last year was the largest initial tune-in to the Oscars we've ever had. The last half hour of the pre-show had 26 million people watching, and they stayed to watch the beginning of the show. We've never had that many people that early on. So whatever happened with Franco and Hathaway, people were there to see what was going to happen.
I think we're going have that with Billy this year also. Here's this guy who hasn't done this for a really long time, coming back. People are very comfortable with him. I think people are going to tune in initially to see what that opening is going to be. And the hope would be, if that's the case, that the show is smart, and fun, and funny, and moving, and people will stay with it rather than tune it out.