However, Gilbert Cates, producer of the award telecast, remains adamant that on Feb. 24 there will be a red carpet outside the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood and an Oscar telecast on ABC despite the Writers Guild of America strike and the threat of a boycott by George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and the rest of the Screen Actors Guild. He hinted that he might not need actors onstage.
"There are enough clips in 80 years of Oscar history to make up a very entertaining show," Cates said in an interview Friday with The Times. "We'd have a lot of people on stage." He declined to give further details but added, "I just hope that the actors are there. I pray that the actors are there. I'm planning that the actors are there."
Still, the joy is already being drained from Tuesday's scheduled Oscar nomination announcement. A group of 30 award-winning writers, actors, producers, directors and authors will be protesting at Gramercy Park in Manhattan, sending this message: "Awards are nice, but we'd rather the writers get a fair contract." Later that day, in Los Angeles, the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be holding an emergency meeting to discuss the 80th annual Oscar ceremony.
The stakes are incredibly high. Last year's four-hour Oscar telecast drew nearly 40 million viewers and generated an estimated $80 million in ad revenue. In Los Angeles, tourism officials say award season marks the city's highest hotel occupancy of the year, representing 5% of Los Angeles County's annual room revenue. And the city's fashion designers, hairdressers, limo drivers, florists, caterers and celebrity wranglers will be hit especially hard -- unable to benefit from the economic boon award season usually brings -- unless the labor dispute is settled between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers or unless the guild grants the academy a waiver to use union writers.
"The Rose Parade and the Academy Awards are the two biggest events of the year for Los Angeles," said Carol Martinez, spokeswoman for LA Inc., the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Millions of people around the world watch it on television and say, 'It's Hollywood! It's celebrities!' and that makes a lot of them decide to come here on vacation."
Despite Cates' optimism and ABC's intention to move forward with its telecast, there is plenty of anxious speculation as to how a writer-free ceremony might play out. Producer Laura Ziskin, who produced the show last year and considers herself supportive of the WGA, isn't expecting much.
"If [the academy doesn't] get a waiver, and the strike isn't settled, there may be a way to do some kind of show, but it won't be the Oscars we're accustomed to," she said. "The Golden Globes were instructive. As much as people complain about award shows, what the Golden Globes demonstrated [was], an award show ain't much without the show."
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The industry is still shellshocked from the ratings drop-off of Globes viewership -- 5.8 million compared with the usual 20 million viewers, which cost NBC a reported $10 million to $20 million in lost ad revenue. Thus far, the Writers Guild has granted waivers to three televised award shows: the Screen Actors Guild Awards, set to air Jan. 27 on TBS and TNT; the NAACP Image Awards, airing on Fox on Feb. 14; and Film Independent's Spirit Awards, scheduled Feb. 23 on IFC. CBS had to scrap plans for a live telecast of the People's Choice Awards earlier this month, airing a taped show with clips of actors accepting their awards on different sets and locations.
Now the Recording Academy awaits a decision from the WGA on its request for a tentative agreement that would allow the 50th Annual Grammy Awards to go forward on CBS on Feb. 10. Grammy chief Neil Portnow told The Times that the show will go on regardless. On Thursday, high-profile nominees Beyoncé and the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl announced their plans to attend.
Movie companies, meanwhile, are weighing the marketing fallout of this divisive award season, which usually can be viewed as one long advertisement for the film industry. Major studios typically spend about $100 million collectively on Oscar campaigns. Without televised award shows that draw a worldwide audience, however, this money isn't so wisely spent.
"Obviously, the Writers Guild is trying to, like all unions do when there is a strike, make it as painful as possible," said entertainment attorney Eric Weissmann, who has represented many of the major studios. "Canceling the Academy Awards would really hurt [the studios] because it hurts the pictures that have a chance to generate more money because of the awards."
So far, the key Oscar-night players say they haven't altered their plans. Publicists, celebrities and studio executives are still booking hotel rooms and L.A.-bound flights. The Oscar-nominee luncheon is still set for Feb. 4 at the Beverly Hilton. Vanity Fair is moving ahead with plans for its famous Oscar-night party, this year at Craft in Century City.
Fashion designers who bank on the award season to launch careers and pad their minuscule marketing budgets are also holding out hope that the Oscars carry on.
"There's no other place to wear these high-end dresses and showcase them," says Sahar Sanjar, an L.A. publicist who handles celebrity dressing for several international designers. "Every designer wants to be on the red carpet and not be robbed of the opportunity, because the whole world is watching."
With the Screen Actors Guild Awards scheduled for Jan. 27, Sanjar says the competition is even more fierce than usual to get gowns on nominees. At the moment, it's considered the only televised award show that can deliver A-list actors on the red carpet and on stage.
Aside from settling the strike, the sure-fire solution to this Oscar crisis is a waiver from the writers guild that would allow the academy to use union writers to script the show. This would free celebrities to walk the red carpet without crossing a picket line. Some say that's a false hope because the Oscar ceremony is Hollywood's biggest night and the writers' one opportunity for global visibility.
"A billion people watching you," said one Hollywood publicist. "What better audience?"
WGA West President Patric Verrone has repeatedly said that the board of directors of his branch has voted to deny a waiver if the academy requests one.
This wouldn't be the first time writers have protested the Oscar ceremony. They boycotted it in 1934, according to the Writers Guild's magazine, picketing outside the Roosevelt Hotel along with actors alongside them to protest producers' refusal to recognize the writers' newly formed union. In 1936, many writers boycotted the ceremony again, and screenwriter Dudley Nichols, who won for the John Ford drama "The Informer," refused to accept his Oscar for best screenplay.
In 1988, however, a writers strike didn't stop Oscar nominees from attending the ceremony. If Cates has his way, this year will be no different.
"I don't want to say 'read my lips,' but it's not going to be canceled," said Cates, who also chaired the Directors Guild of America's negotiating committee. "It's a big moment for the town. The granddaddy of all the shows. . . . The strike could be settled by then. Who knows? . . . Four weeks is a long way off."
Times staff writers
Rachel Abramowitz, Martin Miller, Geoff Boucher and Melissa Magsaysay contributed to this report.