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Academy Selects An All-White Group Of Acting Nominees – Again

By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

For the second year in a row, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has nominated an all-white group of acting nominees, passing over popular, well-reviewed performances in Creed and Straight Outta Compton and failing to nominate prominent actors of color in 2015 films, including Idris Elba, Samuel L. Jackson and Will Smith.

The homogeneous group of nominees comes as the academy is in the midst of a major push to diversify its membership, and after academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs in November announced a new initiative — A2020 — designed to promote inclusion within its staff.

When movies driven by black actors and directors were nominated this time around, it was for the work of their white colleagues. Despite Universal Pictures mounting a robust awards campaign for its summer blockbuster Straight Outta Compton, neither that film’s director, F. Gary Gray, nor any of its black lead actors was nominated, though the film’s two white screenwriters were.

Sylvester Stallone was nominated for supporting actor for his performance in Warner Bros.’ Creed, but the film’s black writer-director, Ryan Coogler, and black star, Michael B. Jordan, were not.

The academy also passed over Elba, whom critics had praised for his performance in Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation; Jackson, who had campaigned for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight; and Smith, who fronts the movie Concussion.

Tangerine, an independent film whose transgender actresses of color, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, are nominated for Independent Spirit Awards, also failed to secure any nominations.

The academy’s failure to nominate a more diverse group of actors has been a sore spot for the institution’s public reputation. Last year, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began trending on Twitter, and telecast host Neil Patrick Harris opened the show by saying, “Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest. Sorry, brightest.”

The 88th Oscars ceremony is set for Feb. 28.

©2016 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Actor John Krasinski and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announce Best Actor at the announcement of the 88th Academy Awards nominations during a live news conference on Jan. 14, 2016 at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Directors Of Five Oscar-Contending Animated Features Discuss Realizing Visions And Casting Voices

By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Five directors came together recently for The Envelope Animation Roundtable. In a conversation at the L.A. Times, Pete Docter (Inside Out), Duke Johnson (Anomalisa), Steve Martino (The Peanuts Movie), Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur) and Richard Starzak (Shaun the Sheep Movie) tackled such topics as selling their ideas, letting the visuals tell the story and working with voice actors.

Here are excerpts from that conversation:

Q: Duke, you went out on Kickstarter and had to convince fans and the public that your idea was worth executing. What was that like?

Duke Johnson: (Anomalisa) was originally a play that was produced in 2005 at (UCLA’s) Royce Hall for two nights. It was called Theater of the New Ear and it was like a radio play, just actors sitting on stage reading scripts with foley. We approached Charlie (Kaufman) and said, “Can we do this?” And he said, “If you can get the money, you can do it.” So we went out and we approached a couple studios. And there was interest, but people wanted to develop it into something episodic or break it up into three parts. And we didn’t want to touch it. We wanted to preserve the original vision of the piece. So we tried Kickstarter and we raised $406,000, which isn’t enough money to make a stop-motion animated film. But it literally kick-started the process. So it was challenging in the sense that we didn’t have the money or the backing of a studio, but it was freeing in the sense that we didn’t have anybody looking over our shoulder and we could do creatively exactly what we wanted.

Q: Steve, you had a really different challenge, which is that you had to persuade the Schulz family that you were the right guy for these characters.

Steve Martino: Craig Schulz (Charles’ son) talked to me about a feature film idea he had … working with his son, Bryan, who’s a screenwriter. He had something there that he felt the time was right. He wants to keep his father’s legacy alive for a new generation and I think he saw some of the work that we had done. I had worked on Horton Hears a Who!, which was based on Dr. Seuss. And he felt that we paid homage to that wonderful work, that book, and brought it to life on the screen in a way that felt true to the original material. And so that’s where our conversation started … . Thankfully, he wanted to work with us, wanted to work with me. I left that meeting excited like, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing!” And got home and told family and friends who were fans. And they were immediately excited and they’re like, “You better not screw it up.”

Q: Richard, in your case Shaun the Sheep was a show before you proposed the idea of making it a feature film. How did you know that it had enough story to sustain a feature?

Richard Starzak: From very early on, strangely — because I devised the series. I came in to try and make Shaun the Sheep work. It was in development and it hadn’t been working very well mainly because they’d cast Shaun as a kind of hero that had a girlfriend, a love rival, and he could use cashpoint cards and he could take his girlfriend to the cinema, who was a pink sheep. And it made no sense to me whatsoever because there’s nowhere for the stories to go because … he had it all. So I kind of pushed it back to the idea of him being a sheep. He’s got a job; he eats grass. So a kind of Warner Bros. influence, really. I think it’s a Tex Avery cartoon where a sheep and a wolf go into the fields and they all clock in. (Editor’s note: The Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog Looney Tunes characters were created by Chuck Jones.) It struck me that that was a better way to go, so we went that way. And also I decided on no dialogue because I’ve been a big fan of silent comedy and I thought, selfishly, this is my chance to do something that I want to do. I argued that that would actually be economically more viable and we could spend more time on the story and less on writing dialogue. But telling a story cinematically without dialogue was much more difficult than I thought.

Q: Peter, your movie does a lot without dialogue too. How did you guys approach that?

Peter Sohn: Part of this movie is a survival story and taking a dinosaur out in the wilderness; there’s a lot of moments where he’s needing to figure out what to do on his own. And so there’s just inherently not a lot of dialogue with that. But then one of the original conceits to the story was the idea of a boy-and-dog story, but flipping it and making the traditional “boy” the dinosaur and the “dog” this little human boy; and then sticking true to that, where the dinosaur has evolved to speak a language but the little animal, the human boy, has no language whatsoever. And so in that relationship, there’s a lot of miscommunications … . We still have dialogue in our movie. There are just moments there that we’ve kind of relied on that type of silent comedies that we all so love.

Pete Docter: I don’t know about you guys, this maybe started on Wall-E, which, of course, didn’t have much dialogue either, but we started just trying a pass at the stories. If the dialogue wasn’t there, would you still be able to tell what’s going on? On Up we did this little montage at the beginning where we slowly just stripped away the dialogue and found it actually worked even better. So I think hopefully the films make sense on some level visually that you should be able to track them even if there’s no talking.

Q: Let’s talk about casting your voice actors. Pete, did you have your characters before your voices?

Docter: We did. And that was really one of the keys for me. The concept was intriguing because of the fun that we could have with these broad characters and that’s what I feel animation does really well. And some of them — like I would use Lewis Black as an example of the fun we will have with casting when we get there, so I had him kind of in mind. But other ones like Amy Poehler were cast well, well after the character was built. We were starting even in some animation before we finally locked in on what she was really all about. And, of course, she helped enormously. And then, for us, we record before we animate. And so what inevitably happens is you bring your actor in and you look at the script and you go, “I need to change all this because this actor uses these kind of words and speaks with this cadence.” And so I end up rewriting almost everything just listening to the actors. They become an integral part of those characters that then the animators listen to as they create their expressions, the performances.

Q: Duke, how did it work on your film?

Johnson: There’s three voices. The actors are David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan. And they were the same original three actors that were in the stage performance in 2005. And, actually, Charlie had written the script for the stage performance and then rehearsed with those actors for a week and, same thing, adjusted to their cadences and things that they added. And so the script was adapted to them for that performance. So they came in, the very first thing we did was record the actors before any character design, before any conversations about look or creative development. And we recorded them together, the three of them literally together at the same time straight through the script as if it were a stage performance. It was very intimate. But we wanted to have them reacting to each other and overlapping each other and that was very important to us. So we sort of recorded the movie first and the emotional effect that it had on us influenced everything after that. The aesthetic and the design came out of that experience.

Q: Steve, when you’re casting all those kids — kids’ voices change even if they’re not going through puberty. So how did you approach that?

Martino: Normally, the way we work as we’re developing the story, we often will use — we call it scratch voices, people at the studio who will just do the voices as we’re shaping the story. But I did that once and it doesn’t sound right at all — to hear an adult voice being Charlie Brown or Linus. So we got into casting much earlier than we do on other productions. And, to me, the original specials — the Christmas special and Halloween special — those were the characters. Those voices imprinted on my mind and I thought, “You know, if I create a film and the voice doesn’t sound like that, as a fan I’d be like, ‘Oh, well, that’s not Charlie Brown. That’s not Linus.’” So our casting challenge was to find that quality of voice and, yet, what you want are kids to be real. Because the best takes, the best performance is that nobody puts on a voice. And I was so worried about finding a Linus because the original Linus has this beautiful little lisp. And I’m picturing myself being in a recording studio with a kid trying to act a lisp. And I’m like that’s going to be so fake and it’s not going to work. But we found Alex Garfin, this wonderful child actor who’s got this natural lisp. I tell you, we wrapped the movie and he came to Blue Sky to watch the full film. And as he walked around the studio, all the animators were like, “Just say something! Say ‘Charlie Brown!’” And just to have him say anything it was like, “Oh, my God, he sounds like Linus!”

Q: Duke, your movie’s unique at this table because it’s —

Johnson: Not for children.

(Laughter)

Q: — very specifically made for adults. It has adult language. There’s a sex scene in it. How do you think about using animation, which, in this country, people associate with family films?

Johnson: That concept that this medium is sort of for children has been and continues to be a bit of a challenge for us. We said early on that animation is a medium and not a genre. You can paint in various mediums and you can tell a story in many different ways. And so what does this medium bring to this story? How does the form match the content? We felt that it added a soulfulness and a dreamlike quality that we were looking for in this story and, also, it allowed us to examine the human experience and human interaction in a unique way. Because when you’re watching something animated, as an audience member you’re very conscious — or maybe subconsciously aware that everything is a choice. Every movement, every nuance, is a decision that somebody made. And that allows you to focus on it in a new way and it gives a certain amount of importance to details that might otherwise be mundane in a live-action film.

Q: What are some of the difficulties of stop-motion, Richard?

Starzak: There’s a lot of problem-solving to do, which can be very cheeky. We had a scene in the restaurant where I wanted life outside the windows; I said, “I want some cars going past and some people walking past — it’s got to look like a city.” And the production manager actually said, “We’ve completely run out of puppets. No cars, no puppets. They’re all being used.” Everyone was on the set so I was trying to find a solution to make it look busy outside. Then one of the animators, who’s a motorcyclist, he picked up his crash helmet and he pushed it past the window and said, “It looks like a Honda Civic!” “We’ll shoot it! Get some more crash helmets!” We got these crash helmets going outside. It’s not a big shot, but you kind of have a nice little chuckle to yourself when you manage to get — the things you can get away with.

Q: If you were talking to a version of yourself who was in college or art school, what kind of advice would you give that person?

Starzak: Blimey, that’s a tough question. I’d probably say, “Take up accountancy or something.”

Johnson: I went to undergrad film school and I graduated and I’m 21 years old and I felt a sense of urgency, like Orson Welles made Citizen Kane when he was 24, I have to write the great American screenplay and make the greatest movie ever made today. What am I going to do? And I’m a waiter at a restaurant … . I think that if you can stay in the moment, and watch movies and read books, and discover your tastes and who you are and what you like, and spend time doing that and experiencing life, and working on films or finding other creative people to collaborate with — as long as you keep that intention and you’re headed in that direction, it’s going to happen. You don’t have to be in a constant state of panic for 10 years.

Starzak: If I could speak to myself as a young person I’d say, “You’re better than you think you are. Just find out more. Just learn more. Just educate yourself more and understand how the process works.”

Docter: There’s this tendency to think that some people are just born talented, like it’s a magic ability. You would never hand a kid a violin and go, “Here, kid, this is a violin. You’re playing at Carnegie Hall tonight because you have natural talent.” That doesn’t happen. I think filmmaking is the same way. You need to practice. You need to get in there and start doing it — and some people have unfair talent.

Martino: So often I look at artwork that I created when I was a kid, and I would get to a certain point and then I would compare what I’m doing to the best that was there. And I would freeze like, “Oh, it’s no good.” And I wouldn’t stay committed to the process of continuing. I would stop and I would have these half-finished works because I got too critical of myself and didn’t trust that my instincts in the process of working on it would actually lead somewhere. And it’s taken me years to actually try to trust that.

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: “Shaun the Sheep” is based on a British TV show that is itself a spinoff of the 1995 Wallace and Gromit short film “A Close Shave.” (Photo courtesy Lionsgate/TNS)

 

Nina Simone Documentary Aims To Reveal Little-Understood Artist

By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Kanye West sampled her, Chanel made her into a jingle, and President Barack Obama called her song “Sinnerman” one of his 10 favorites. But for a woman whose music is so widely admired, Nina Simone has long been little understood. Even many fans of the jazz artist and civil rights radical don’t know what fueled the passion and anger that became her trademark, before ultimately leading her to abandon public life in her prime.

Simone’s only child, Lisa Simone Kelly, hopes some of that mystery will lift with the release of the documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” which opens theatrically June 26 in Los Angeles and will be available on Netflix as well.

“She has a reputation for being difficult, loud and violent, but why?” Simone Kelly said of her mother by phone from her home in France. “We all have a story. My mother suffered. We can go all the way back to when she was a child and people told her her nose was too big, her skin was too dark, her lips were too wide. It’s very important the world acknowledges my mother was a classical musician whose dreams were not realized because of racism.”

Directed by Liz Garbus and executive produced by Simone Kelly, What Happened, Miss Simone? is reaching audiences months before a highly contested biopic, Nina, starring Zoe Saldana in the title role, hits theaters. That film, which came under fire for the casting of the fair-skinned Saldana as Simone and was the subject of a lawsuit by its director, Cynthia Mort, is expected to be released in the fall, according to a spokeswoman for its British production company, Ealing Studios.

Simone is penetrating the mainstream via other media, too: On July 10, Revive Music/RCA Records will release Nina Revisited: A Tribute to Nina Simone, an album of artists including Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige covering her songs.

It was precisely because Simone Kelly was so disturbed by the script for Nina, which focuses on a relationship with a composite character based on Simone’s former nurse and manager Clifton Henderson (played by David Oyelowo), that she decided to participate in the documentary.

“Let’s put it this way, I’m very happy that this movie made it across the finish line first,” said Simone Kelly, an actress and singer who has performed on Broadway in the title role of the Disney musical Aida and released three solo albums. Simone Kelly’s father, Andrew Stroud, was a New York police detective who later became Simone’s manager. “If a lie comes out in the movies, that goes down in history as that person’s journey.”

It’s hard to imagine that a storyteller would need to embellish Simone, who projected a shocking power as a performer even as she shouldered the burdens of genius, racism, sexism and, according to her daughter, mental illness.

In 1964, a time when white audiences expected black female pop singers like the Supremes and the Ronettes to perform love songs and look demure, Simone was delivering the protest anthem “Mississippi Goddam” at Carnegie Hall, telling the crowd, “You’re all gonna die and die like flies.”

“Fusing blues and jazz into standards, talking to her audience, calling them out on whatever she felt they needed to be called out on … For a black woman to do that at time, that was not done,” Garbus said. “They were expected to play and make things nice and not rock the boat.”

Garbus, who was nominated for an Oscar for her 1998 prison film, The Farm: Angola USA, and has also made movies on Bobby Fischer and Marilyn Monroe, was one of a long list of potential directors that production company Radical Media gave to Simone Kelly in 2013. It was in particular Garbus’ treatment of Monroe in the 2012 film Love, Marilyn that caught Simone Kelly’s eye for how it gave dimension to another widely misunderstood woman.

“Liz is female, she’s fearless, she’s got compassion,” Simone Kelly said. “I thought she would tell this story the way Mom would want the story told.”

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Through extensive use of archival performance footage and interviews with key figures like Stroud and Simone’s longtime guitarist Al Schackman, What Happened, Miss Simone? covers the singer’s tragic life arc. There is her childhood as a Bach-loving piano prodigy in North Carolina, her days singing standards in Greenwich Village bars in the 1950s, her awakening to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, her volatile marriage and exile to Liberia and later Europe, and her diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

In excerpts from Simone’s diaries, the film shows the enormous toll of life on the road — she wrote often of her fatigue and of missing her daughter, whom Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, was raising in Mount Vernon, N.Y.

Garbus and her team unearthed performance footage a New York University student had shot in 16 mm of Simone at the Village Gate nightclub in New York and tracked down audiotapes of interviews she gave to the man who helped her write her memoirs, Stephen Cleary, who was living in Australia.

“When you listened to her you felt like she had gone through everything you might imagine going through,” Garbus said. “That’s a healing thing, that you can feel like she’s been there and knows your struggle. But the [civil rights] movement could make someone crazy.”

Netflix received an Oscar nomination for a previous documentary acquisition, The Square, a 2013 film about unrest in Egypt. What Happened, Miss Simone? is the first documentary Netflix has financed itself (together with Radical Media). “We’re their ‘House of Cards’ for documentaries,” Garbus said. “Making your first documentary about a radical like Nina is pretty adventurous.”

The documentary galloped along, but the biopic, “Nina,” hit several rough patches. A crucial part of Simone’s identity was not just that she was a black woman but that she was a dark-skinned black woman who was punished for that fact.

So when director Cynthia Mort cast Saldana, multiracial and of Dominican and Puerto Rican parentage, in the title role, many took umbrage. In Ebony, Marc Lamont Hill wrote, “There is no greater evidence of how tragic things are for dark-skinned women in Hollywood than the fact that they can’t even get hired to play dark-skinned women.”

Mort said by phone that she cast Saldana because “she’s committed and she’s amazing.” “I understood that reaction [to the casting], but … Nina was much more than that and lived beyond those definitions,” Mort said.

On the eve of the film’s 2014 Cannes Film Festival screening for potential exhibitors, however, Mort, who wrote the screenplay for the 2007 Jodie Foster thriller The Brave One, filed a lawsuit against her U.K. production company, Ealing Studios, alleging that it breached her director’s agreement and took over creative control of the project. She has since dropped the case.

“We had very, very, very different visions of the film,” Mort said. “But it was time for me to move on. I’m very excited for the documentary because Nina Simone was an important figure to African Americans, to women and to artists.”

A spokeswoman for Ealing says the company is negotiating with a U.S. distributor.

Even before either film’s release, audiences are rediscovering Simone. When John Legend accepted the Oscar for original song for the film Selma in February, he quoted Simone, who had sung “Mississippi Goddam” for the 40,000 marchers from Montgomery to Selma, Ala., whose story is told in the film.

Last summer, as Garbus was editing, protest and civil disturbance were unfolding in Ferguson, Mo. “The footage on the TV looked exactly like our civil rights footage,” Garbus said.

On the June morning of her film’s premiere at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Garbus said she walked into a Starbucks and heard Simone’s voice carrying over the hiss of the espresso machine.

“Why is this happening now?” Garbus asked. “Maybe we need her. Maybe Nina’s an antidote to what’s happened in the music industry. We talk about its commercialization and homogenization. She’s an icon people can call on for a model of honest involvement in the movement as an entertainer.”

Photo: Nina Simone, 1965 via Wikimedia Commons

Diversity Onstage Stands In Stark Contrast To Nominees

By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the Oscar nominations in January, the absence of any minority group nominees in the acting categories — for only the second time since 1998 — triggered a backlash of criticism and threats of protest.

But Sunday’s Academy Awards show boasted the most diverse group of performers and presenters in Oscars history, as 15 minority presenters, including Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Lopez, Viola Davis, Idris Elba, Kevin Hart, and Oprah Winfrey, took the stage to deliver the evening’s awards.

It wasn’t by accident.

In the 2012 telecast, there was just one black presenter — Chris Rock. When producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron took over the following year, they made it a priority to have the Oscars show look a little more like the people at home watching. There were eight presenters of color in 2013 and 12 last year.

“We’ve always been very conscious of diversity in terms of our presenters and our performers,” Meron said backstage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood in the days leading to the show. “We feel that’s the way the world exists. We’ve always been believers in having an Oscar show that reflects the way the world exists.”

Zadan and Meron began recruiting presenters and performers last spring and said their choices were not affected by the furor over the Oscar nominations, which focused largely on the omission of actor David Oyelowo and director Ava DuVernay of Selma, which won a best picture nomination.

Even so, the contrast between the presenters onstage and the nominees drew notice and criticism.

“The presentation (of minorities) onstage does not bear any resemblance to the nominees and therefore the winners,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been outspoken about the lack of diversity in the academy’s membership and Hollywood as a whole. “One has to wonder whether or not the academy was trying to compensate with optics for what they didn’t do with operations.”

Traditionally the top-rated entertainment show on television, ABC’s Oscar telecast was watched by 36.6 million people in the U.S., according to Nielsen. But the evening’s nominees reflect the tastes of the much smaller, more homogenous academy membership, a group that is 94 percent white and 76 percent male with a median age of 62, according to a 2012 analysis done by the Los Angeles Times.

Since then, the academy has added more women and members of minority groups — but according to the most recent survey, the percentage of older white men in the organization has dipped by only about 1 percentage point.

Zadan and Meron have a history of highlighting minority performers. A number of Zadan and Meron’s previous projects, including a 2012 Steel Magnolias TV movie remake with a black cast and a 2008 TV movie version of the play A Raisin in the Sun, also reflect a long career of working with black artists in particular.

The highlighting of black and Latino performers reflects the support of academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and Chief Executive Dawn Hudson, who are grappling with how to expand the demographic reach of the 6,292-member group

Diversity appeared a main focus of the show as actors of color were often shown in the audience (Carmen Ejogo and Murphy), onstage giving out awards (Lupita Nyong’o) and referred to often in comedic bits by host Neil Patrick Harris (Octavia Spencer).

Harris also walked into the audience, engaging Oyelowo, who was not nominated for his leading role as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. He “was so fantastic,” said Harris of Oyelowo’s performance. When the crowd applauded, the host quipped, “Oh, now you like him.”

One of the night’s most memorable moments came from a performance by African-American performers Common and John Legend, who sang the song “Glory” from Selma backed by a gospel choir marching over a replica of the bridge that King and others crossed in Alabama in the push for voting rights that inspired the film. “Glory” went on to win for original song.

Another came when Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu was greeted with a standing ovation when his Birdman won best picture. He dedicated his Oscar to the people of Mexico and told the worldwide TV audience that America should treat immigrants with “dignity and respect.”

Despite the producers’ efforts to draw a wider audience, the telecast suffered a 16 percent drop in ratings from last year’s show. Blame that on a slate of films that relatively few people saw and a host who lacked the star power provided by last year’s host, Ellen Degeneres.

Some critics say the larger issue isn’t the Oscars but a film industry that is not reflective of American society.

“We’re the largest (minority) population in the U.S., and in terms of age demographics we represent a lot of moviegoers,” says Fernando Guerra, professor of political science and of Chicana/o Studies at Loyola Marymount. “Latinos are a huge demographic in terms of purchasing tickets, yet Hollywood is still not responsive. They’re often accused of chasing the mighty dollar. OK then, chase it!”

While the many top Oscar categories lacked people of color this year, several acceptance speeches on Sunday addressed the diversity that some felt was lacking in the awards themselves.

“Selma is now because the struggle for justice is right now,” said singer Legend. “We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real.”

Legend also decried the large numbers of black men in prison, saying: “There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.”

Patricia Arquette, who won supporting actress for her performance as a single mother in Boyhood, said “wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women.”

“It shows a lot of the artists are far more advanced than the powers that be in Hollywood,” said Sharpton of the speeches. “They need to catch up with the social concerns of the artists. They reflect the culture.”

© 2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Oscar Producers Suit Up For The Big Game

By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — For some it’s the Super Bowl, for others Olympic ice hockey — but for many, Oscar producer Neil Meron believes, the season’s big game takes place in black-tie.

“The Oscars is a sport,” Meron said in an interview Thursday from a small office backstage at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, where a skeleton crew had assembled to start preparing for the Academy Awards on March 2. “There’s the excitement of watching something live, as it happens.”

Meron and his partner, Craig Zadan, are returning to produce the Oscars for a second year, this time bringing on Ellen DeGeneres as host for a second time and focusing the show on the theme of movie heroes, from Atticus Finch to Batman. DeGeneres’ affable style is a stark contrast to last year’s host, Seth MacFarlane, enlisted for his barbed, off-color humor and fan base among younger viewers.

“We want to have something for everybody in the audience to identify with,” Meron said of this year’s show. “We want to provide the broadest possible entertainment we possibly can.”

The duo are counting on DeGeneres’ wide appeal and a demographically generous smattering of performers to help lure a TV audience from all quadrants. Second only to the Super Bowl among live TV events, last year’s Oscars, which 40.3 million viewers tuned into on ABC, were the highest rated since 2010, and ratings were up 11 percent among those ages 18 to 49.

“The tone is Ellen,” Meron said. “Ellen is a brilliant comedian, she is warm, she takes jabs but in a very supportive sort of way. This show will be reflective of how Ellen is.”

DeGeneres, who emceed the Oscars once before in 2007, will be responsible not only for setting the show’s mood, Meron said, but also for the delicate task of balancing the home audience’s attention spans and the Dolby audience’s egos.

“Never neglecting the audience in the theater, you want to put on a good show for the people at home,” Meron said. “The people in the Dolby are nervous, and as the evening goes on there are more and more losers, and you want to give them a good time and keep things well paced. But you also have to hand out 24 awards.”

Not since Gil Cates — who produced the telecast a record 14 times between 1980 and 2008 — has a producing team returned to the Oscars.

According to Meron, the academy would like to return to stability in the Oscar telecast.

“(The academy) felt one of the things the Oscars have been missing has been some sort of continuity,” Meron said. “Every year they hire new producers it’s a learning curve all over again.”

Meron said he and Zadan looked at last year’s telecast and thought about what they should tweak. But they stand by what was perhaps the show’s most controversial facet, MacFarlane.

Though ratings for last year’s Oscars were up a dramatic 19 percent over 2012, MacFarlane’s ribald humor, including a song called “We Saw Your Boobs,” drew mixed reviews from critics, some of whom found it edgy while others saw it as vulgar.

“We love Seth,” Meron said. “It’s a very tough job to host a show and a very tough job to produce a show and you’re in a no-win position. We can walk away happy, happy that we chose Seth, happy with the show. … Going into the job before we even took it last year we asked ourselves if we were prepared to be attacked. And we said, ‘Yeah, sure.'”

Meron and Zadan have produced the movie musicals “Chicago” (the 2002 best picture winner) and “Hairspray” and the NBC telecast of “The Sound of Music Live!,” which attracted an impressive 18.6 million viewers. They will next turn to a film adaptation of the 1970s’ pop musical, “Pippin.”

Their musical-producing DNA surfaced in last year’s show theme — movie musicals — and will get considerable air time this year with live performances of all four nominated original songs, with Pharrell Williams performing “Happy” from “Despicable Me 2,” Idina Menzel singing “Let It Go” from “Frozen,” Karen O performing “The Moon Song” from “Her” and U2 playing “Ordinary Love” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”

It’s the producers’ prerogative whether to include performances of the original songs in the telecast, and Meron said he and Zadan considered this year’s lineup a no-brainer, both in terms of talent and scope.

“Each song kind of hits a different tone for the audience,” Meron said. “It’s something for everyone.”

“Alone Yet Not Alone,” the original song that had its nomination revoked by the academy, will not be addressed in the telecast, Meron said.

“We get handed the nominees and then we do what we do with them,” he said. “The show deals with the nominees.”

Bette Midler will also perform for the first time at the Oscars — Meron declined to reveal the song she’ll sing, but given the show’s theme of movie heroes, “Wind Beneath My Wings” seems like a reasonable bet.

Reflecting on favorite moments from Oscars past, Meron cited ones over which producers largely had no control — Louise Fletcher accepting her Oscar for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by thanking her deaf parents in sign language and the streaker who ran across the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1974.

“And last year we had Jennifer Lawrence tripping up the steps,” Meron said with a sigh. “You can’t plan on that.”

AFP Photo/Robyn Beck