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Aging Academy takes steps to meet demands of millennial generation

Everyone ages in Hollywood, and many do whatever's necessary to cover it up: a nip here, a tuck there.

Take Oscar, for example. No last name necessary after 83 years of symbolizing the best that movies can offer. Nothing remains vital in show biz that long without a few cosmetic touch-ups, except Betty White.

How do you make over an institution? Ensure that it remains relevant while maintaining its legacy? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has wrestled with that question in recent years, systematically tinkering with a format and a membership that's growing older in a pop culture that doesn't tolerate aging.

New blood has been transfused, barriers broken and traditions compromised. All with hopes of smoothing out those imaginary crow's feet on Oscar's gold-plated head.

Tonight in the heart of Hollywood the velvet bandages come off Oscar's latest facelift — with fashionable actors Anne Hathaway, 28, and James Franco, 32, serving as the show's youngest co-hosts ever. The hype has been hip, suggesting this won't be your father's Academy Awards telecast.

Millions of viewers worldwide eagerly await the results. Perhaps just as many moviegoers — a youth market spending the most at box offices — simply don't care.

They're the ones lining up for movies that the Academy Awards historically bypass, or banish to less glamorous technical award categories. This is the audience that believes Avatar was robbed in the best picture race last year, and The Dark Knight was downright insulted the year before. And why hasn't Adam Sandler been nominated for an Oscar after so many hits?

Each year when serious, low-grossing films like The Hurt Locker and No Country for Old Men win the best picture Oscar, those young moviegoers complain that the academy's membership is out of touch with mainstream tastes. Or worse, too old and set in their ways to matter.

With the classically historical The King's Speech poised to win tonight over the right-now cinema of The Social Network, Inception and Black Swan, Oscar is looking grayer to naysayers by the minute.

Hiring Hathaway and Franco extends an olive branch to younger viewers, along with expanded social networking and "youth-enizing" the telecast by pushing honorary awards for aging stars to off-air banquets. Expanding the best picture race to 10 finalists incorporates more modern blockbusters like Toy Story 3 and Inception into the mix — yet courts wider disenchantment if they don't win. That happened last year with Avatar, a best movie nominee and the highest-grossing movie of all time.

Those cosmetic improvements are more obvious than the academy's internal makeover, as its membership gets younger or at least better tuned to pop culture. Natural attrition does most of the weeding: Ninety-four academy members died since last year's show, and 135 Hollywood types were later invited to join, including 20 movie stars — the faces of the film industry

The academy doesn't publicly announce its membership roster, although it's difficult to imagine anyone declining to join the most prestigious movie club in the world. Knowing who was invited last year suggests an evolving effort to court younger moviegoers.

The list included under-30 newcomers Carey Mulligan (An Education), Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), Zoe Saldana (Avatar), Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air, the Twilight series) and Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones). People magazine's current sexiest man alive Ryan Reynolds made the cut, along with indie film hunks Jeremy Renner and Peter Sarsgaard.

And, yes, Adam Sandler was among the selections "who have distinguished themselves by their contributions to theatrical motion pictures," according to academy guidelines.

Even the oldest movie star on the list is a pop culture icon: Tobin Bell, 68, who plays the murderous "Jigsaw" in the Saw horror series. Oscar never showed any regard for those gory films, but reaching out to millions of fans is irresistible.

Adding 135 modern perspectives among 5,755 Oscar ballots won't immediately change trends entrenched for decades, favoring conventional storytelling and themes repeated so often (disabled heroes, historical epics, anything British) that they're easily mocked. It's an evolutionary process that will take years of flushing out the old and replacing it with the new.

That's a risky situation in an era of instant gratification, and faster disapproval. The academy spent so many years celebrating its past that the future may have gone unconsidered too long.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365.

. ON TV

The 83rd Academy Awards presentation is at 8 tonight on ABC, WFTS-Ch. 28. Hosts are actors Anne Hathaway and James Franco.

Aging Academy takes steps to meet demands of millennial generation 02/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 24, 2011 10:58am]
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