x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

New generation of Oscars hosts

This year's Oscars hosts, James Franco and Anne Hathaway, are considerably younger than usual. So how will they handle this daunting task?

Steve Martin, left, and Alec Baldwin co-hosted the 82nd Academy Awards last year and drew 41.6 million viewers.
Steve Martin, left, and Alec Baldwin co-hosted the 82nd Academy Awards last year and drew 41.6 million viewers.

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Ampas) announced that James Franco and Anne Hathaway would host Sunday's 83rd Academy Awards, one aspect of the choice caused particular comment.

At just 32 and 28, the actors are considerably younger than both last year's hosts, Alec Baldwin (52) and Steve Martin (65). It seems the Academy has decided that the solution to rehabilitating what is seen as an increasingly out-of-touch event is to give it a more youthful face.

And while Franco has remarked that he doesn't care if they host the worst Oscars ever, he must be aware of the weight that rests on his and Hathaway's shoulders.

Hosting the Oscars is sometimes described as the toughest gig in showbiz, and with good reason.

The Oscar presenters must not merely be polished compères, they have to be funny, charming, self-deprecating, display a certain amount of reverence without fawning, and possess a hefty star power all of their own.

Even after they've survived the ceremony, the hosts have to endure a piranha-style grilling by critics and commentators who for days will chew over whether they were too funny, not deferential enough or too political.

It is little wonder nobody openly covets the spot.

Billy Crystal ranks as one of the most successful Oscar hosts of recent times, having hosted the event eight times over 14 years, putting him second only to the legendary comedian Bob Hope, who hosted 18 ceremonies. But Crystal described preparing for and hosting the event as mentally gruelling, which may be one of the reasons he's declined to return since 2004.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly while he was preparing for the 1990 ceremony, Crystal also put his finger on two perennial problems for Oscar hosts when it comes to trying to be funny on the night: "A joke can work at the Improv, but will it work in front of all those people in tuxedos, who are nervous to begin with?'' he asked, adding that with millions watching around the world "there's the possibility of offending people without meaning to offend them, just because our sensibilities and our points of view about comedy are different."

Edgier comedians typically struggle more with this, finding the star-studded guests lack the ingredient vital to their shtick: a thick skin.

In 2005, for example, host Chris Rock was genuinely baffled when a glum Sean Penn used his Oscars presentation speech to chide him for lampooning the British actor Jude Law in his opening monologue.

Of course, this problem isn't unique, as Ricky Gervais discovered at this year's Golden Globes, but the Oscars have proved a tough gig for even the most popular comedians in the past.

David Letterman's 1995 performance was slammed by critics, while the political satirist Jon Stewart presided over a record low of 31.7 million viewers in 2008.

While the 2009 and 2010 ceremonies increased its ratings with 36.9 and 41.6 million viewers respectively, it is a far cry from its solid run from 1993 to 2002, when it was regularly commanding more than 45 million viewers.

The Oscars producers Bruce Cohen and Don Mischer said the decision to go with this year's young, untested stars was more than about having fresh faces on screen.

"We'll be celebrating the great films of the year, but we'll also be making references to some of the great films of the past," Mischer told The Hollywood Reporter.

"But to do that through the eyes of two young actors who are emerging as major talents in film, we felt that was a great way to go."

And the only way to go, if the event is to retain its former glory.

Mischer's statement is an attempt to address the continued desertion of the youth market and revamp the show by appealing to the younger viewers who have flocked towards more entertaining and interactive affairs such as the MTV Video Music Awards and People's Choice Awards.

While both events have less glamour and prestige, they have embraced the youth demographic by incorporating online polling and the social media tools Twitter and Facebook to growing success. The 2010 Video Music Awards got the ceremony's highest ratings in eight years.

Last year the Grammy Awards launched the interactive pre-ceremony marketing campaign We're All Fans, where television spots were created using fans' YouTube performances of nominated artists.

A WereAllfans.com website was also established using fan-generated content from YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.

The result was last year's awards ratings leaping by 35 per cent and the campaign returned again in the run-up to this year's event, held on February 15.

Unfortunately Ampas, where a majority of members are reportedly over 60 years of age, has arguably failed to fully embrace the digital frontier.

In fact, with its invitation-only membership and closed voting procedures, it makes the process of selecting the Oscar winners the antithesis of the modern age of crowd sourcing and interactivity.

They have, however, been taking tentative steps towards a more interactive broadcast.

On Oscars night, fans can now log on to the awards' website where it will stream backstage action through its Thank You Cam, where winners can extend their gratitude to supporters.

Other viewing angles on offer include Backstage Cam, Control Room Cam and Press Room Cam.

Hardcore devotees can pay $4.99 (Dh18) for more backstage coverage by accessing a 360-degree camera which can be controlled with a mouse.

While these measures have already earned the scorn of tech bloggers who bemoaned the lack of an official Oscar blog and updated YouTube page, it begins addressing the issues needed to safeguard the event's future.

Hathaway and Franco may have an uphill task to please the critics, but at least the steps taken on and behind the scenes of this year's ceremony lay the seeds for a future Oscars resurgence.