You can’t tell Clint Eastwood to shut up.
When Hollywood hands out the Oscars, acceptance speeches are one of the few unpredictable things. So Joe Roth, the movie mogul enlisted to boost the telecast’s sagging ratings — and who has never produced a minute of TV — will let his stars have their say during the Feb. 29 ceremony.
“Philosophically, my feeling is that these shows are about moments. They’re about moments that you get lucky with,” said the 55-year-old head of Revolution Studios. “Some of it is from the casting, some is getting lucky with awards, but most of it really is trying to make an atmosphere that allows the performers to feel comfortable and speak from the heart.”
The producer spoke while sitting with Oscar director Louis J. Horvitz among the thousands of empty seats in the Kodak Theatre as workers delivered pieces of the shimmering Academy Awards set through a massive, sunlit door behind the stage.
Last year, Oscar producer Gil Cates delivered an ominous warning to nominees at a luncheon weeks before his telecast: “If you pull out a piece of paper and start to read a list of names, you’re done.”
So was his tension-filled broadcast, which took place amid the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It turned out to be the least-watched Oscar ceremony since Nielsen Media Research began keeping records in 1974.
No stern warnings this year
This year, Roth addressed the nominees more casually at the luncheon, not trying to shame them into being clever or fun. He just asked everyone to think ahead — and to remember they’ll be on television.
“Joe was very diplomatic,” said Horvitz, who has directed the Oscars eight times. “I think the safety of the performer is great in Joe’s hands. They’re not worried about stepping out of line.”
Roth added, “How am I going to say (no) to Clint Eastwood? Or Sean Penn? Not only are they adults, but they are the best in their field. So really, all you can ask them to do is to try to give some sense of how special it is.”
An estimated 33.1 million people watched “Chicago” win best picture last year, down sharply from the 41.8 million who watched “A Beautiful Mind” win the top prize the previous year.
“There has been a down trend since ‘Titanic’ (in 1998), which was the last really big, up year,” Roth said.
About 55.2 million viewers tuned in that time. “Titanic” was a blockbuster that many millions of people had seen — much like this year’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which has a leading 11 nominations. That’s the main advantage for Roth.
Funny presenters, fewer musical numbersHe’s also aiming for the funnybone with the return of popular Oscar host Billy Crystal and presenters such as Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell and Jack Black.
Another change: Less musical numbers. “As a kid, I didn’t really like those 15- or 20-minute musical numbers,” Roth said. “When I saw ballet on the Oscars, I went out and got a sandwich.”
Roth has a reputation as a “people person,” expert at taming Hollywood’s unwieldy egos and keeping stars happy.
He shepherded such hits as “The Sixth Sense,” “Toy Story 2” and “Armageddon” while studio chief at Walt Disney Co. in the 1990s. Since founding Revolution Studios in 2000, he’s had hits like “XXX,” “Anger Management” and “Black Hawk Down” — plus misses like “Gigli” and “Hollywood Homicide.”
Roth scored a major coup this year by persuading the notoriously prickly best-actor nominee Bill Murray to appear for an onstage presentation. All Roth had to do was make a number of unreturned phone calls, plan a last-minute trip for Murray to the south of France for a friend’s wedding — and make a very rare promise.
“I asked him to do something specific on the show, which he’s never done before, and he said, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know ...’ and then, ‘OK, on one condition.’ I said, ’OK.”’
The condition: Roth can’t order the orchestra to play Murray off the stage — no matter what he does.
“I said, ‘Well, I won’t play you off as long as you’re interesting,” Roth recalled. He predicted Murray will deviate from the script. “So expect the unexpected. We might be there until 4 in the morning if he starts telling Pebble Beach golf stories.”