The Oscars: Expectations Vs. Reality

By Jeff Lowy, President Encore Creative

I really can’t say with any degree of confidence (or humility) that I’m qualified to “judge” the quality of a nationally televised, enormous, bazillion dollar budget, watched by billions of people, awards ceremony, but since everyone has an opinion (and some of mine are pretty strong) I’ll weigh in on the Oscars as probably millions of bloggers across the universe have already done.

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Actually, I’m going to weigh in on the Oscars (and every other live television “event”) with the unique perspective of the meeting planner; mostly as it relates to our mutual expectations.

I thought the Oscars Awards Presentation show was great. I long for the day when any customer gives me a quarter of that budget to produce any kind of event at a killer venue, and access to the best and the brightest talent in the City of Angels. That would make me very happy. If for no other reason than all the toys I would get to play with, and all of the options available to pick from when putting together even the basic stage design.  And of course I’d need about a year to plan it; that would come in handy too.

Of course Ellen DeGeneres is always a blast.  She’s funny, cute, irreverent, and enough of a grown-up to pass the hat for pizza and get Brad Pitt to give her $20 and Martin Scorsese and Harrison Ford to chow down. As a host, she’s not even a little controversial and she can pull off calling all of those otherworldly beings by their first names.

The set was interesting. I’ll be honest and say that I haven’t read one other review of the Oscars so that am just blurting out my true opinion without any bias. It was modern but classic (bare light bulbs, typewriters) with a nod to what’s now known as Steampunk, elegant with the addition of the beautiful reappearing red drape, and awards-y in the requisite clips of nominated movies, a celebration of the Wizard of OZ, and great live performances. And unless you don’t think Pink! is the right choice to pay homage to Judy Garland you probably agreed that girlfriend has chops!

Ok, so now, the anxiety. We all do events (certainly if you’re reading this, its likely).  The interesting thing for me and perhaps it’s the niche that we play in, but I don’t think it matters if you’re in the wedding business or the high-end corporate business, here are the differences between producing the Oscars and what we do every day (and they warrant a list):

  1. No meeting planner ever gives you a year to plan.
  2. Often you’re bidding against 6 other companies and are at least being asked for your “vision” in advance.  (That happens with the Oscars, but their set designer has a much better resume than you or I).
  3. If you’re designing and building a custom set, you don’t have the budget for the exact right materials, or it just isn’t worth the expense for a one or two day meeting.
  4. You might have a couple of days to load-in, set-up, sound-check and if you’re super lucky, the corporate types will show up prepared with presentation materials that don’t have to be rebuilt on site.
  5. And if you are unbelievably lucky, lead a clean life and go out of your way not to step on insects, you might even get enough time for a rehearsal.

The anxiety comes into play since some of us smaller guys (and some of you bigger guys too) don’t get any of those things. Or at least not enough of them.  Not a big enough budget, not a big enough crew, not enough time to build, not enough time to load-in, no rehearsal, etc., etc.  So what’s the problem, we’re used to it right?

The problem is that the expectations never change. The corporate meeting planner has the same expectation of perfection regardless of any of the above variables.  So, you, producer-type are now committed to making certain that everything is perfect, that your set will pass a white glove test and that everyone will do their jobs (including the presenters) show up prepared and it won’t matter that you didn’t have a rehearsal, unless there’s feedback, something falls backstage, the slides don’t advance properly, the VP advancing the slides doesn’t know how to use a confidence monitor and on and on.

Well, of course, you also have the linens and napkins and food and beverage, and entertainment, and every other element that usually comes together perfectly, but causes you so much anxiety that you’re lucky to still be alive, and/or still have that client should one of those things have gone wrong.

Back to the Oscars.  I doubt that anyone got fired. I’m pretty sure that Ellen didn’t get screamed at for the pizza bit, or for getting too personal with Meryl Streep or Whoopie Goldberg or for calling Mr. Scorsese “Marty,” But more importantly, the guys in the truck likely still got paid (ever have a client not want to pay because the “feedback” or just the sound in general didn’t meet their expectations?) even though that on at least two occasions, on the way into or out of a commercial break, you could hear stage directions coming from the truck live on air.  And, oh, the musical number that, unfortunately, left Pharrel, literally hanging for what seemed like an eternity (frozen in final position) until they could break away to commercial.

Forget the Oscars for a minute. I’ve often wondered if the guys that travel with the POTUS get fired (or just water-boarded) when the big guy’s microphone doesn’t work, feeds back or when the Seal of the President of the United States falls off the lectern. What are the President’s expectations? Are they lower because he’s so high on the food chain that it doesn’t matter and he’s beyond being embarrassed by that small time stuff as opposed to the meeting planner whose president will throw a fit if, heaven forbid, that happened to him?

And since it all flows downhill, how many accounts have we collectively lost because the expectation of perfection in a live event (I don’t do TV or Film, so very few, if any rehearsals) is still perfection??  Is perfection a reasonable expectation in any type of live event from a television show to a Presidential news conference, to a Broadway play, or a corporate meeting? And if so, why and how does that come to be and also to be considered normal and acceptable?

So, I guess in retrospect, the Oscars weren’t that great.  If I were producing it next year, I might have to choose a host who isn’t as cutesy as Ellen (ordering pizza, really?), fire this years director and sound tech for not making sure something as simple as mics being turned off and horrifically bad camera angle shots don’t appear on the viewers’ screens on the way to commercial.

I’m going to guess that other “critics” were either much more kind or much more mean than I have been. I’m certain that you’ve noticed that I’m not as funny as I think I am, and in the real world, live performances and live events are inherently never perfect. Or if they are, the producer/director, whomever, is one lucky son of a gun, and certainly doesn’t have that experience with any degree of regularity. Especially on those three hour load-ins in the middle of the night with inexperienced speakers, presenters, and no rehearsal time.  If only we could match expectations with reality. We could all legitimately stand around the water cooler (do people do that anymore?) and criticize a show like the Oscars that even in its worst years is glorious and continues to be something we all look forward to, or do we look forward to it just so we can find all the things that went wrong?

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On March 5, 2014

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