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Faster, Gil Cates!  Kill!  Kill!

Oscar producer's run-time tweaks great in theory, lame in practice

Responding to perennial criticisms that the Academy Awards ceremony lasts longer than it took to shoot “Heaven's Gate,” Oscars producer and bold man of action Gil Cates has announced a few changes to the broadcast's format for this year. He's hoping to speed things up, reasoning that home audiences don't appreciate having to inject coffee into their eyeballs during the later commercial breaks in order to stay awake until the best picture statue is awarded.

But while I appreciate his thinking of me, I don't think the proposed changes work.

For example, Cates wants to give some of the lesser-knowns their Oscars at their seats.  That way, the folks at home don't have to wait for the anonymous (read: “non-glamorous”) sound mixers and costume designers to tramp up to the stage. 

Now, I can’t claim to know any Foley designers by name, but as my esteemed colleague Tara Ariano pointed out, it’s really the only chance editors and tech wizards get to feel special.  The behind-the-scenes people contribute just as much to a finished film product as the Cate Blanchetts and Robert De Niros, and the Oscars ceremony is the one time all year when the below-the-line staff gets to dress up and feel the love from Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. If Julia Roberts gets to overrule the orchestra conductor and ramble on as long as she wants, why shouldn’t they? 

Are sound editors second class citizens?If Cates really wants to save time on their long walks to the stage, maybe he could end the practice of seating those indispensable folk in the second-class-citizen section at the very back of the auditorium.  But waiting for them to get to the stage isn’t the issue, really; it’s that he thinks nobody cares about the smaller awards, but he can't very well say so unless he wants the gaffers’ union to egg his house.  So, he's settled on this tacky and semi-insulting solution instead.

Cates's next déclassé strategy for shortening up the broadcast: gathering all the nominees for one award onstage prior to the announcement of the winner.  This tactic is also designed to eliminate that pesky walk to the stage — as well as the heartwarming hugs the winners share with family and fellow cast members.  Instead, the winner only gets to hug the presenters; meanwhile, her fellow nominees must stand miserably onstage, feigning happiness for her while she thanks her agent and dog groomer.  Cates is right that it takes some of the grand ladies of Tinseltown a few minutes to get to the microphone in their very tight dresses and very high heels, but it's their moment — and it’s our moment, too (at least, for those of us who have money in the “someone wipes out on the stairs” pool).  It’s why we watch the Oscars, for all the hugging and crying and weird vibes between Voight siblings.  It’s not a high-school athletics banquet, Gil.

The producer claims to have urged winners to keep their speeches short and to issue blanket thank-yous instead of reeling off lists of names the hoi polloi won't recognize, but this goes unheeded every year; if Cates truly wants to trim significant time from the length of the ceremony, he and his successors should set a time limit on acceptance speeches and enforce it.  When the orchestra starts playing, the winner has 10 seconds to wrap it up — and if he hasn't, too bad, we're in a commercial.  A recent issue of Entertainment Weekly suggested a solution if the stars feel they must mention everyone in Los Angeles for political reasons: post their full speeches online, or roll them across the bottom of the screen ticker-style. 

Cut the fatIn fact, Cates has a variety of streamlining options besides the cut-rate ones he's chosen.  As I mentioned above, I suspect that Cates thinks nobody cares about the non-acting award categories — and, sadly, I think he's probably right.  But if his priority is cutting the running time, I can get this bad boy in under an hour for him.

First, shunt all the editing and sound awards over to the untelevised Tech Oscars, thereby cutting the length of the telecast literally in half.  Shave off another half an hour by punting the three distinct categories for short films; nobody at home has seen or heard of any of them.  Skip the always-dull best song performances in favor of playing a short clip from each video, and you've saved another 30 minutes.

And the montage of dead people can stay, but the winner of the Thalberg Award is traditionally the worst offender in the broadcast as far as self-important rambling — put a sniper on the guy and tell him he's got to get it in under a hundred words, or else.  (Especially this year…if Sidney Lumet delivers speeches like he writes books, we’d all better pack a lunch.  And coffee.  Strong coffee.)

Finally, Cates might consider eliminating the host — or the presenters, or the guy who does the voiceover (or at least give Voiceover Guy some interesting factoids to share, like where Meryl Streep gets those mother-of-the-bride caftans).  I love Chris Rock, and I can't wait to see what he does this year, but either let him present awards, or let the presenters run the show; with both of them, it’s too much packaging.  Also: presenters?  Learn to read a teleprompter.  You do this for a living; act like it, because we're running out of guac over here.

In the end, though, I don't think the Oscars should be shortened at all.  Yes, it’s a long haul, but we all know that going into the evening — even the host jokes about it every year — and that’s part of the ritual.  Each winner gets her time to shine, her walk up to the podium to show off her dress and absorb the applause.  That's the whole point of the exercise.  I don't think it's fair to shaft the folks Us Weekly doesn't put on the cover, and I don't think viewers get as much out of the experience if we don't have to prop our eyelids open until best picture.  "No Whoopi" is a good change; tinkering with what makes the Oscars the Oscars isn't.

Sarah D. Bunting is the co-creator and co-editor of