Oscars Call Mechanic to Soup Up Broadcast

After Record Low Ratings, Academy Awards Looks to Regroup With New Tagline, Expanded Nominees

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Bill Mechanic has a lot vested in this year's Academy Awards. Not only is he acting as the show's producer for the first time, he's also a nominee: "Coraline," a film he produced last year for Nike co-founder Phil Knight's Laika studios and distributed by Focus Features, is up for Best Animated Film.

Bill Mechanic, producer of this year's Oscars.
Bill Mechanic, producer of this year's Oscars.
But even as the ceremony's producer (along with director and choreographer Adam Shankman) Mr. Mechanic couldn't rig the votes in his favor even if he tried -- the animated film award goes to the film's director, not the producers. So he keeps a pretty neutral stance when it comes to the nominees for the March 7 ceremony, airing on ABC, which for the first time since 1943 will feature 10 nominees for Best Picture instead of the usual five.

"I only have one bias, but otherwise I have no influence. I really only care that we got what we got, which was a wide array of pictures, from smaller movies like 'An Education' and 'A Serious Man' to wider movies like 'Avatar' and 'The Blind Side,'" he said. "As a producer, a studio executive and now as a show producer, I have always had one motto -- there's nothing inherently bad about being big and nothing inherently good about being small. And this show should recognize that."

Approaching 1998's record Oscar audience is no small feat for Messrs. Mechanic and Shankman; the program saw record-low ratings in 2008 and the ceremony's third-lowest viewership in 2009. An aggressive marketing campaign made up of social media, a revamped Oscar.com and a new tagline, "You've never seen Oscar like this," are attempts to restore the Oscars to its status as one of the most-watched TV events of the year.

Ad Age: What changes can we expect to the show's format this year?

Mr. Mechanic: We have two goals -- one is make it shorter, two is make it funnier. The advertising tagline is 'You've never Oscar like this before,' but [our] operating model was 'expect the unexpected.' The people who watch the show tend to have watched the show really faithfully, and what people like is that there's a sense of tradition, so they might see something different.

But there are two things that change everything for us -- 10 pictures has a massive effect in terms of the format, and then the two hosts [Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin.] Those two things intersecting throughout the evening will make the show different in and of itself.

Ad Age: Last year's telecast had a median age of 49.5. How will you attract younger moviegoers?

Mr. Mechanic: When we started I asked for a research study to give us kind of a leg up on how people are feeling about different things, because Adam I are coming from different places, to give us a common language together. I think that study will end up informing a lot of what we did. There are things people like in terms of specific audiences -- young girls love dance and young guys love comedy.

I also know what you can't do. If you want to attract an African-American audience you won't just put a black performer on and think that that's meaningful. And with young audiences, you don't put a young performer on and think that's meaningful. For the first people we asked in terms of presenters, we had kind of a threshold of young performers, actors and directors and things that appeal to these people, so I think the young will be taken care of.

Ad Age: Adam is an avid Twitter user with a big following, so will this year's telecast incorporate Twitter in some capacity?

Mr. Mechanic: Adam is maybe an over-Twitterer. We have to get him to calm down because he's revealing too much of the show.

One of the first meetings we had was to engage the Academy Awards into the 21st century with our two partners, ABC and the Academy. We won't get accomplished everything we want to this year. If you look at the site, it's really better than it's ever been, so hopefully next year we'll be able to execute 50% of what we wanted to do. This year we'll probably only accomplish 20% of what we wanted. We always wanted Twitter and Facebook to be used, not just by Adam but by others to speak to an audience that has not traditionally viewed the Oscars as important as it certainly is.

Ad Age: What do you make of the show's ratings being directly proportionate to the box office grosses of the nominees?

Mr. Mechanic: I'll tell you what, if I were an advertiser I'd book the show, because the last big rating was for 'Titanic,' and that's the best rating in the last 15 years. And there's one reason for it -- it was a popular film. The fact that 'Avatar' is as big as it is, and you have 'Blind Side' and 'Inglourious Basterds' and you have 'Up,' I wouldn't say it's an embarrassment of riches but it's not bad. I would think even if we weren't working as hard as we were working, this would still be a good year.

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