Are Oscars worth the fuss?

By Andy Goldberg

Los Angeles, Feb 20 (DPA) Stars careen from talk show to talk show, telling their funniest stories and hoping to appear at their charismatic best.

Studios plaster the Los Angeles airwaves with advertisements, and spend a fortune on organising screening parties. And even in the depths of the current recession, the beautiful people of Hollywood are splashing out on gowns, parties and limousines.

But, according to the Los Angeles Times, spending on Oscar budgets is dramatically down this year. Even the studios hoping to earn an Oscar statue at the 81st Academy Awards on Sunday in Los Angeles, have slashed their budgets from the standard figure of $10-15 million that they poured out last year.

The shortfall is not just due to the economic crash. Rather, it reflects the fact that almost none of the major contenders for Oscar glory has made a significant impact at the box office - even after, in theory at least, their Oscar nominations should have sent millions of film fans to see the best cinematic offerings of the year.

Only "Slumdog Millionaire" has significantly increased its box office sales since the nominations were announced last month. Even nomination leader "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" saw only a brief and modest boost in ticket sales before retreating to box office mediocrity.

That trend bodes ill for the kind of specialty dramas that have dominated the Oscars in recent years, even as they have contributed to the event's decline in the public interest and television ratings.

No disrespect intended, but fans aren't going to tune in to watch Melissa Leo or Richard Jenkins as they vie for best actress and actor nods. Nor do most care about movies like "The Reader", "Doubt" or "Frost/Nixon", all of which are competing for the best picture prize.

After all, if popular films like "The Dark Knight" are virtually excluded from the running, won't the Oscars become little more than a competition for cinemaphiles?

That's the view of many in Hollywood who spot a trend away from the art-house dramas that Oscar voters have favoured in recent years. Instead, studios plan to inject more quality into their major releases and then flog them heavily to the Oscar voters, according to Pete Hammond, a professional Oscar watcher for the Los Angeles Times.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is also trying to tackle the Oscar malaise with other tools. It broke with 80 years of tradition for Sunday's ceremony by choosing stage and screen actor Hugh Jackman to host the gala rather than a comic actor.

Producers have also promised a new kind of show, and warned the nominees they should expect lots of surprises on Oscar night. But they've been careful about releasing too many details on the changes, apart from indicating the event will have a stronger narrative thread than usual.

Jackman, however, has not been so discreet. He promises that the Oscar theatre will be reformatted to be more intimate, and will resemble "the nightclub of your dreams".

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