The Oscars Deserve Perfection

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Why zero tolerance is essential to preserving the Oscar brand and Hollywood’s global influence

It could be easy to dismiss what happened at the end of the Oscars on Sunday night as just another pop culture moment to be lampooned on social media, an anecdote to be laughed about around the water cooler, or a mix-up to be endlessly looped on TV for our entertainment.

By doing so, however, we are not only putting at risk the reputation and credibility of one of the world’s most recognizable brands and influential award ceremonies, we are harming the enduring myth that shapes the way the world perceives Hollywood and even the United States itself.

Each year, I join an average of 60 million people around the world in watching the Oscars. I tune in to this global event not only because I am a film addict, but because I produce high-level live events for a living, more than 2,000 of them over 25 years, and consider the Oscars a benchmark for quality, innovation, and inspiration. Before Sunday night’s disastrous conclusion, I thought this year’s ceremony was among one of the best ever in terms of production quality, artistic merit, and entertainment value, despite being a bit too long as usual.

That’s why it’s been especially disheartening, frustrating, and even sad to hear so many of my colleagues in the industry calling the finale of the ceremony everything from “unprofessional” to “inexcusable” to “intolerable.” They are right. Imagine what would happen if on the night of the U.S. Presidential election, a network mistakenly named the wrong winner and had to quickly walk back its declaration. Or imagine missing the unexpected home run that ends the World Series because the cameras were focused on the announcers.

Disasters like these are not unfathomable. After all, the Super Bowl experienced a 34-minute power outage in 2013, Steve Harvey announced the wrong winner of Miss Universe in 2015, and, in 1964, the Oscars almost had an epic failure - and failed to learn a lesson - when Sammy Davis Jr. was handed the wrong envelope when presenting an award.

That is why, when it comes to live events -- from Presidential debates to the Olympic Opening Ceremonies - there must be zero tolerance for mistakes of any size. For an annual event like the Oscars, which is prepared with repetition and close attention by one of the the big five consulting firms, any mistake is unacceptable.

The Academy must be transparent on immediately identifying what caused this year’s breakdown and take steps to ensure that it never happens again. For starters, the Academy should:

  • Reconsider roles and responsibilities: The accounting firm, should be focused on what they do best: tabulating the winners. Backstage, however, they should be closely supervised and managed by professional stage managers to ensure the proper distribution of envelopes
  • Have a plan B, C and D: It is clear that Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were not properly and thoroughly prepped prior to appearing on stage. They knew something was wrong, but neither they nor any of the professionals on stage or behind-the-scenes had a contingency plan in place for solving the problem.
  • Never leave the stage: During the fiasco, host Jimmy Kimmel was sitting in the audience with actor Matt Damon. At a critical moment like Best Picture, the host should be on stage and ready to take control of any crisis.
  • Do drill tests: Dry runs and rehearsals are essential, but producers should also stage drills and mock crises to test contingency plans. For example, the envelopes were redesigned this year to feature red paper with gold lettering, rather than gold paper with dark lettering, which many are saying made the envelopes difficult to read. Were the new envelopes used and tested during rehearsals with proper stage lighting?

For the milestone 90th Academy Awards in 2018, it is critical that the Academy goes well beyond these measures in order to restore confidence in not just the Oscars, but in Hollywood’s power to stir imaginations and inspire audiences. The Academy’s mission is to advance excellence and achievement in film, we should expect no less from the Academy when it comes to the production of the Oscars ceremony.

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