It’s not just about the host: awards shows are due for a makeover, insiders say


TORONTO — Change is afoot for major film awards shows on both sides of the border.

As Oscars organizers grapple with a hosting snafu, devising a new category and shortening the notoriously long show, the head of the Canadian Screen Awards is also tinkering the format for the event this March.

“We’re looking at how we can shake up the traditional awards show format,” Beth Janson, CEO of the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, teased in an interview this week.

In a digital age of fractured viewership and declining ratings, awards shows have been trying to find new ways to lure in viewers and appeal to younger audiences.

A host could be a big piece of that puzzle, but as Janson and others in the industry attest, it’s tough to fill the role.

And, as the Oscars recently found out, it’s an even tougher challenge in a politically charged era of old social media posts that could haunt contenders.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has not named a replacement for Kevin Hart, who backed out of hosting the Feb. 24 show after anti-gay tweets and stand-up jokes he had made in the past resurfaced.

Now Variety is reporting this year’s Oscars won’t have a host at all, which also happened in 1989.

“I don’t actually think the Oscars does need a host,” said Toronto producer J. Miles Dale, who won an Oscar last year for “The Shape of Water.”

“I think ABC might feel that they need a host, because part of being the host is hyping the show in advance — so all the promos that happen and everything else.”

Cameron Bailey, co-head and artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, also doesn’t feel a host is necessary.

“I watch the Oscars to find out who’s winning and to see my favourite directors and actors onscreen,” Bailey said. “The host is a nice bonus but it’s not really all about the host, in my view.”

This year’s crop of potential nominees — including “Black Panther,” “A Star is Born,” “Green Book” and “Vice” — had big box-office appeal and could be all the lure the academy needs, said Los Angeles-based film critic Anne Thompson.

“I know they’re trying to use the host as a way to get better ratings, but that’s really not where the ratings come from — they come from the movies,” said Thompson, IndieWire editor-at-large.

The American academy wanted Hart “really badly” because he’s a movie star with a huge social media following and mainstream audience, said Thompson.

“It’s just the kind of people — younger, hipper, diverse — that they want to bring into the show,” Thompson said.

But Hart didn’t work out and it seems a near-impossible task to replace him.

A host needs to be smart and quick on their feet and have broad appeal, said Janson, as well as the ability to hold the attention of a room on a live show and ideally a theatre background.

With a heavy political lens put on awards shows these days, “there are so many things to think about before you put someone in that position,” said Janson, who last year hired two comedy stars to host the Canadian Screen Awards: Jonny Harris and Emma Hunter.

Anyone who hosts has to have a “squeaky clean” image with no “hideous tweets to be embarrassed about,” added Thompson.

“It’s a very interesting, narrow needle that has to be threaded in order for this to work,” she said.

“The problem is that people are afraid. People like Seth MacFarlane got lambasted, (Jimmy) Kimmel took his lumps. Everybody has taken their lumps for host. James Franco and Anne Hathaway got killed. It just seems like you cannot come out ahead, and why would a major movie star put themselves in that position?”

Toronto-born “Schitt’s Creek” star Catherine O’Hara says she’s heard from previous awards show hosts that “it is the hardest, most thankless job.”

“Probably four-fifths of your crowd are waiting to hear whether or not they won and then four-fifths just found out they lost. So it’s the worst audience.”

The academy plans to restructure and shorten this year’s Oscars to three hours, handing out some categories during commercial breaks. Edited moments from those wins will air later in the broadcast.

The academy is also looking to add a new category to future Oscars in an attempt to include blockbuster titles.

“It’s time for an overhaul,” said Toronto-born “Travelers” star Eric McCormack.

“It has to be shaken up, because every year we do the same thing — we put all of our eggs in one basket and all this focus on whoever’s hosting and every year, the next morning it’s, ‘Oh, it’s the lowest-rated Oscars of all time’ and ‘Oh, everybody hates who won’ and ‘Oh, there were too many nominees in the film category’ and ‘Oh, it’s irrelevant.’

“It’s a crazy hamster wheel and there’s got to be a more exciting way to do it.”

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press