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Deadline Hollywood: Shameful Oscar Overspending 

Mo' money, more Hugh, less Jerry

Wednesday, Dec 24 2008
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Hollywood layoffs be damned! Jeez, but it’s bewildering why Paramount took out seven pages of full-page ads in The New York Times today for Revolutionary Road. Talk about overkill. Or why Paramount commissioned a full-frills “making of” The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button coffee-table book published by Rizzoli and selling for $45, which the studio bigwigs are sending out as Christmas gifts to Hollywood.

“It’s so unbelievably pretentious and self-promoting and self-aggrandizing that I just can’t not comment on it,” one recipient phoned me. But the studio isn’t alone. Oscar campaign spending, which went into reverse when Harvey Weinstein left Miramax, is now back in overdrive.

Even as cutbacks are being announced at the majors and minors, Disney inserted a book on Wall-E — that’s right, a book — into the Los Angeles Times as a promotion I’m told is worth $675,000, all to reach a few thousand academy voters since the pic was already out on video. “So a $675,000 insert is falling out of newspapers sent to one in 10 homes in foreclosure. No way that’s going to help the business of Wall-E with consumers. That is just about flattering the ego of John Lassiter, especially when Wall-E is already going to win Best Animated Feature,” an insider complained to me.

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I’m hearing that Focus Features, which also announced layoffs, has spent a small fortune pushing Milk. And Universal, currently in the midst of a combination of cutbacks and layoffs, ran full-page ads costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times for Imagine’s Frost/Nixon, when it was only open in three theaters (one of them Toronto). “Ron Howard’s deal at Universal calls for pages and pages of trade advertising. I get it,” one source griped to me. “But if it didn’t, then it would be up to the movies themselves to carry their own weight.”

On the day Viacom announced its bloodletting, Paramount had a color gatefold ad in Variety for Benjamin Button. Cost: $250,000, or about 10 assistants’ salaries. Insiders tell me there could be more cuts in the marketing, distribution and publicity areas after the pic is done with its Oscar campaign so important to studio boss Brad Grey, his former company Plan B, and client Brad Pitt. And don’t get me started on the suitability of the black-tie premiere. “It’s like something out of My Man Godfrey or one of those Depression-era comedies,” one marketing guru fumed. “It could not be more wrong.”

Never mind that people are losing their jobs. Or that Big Media is trying to crush the Screen Actors Guild. The Oscars must go on! Want to know why the Academy Awards telecast sucks? Because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences doesn’t seek out the best people, just its closest pals. So AMPAS president Sid Ganis made his selection of Dreamgirls team Larry Mark and Bill Condon to produce the 81st Oscars over a long and cozy Polo Lounge lunch that “turned into a mini–think tank” about how to fix the show.

Don’t get me wrong: I think the duo are a fine producing-directing team. But not only did Ganis fail to search far and wide for something different, he merely reached across the table for the same old same old. Then again, Sid always acts like he’s entered in some dopey contest to be crowned one of Hollywood’s ultimate insiders — when it was necessary for him to pick outsiders who can say no to the usual AMPAS bullshit.

You watch this bore fest and you want to hang yourself. But last February’s was the worst-rated kudoscast since Nielsen started tracking them in 1974. And, afterward, several Hollywood power players vowed to radically change this year’s show. The Oscars need major reconstruction before February 22, not just cosmetic surgery. So the duo promised “way-outside-the-box” thinking. So they came up with a choice of host who’s only outside this country — Australian actor Hugh Jackman, star of X-Men and its two sequels, this season’s stillborn Australia, and the upcoming Wolverine, as well as People magazine’s 2008 “Sexiest Man Alive.” Even the people around Jackman wanted to make sure he’d be emceeing a different Oscar broadcast without the joke-telling monologue. As an insider told me, “He is an actor with big movies behind him and one coming this summer. He didn’t work the last 20 years to suddenly be a standup comedian.”

The choice is a repudiation of recent hosts like Jon Stewart (twice), who, though a household name in this country, was barely known outside the U.S. True, the ceremony has been emceed by mostly comedians — whether Will Rogers and George Jessel in the 1930s; Bob Hope off and on for the next three decades; Johnny Carson in the 1980s; even David Letterman in 1995. In the 1990s and 2000s, there’s been a mix of funny people, like Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Martin, Chris Rock and Ellen DeGeneres. Only a few thesps have hosted the show alone, including first AMPAS president and one of the founders, Douglas Fairbanks; and Jimmy Stewart, Robert Montgomery and Jack Lemmon.

Jackman’s selection is the motion-picture industry’s recognition that, now more than ever, the success of a movie depends as much, if not more, on its international box office as on its North American grosses. But Jackman also brilliantly emceed the televised ceremony for the Tony Awards in 2003, 2004 and 2005, and won an Emmy for the latter. And he did win Broadway’s 2004 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Australian singer-songwriter Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz. Mark and Condon intend to make the most of Jackman’s multitalents.

But are they enough to bring audiences back?

I also have learned that protests are coming into the academy about its Board of Governors’ choice of Jerry Lewis to receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. The controversy is over his recent repeated and public antigay slurs. The Hollywood gay community, joined by much of the show-biz straight community, is already fuming because Proposition 8 passed last month, outlawing same-sex unions in California. So the vote by the AMPAS board selecting Lewis seems like “salt poured into an open wound,” according to one of my sources.

I’m told the AMPAS response has been, “He’s apologized.” My insiders say Tom Sherak, the former 20th Century Fox and Revolution Studios exec who raises money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and has a family member with MS, was primarily responsible for lobbying the board to choose Lewis.

But as recently as October, Lewis made an antigay slur on Australian television similar to one he made on his annual Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon a year ago. The 82-year-old was asked by a Network Ten TV reporter about the national sport of cricket. “Oh, cricket? It’s a fag game. What are you, nuts?” Lewis replied. In September 2007, he used a similar antigay slur — calling someone an “illiterate fag” on air during his annual Labor Day fund-raiser in Las Vegas. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation immediately sought an apology. “Jerry Lewis’ on-air use of this kind of antigay slur is simply unacceptable,” GLAAD President Neil G. Giuliano said in a statement. “It also feeds a climate of hatred and intolerance that contributes to putting our community in harm’s way.”

Lewis said he was sorry, claiming he’d made “a poor choice of words” and he “holds no prejudices in this regard.” Yet there he was in Australia, doing it again, and apologizing again. I say this is a terrible choice by the academy. AMPAS isn’t bestowing on Lewis an honor for his long career. The Hersholt is an award given to an individual in the motion-picture industry “whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry.” Despite Lewis’ laudatory 42 years of raising money for MDA, his publicly demonstrated debasement of gays doesn’t make him a humanitarian in my eyes.

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