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Oscar Producer’s Dilemma – Free Speech Vs. Ratings

At the Oscar nominees luncheon on Monday, politics will be on the menu, but the tab the movie Academy and ABC will pay for the stars to exercise their right to free speech won't come due until Feb. 26

Kerry Washington at the 2017 SAG Awards

The Cost Of An Uncivil War Of Words

When the annual Academy Awards nominees luncheon takes place Monday, one hot topic is likely to be the increasing politicization of the Hollywood awards season, reflecting a genuine anger in a very divided America.

Producers and advertisers may hate controversies that can turn off viewers (customers), but actors have been unleashed in the new era of unlimited multi-platform, global digital media and are going to exercise their right as citizens to free speech when they strike gold.

As Kerry Washington put it last month when she opened the SAG Awards: "A lot of people are saying right now that actors should keep our mouths shut when it comes to politics. But the truth is, no matter what, actors are activists because we embody the humanity and worth of all people."

As a result, this year’s Oscars could have a major ratings problem if President Trump’s supporters vote against Hollywood’s preaching by turning off ABC’s kudofest - and they might.

Last year’s Oscar telecast was down by 8 percent to about 34 million viewers – the lowest in at least six years - and some critics blamed the heavy-handed handling of the lack of African American nominees. The show even ended on a political note as First Lady Michelle Obama announced the best picture winner via satellite from the White House.

#OscarsSoWhite now seems like a side show compared to the current uncivil war of words over Trump’s divisive policies.

In the wake of the eloquent, heartfelt statements last month from Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes to the righteous anger expressed on the SAG Awards, it seems obvious there will be more sharing of political outrage on the Oscars – and it will produce another strong reaction from the other side, who see many in Hollywood as self-absorbed and living in a bubble of unreality.

“One can agree with Hollywood’s opposition to all things Trump, and still grow weary of the incessant noise,” wrote columnist Andrea Peyser in the Conservative-leaning New York Post earlier this week. “Even those who stand ideologically with the elite mob are tiring of ceaseless lectures by celebs who fail to represent the millions of church-, synagogue- and mosque-going folks among us.”

“The entertainment-industrial complex,” wrote Peyser in the Post, “dominated by self-congratulatory leftists, hard-core exhibitionists and gazillionaires and –airesses, some in get-ups that would set back ordinary Joes or Janes a year’s worth of rent money, have issued a collective punch to the guts of folks at home.”

Some actors have agreed. Mark Wahlberg said in November 2016 when Task and Purpose asked him about actors who were speaking out against Trump’s election: “A lot of Hollywood is living in a bubble. They’re pretty out of touch with the common person, the everyday guy out there providing for their family.”

But the majority view in mostly liberal Democratic progressive Hollywood is that Trump is the danger.

So what will this year’s first time Oscar producers, Mike DeLuca and Jennifer Todd, tell the stars at this year’s Oscar lunch about how to behave on camera? It is likely to be quite different from what I heard when in the 1990s when the show’s producer issued a stern warning against inserting political comments in acceptance speeches. It was part of that generation’s belief that politics did not belong on a show honoring stars, shows and crafts.

Actress and Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather refuses to accept Marlon Brando's Oscar as best actor during the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony

It was considered outrageous when Marlon Brando in 1973 refused to accept his Godfather best actor Oscar and sent a native American to deliver his message. The Academy would not let Sacheen Littlefeather deliver her entire statement and there was booing from the audience. (She did get to read the entire statement to the press backstage).

There was also a widespread bias for years that actors should not use the sway of characters they play to stand on a bully pulpit and tell the rest of the country how to think, live or act. In those days of yore even late-night comedians were careful about being equal opportunity insulters and jokesters.

Watch the old Johnny Carson Show and you see he poked and joked with a much gentler approach. Carson was ribbing his pal Reagan, not declaring war on his enemy the way Stephen Colbert does today.

Over the years since Marlon Brando’s effort to bring attention to the way Indians had been portrayed, there have been a scattering of other protests over things including women’s rights, abortion rights, gay rights, stem cells, and much more.

Richard Gere used his Oscar acceptance in 2011 to raise of civil rights abuses by China in Tibet; Susan Sarandon and then-husband Tim Robbins called on the U.S. to shut down an AIDS internment camp in Haiti; and in 2003 under George W. Bush, Michael Moore accepted for best documentary by declaring, “We live in fictitious times that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man who sends us to war for fictitious reasons. Shame on you, Mr. President.”

Sarandon and Robbins afterwards faced anger from the Academy. After Gere spoke out the longtime Oscar producer Gil Cates said in the L.A. Times: “Does anyone care about Richard Gere’s comments about China? It’s arrogant.”

2017 Academy Awards producers Michael DeLuca and Jennifer Todd

DeLuca and Todd are part of a new generation that is not likely to put anyone down for making heartfelt political statements to the billion-people viewing worldwide. It is likely to be a topic throughout the show, beginning with first time host Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue.

While a tune out due to politics could ultimately hurt the bottom line of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences – which uses the $70 million a year or more it gets as a license fee from the Walt Disney Company (parent of ABC) for many worthwhile programs – that same august organization deserves some of the blame if the deplorables dump the telecast.

The Academy changed tone last year when it reacted quite properly to the lack of diversity among its members and the nominees to make big changes and issue an apology of sorts. The unintended consequence was that the process of correction was seen by some as a political agenda that superseded just supporting the most talented craftsmen, and that turned them off.

That will be seen again this year. As a result of Trump’s ban on Muslims from seven countries, including Iran, there was a question whether Oscar nominee Asghar Farhadi would be able to attend. As a result he declared that he would not attend now in any case.

The Academy denounced Trump’s ban: “As supporters of filmmakers—and the human rights of all people—around the globe, we find it extremely troubling that Asghar Farhadi, the director of the Oscar-winning film from Iran A Separation, along with the cast and crew of this year’s Oscar-nominated film The Salesman, could be barred from entering the country because of their religion or country of origin.”

That opened the door to further denunciations with the Academy’s blessing, which no doubt will be heard on the telecast.

While more than 30 million people are likely to watch the 2017 Oscar telecast, making it once again the biggest single entertainment show of the year (non sports), even a little erosion can be a big deal to advertisers and the network.

The good news for the Academy is that it has a recently extended long-term deal with ABC, and the network knows there are few shows people watch live that draw this huge an audience, even if it is shrinking.

This year, however, it is likely the stars will feel quite justified in speaking out because there is so much at stake. When you have a White House that says the press is the opposing party and one that will only allow appearances by its officials on networks that showcase its views, a lot of stars feel they have an obligation n to speak out.

So the Oscars must prepare to bite the ratings bullet and take one for the good of the people, even if it pisses off about half the people.

LaLa Land star Emma Stone with her SAG Awards at the January 2017 ceremony

As Emma Stone, Oscar nominated for LaLa Land, which has a record-breaking number of nominations, put it backstage at the SAG Awards, an actor of conscience can no longer just be another pretty face. “We have to speak up against injustice, and we have to kick some ass.”

“Staying silent only helps the oppressor, not the victim,” added the best actress nominee. “Right now I hope that people seeing things that are being done that are unconstitutional and inhumane would say something. I would hope that people would fight for what’s right, and what’s just f–king human. What’s f*cking human.”

Just don’t be surprised if when Nielsen counts up the eyeballs on Feb. 27, Hollywood doesn’t get the happy ending called for in ABC and the Academy’s script.

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