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An Oscar red carpet rerouting

What if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences threw an Oscar show and not everyone came . . . early? With last year's audience for the telecast at a historic low of 32 million, the academy has devised a new strategy for enticing more viewers on Feb. 22: Ask presenters to eschew the pre-show red carpet so people will tune in to see who's handing out the awards -- or at least to get a look at what they're wearing. Several publicists, all of whom asked to remain anonymous, said last week that the academy had requested that their firms' clients who are presenters use an off-camera entrance this year. Academy spokeswoman Leslie Unger denies talk that the request has gone out to presenters across the board but confirms that "there is a hope that some of the people who present will be a surprise." She adds: "I can tell you that there will definitely be actors and actresses on the red carpet." Limiting the exposure of its presenters would be a calculated risk on the part of the academy. On one hand, it might leverage the presence of superstars such as Tom Hanks, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise as well as crowd-pleasers like Johnny Depp and Cameron Diaz. But it would do so at the cost of upsetting those who feed and benefit from the red-carpet economy. Because one question that probably won't be asked from the Oscar stage is "Who are you wearing?" "From a business point of view, how likely are we to see fashion credits if these people don't walk the red carpet?" asks publicist Marilyn Heston, whose MHA Media firm represents popular designers such as Elie Saab and Reem Acra. "And if not, what's the point of all this effort and great expense in having a girl wear a dress? There's a lot involved."

Certainly the 20 nominees -- including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Kate Winslet and Robert Downey Jr. -- and some cast members whose films are up for a best picture award will swan down the carpet for the two-hour pre-shows on TV Guide, E! Entertainment and ABC, the network that broadcasts the Oscars. The first official Oscar pre-show was hosted by Geena Davis in 1999, and last year ABC drew an audience of 21.5 viewers for its pre-show half-hour. Ryan Seacrest at E! and Lisa Rinna at TV Guide host the cable networks' fare and ask for the requisite rundown of designer names and outfit details. E!'s program has a "glam-istrator" screen to pinpoint a fashion foul, like too much draping at the waist or chipped toenail polish.

"I have heard that some presenters will not walk the red carpet, but we're not hurting for star power," says Gary Snegaroff, executive producer of E!'s "Live From the Red Carpet" pre-show. "The nominees are the faces that our viewers care about."

"Half the time, we can't even get to half of the people," says TV Guide Network's senior vice president of programming and production, Matthew Singerman. "At the end of the day, there are plenty of great stars for everybody."

Indeed, the nominees are red carpet gold, from a style perspective. Contenders include Penélope Cruz, Anne Hathaway, Amy Adams and Kate Winslet -- all fashion magazine cover girls. But the wattage in the presenter ranks definitely enhances the carpet's glitter.

"If you show only half the people who are going to be at the Oscars beforehand on the red carpet, that's not a very good commercial for the show," says photographer Jeff Vespa, co-founder of photo service WireImage, who will be covering arrivals on that night. "How do you have the largest red carpet in the world and put less celebs on it?"

Some publicists are in a pickle. Do they comply with the academy's wishes and deny their clients the global exposure that comes with an Oscar red carpet appearance? Not to mention the opportunity to plug a movie? (Case in point: the recent Golden Globes, where a glamorous Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange talked up their upcoming HBO project, "Grey Gardens," whenever a microphone appeared.)

"It depends on who the client is," says Shawn Sachs, principal of bicoastal public relations firm Sunshine, Sachs & Associates, which represents Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck. "The red carpet is amazing visibility, but not everyone is a glutton for press."

The same can't be said for the fashion designers and jewelers who vie like Olympians to dress a star like Natalie Portman or adorn Beyoncé with diamond chandelier earrings. Obviously, they bank on the media to boost brand recognition and affect sales.

The academy's Unger says that, while she understands how designers may be concerned about getting less exposure, the Oscars aren't in the business of hawking gowns: "This isn't a fashion show, and it's not the first consideration when producers make creative decisions about the show."

Jeweler Neil Lane, who outfitted Jolie with 5-carat diamond earrings for the recent Golden Globes, is torn. "I understand their point of view because when I was a kid there was no red carpet. You got the glamour and the awards because you saw the dresses and jewels during the actual show. Now the Oscars have to compete with the glamour. And don't most people only watch the pre-show anyway?"

If nothing else, the tactic certainly has people in town talking about the Oscars. "There are presenters walking. There will just be some surprises," says Melody Korenbrot of Block-Korenbrot Public Relations, a firm that promotes films for Oscar campaigns. "I don't think these publicists know what's happening, and they're just trying to figure it all out. A secret has been kept, which is amusing in this town."

monica.corcoran @latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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