Talking with: Sid Ganis

DVDs and MoviesArts and CultureCultureAcademy AwardsEntertainmentTelevisionEstelle Parsons

As the second-term president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Sid Ganis tries to divide his time each day between academy headquarters in Beverly Hills and the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City, where he's headquartered with his company Out of the Blue Entertainment. But even when Ganis is on the lot, he's not far from all things Oscar: his next-door neighbor in Sony's Astaire Building is Laura Ziskin, who he hired to produce February's Academy Awards.

A veteran publicist, film marketer, studio executive and movie producer, Ganis was in charge of the academy's Governers Ball for more than a decade before he was elected president. But his experience with Oscar dates back almost four decades, to his days as a young exec fresh in Hollywood and still in his twenties.

Q: You go way back with the Oscars, right? Beginning with…

Ganis: Estelle Parsons. (laughs) I was working in publicity in those days for Seven Arts, which bought Warner Bros. And one of Warner Bros.' movies was "Bonnie and Clyde." I had just moved to Los Angeles when Estelle Parsons was nominated for best supporting actress, and she didn't know anybody here, so she called and asked if I would be her escort. I'd been to plenty of premieres in New York, and I thought I knew about the press and the flashbulbs popping and all that, but there we were at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, getting out of the car and seeing more press than I had ever seen in my life gathered in one place. In we went, the show went on, and what do you know, Estelle Parsons won. In fact, today, other than some pictures of my family in my office at the academy, the one photo I cherish is an 8x10 of Estelle Parsons signing autographs, with me standing behind her holding an Oscar, as a kid in 1968.

Q: And that impressive line of reporters and cameramen was probably nothing compared to today.

Ganis: It was probably three times less. But it was amazing. I'll never forget getting out of that car and seeing the bank of flashbulbs popping away. It seemed endless. I thought I was a sophisticated movie guy--but until you walk that red carpet, you haven't quite seen it all.

Q: You've been around the show for years, but the show in March was your first as academy president. What did you learn?

Ganis: It's the same old story. You can be around it, and be involved, but until you're the boss man, and the responsibility is yours, you just don't have the full experience. Everybody knows that it's a live, complicated show to produce, but I had no idea how complicated it is and how exacting it is. In the end, it's a television show, but it's also about awards. We know what those awards are, we know who's up for those awards, we know there will be everything from a best picture to a best animated short. The trick is how to creatively build an entertaining night around what is a given. That's a tough thing to do. And as the president, I'm kind of the studio in this. I used to be a studio guy, so that means a lot of saying no, and a lot of understanding both sides of the equation, the fiscal side and the creative side. As an ex-studio guy and a producer, both disciplines are familiar to me.

Q: Your predecessor, Frank Pierson, used to talk about trying to answer the question, What is the Oscar telecast? Is it a TV show that funds everything the academy does and gets attention? Because if that's the case, then the ratings should be of paramount importance. Or is it first and foremost a way to honor film, in which case the ratings can't be as important as the awards.

Ganis: It's very much both. It's about the awards, first and foremost, and it's an entertaining show with a big viewership, also first and foremost. The argument from the purists might be, "What do you mean, ratings? We shouldn't be worried about ratings." But we are funded, thank goodness, by ABC, based on the success of the show over the years. To do the important work the academy does every single day of the week, all year round, we've gotta have the dough from the show. I think there are eight or nine years left in our wonderful contract with ABC, but it doesn't matter that we have eight years to go. Every year we have to make sure we're doing really well in the ratings. Frank, a creative man to his core, probably does have a little conflict about that. I feel like I can work both sides of that street.

Q: Laura Ziskin's last show was very imaginative and very creative, but also really, really long and really, really expensive. When you sat down to talk to her about doing the show again, did you talk length and money?

Ganis: Yup. (laughs) Sure we did. But I didn't have to bring it up. She brought it up. She knows that the show was, as you put it, really, really long, and that it should be…really not so long. And she knows the budget issue as well. So now, I promise you, she's got a good healthy budget, and she'll bring it in. She's already got some of the biggest names in town calling her with ideas, and of course she then gets those friends of hers to do some of the work that needs to be done.

Q: She was recently bemoaning the fact that she won't be able to give them gift baskets this year.

Ganis: Yeah, she can't give them gift baskets. We'll think of something else, though, to acknowledge their presence. It won't be fancy, but maybe it will be even more appropriate. We're thinking of something much simpler, but usable.

Q: Around the time of the last show, controversy arose when a couple of members admitted to not seeing "Brokeback Mountain." Do you think it's a problem that members vote when they haven't seen all five nominees?

Ganis: They shouldn't vote. I mean, gosh, we make such a big deal of that. We say it out loud, we send mail to the membership, I say it to new members when they come into the academy: 'If you haven't seen them all, don't vote.' I know that's a tall order sometimes, and people can get very emotional and excited about what they have seen, but it's really the way it should be done. Were there really academy members who said that even with their DVD version, they didn't see "Brokeback Mountain"?

Q: A couple of older actors did. Ernest Borgnine and…

Ganis: Oh, right, Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine. Yeah. That was weird. I'd say, on the record, that's weird and they shouldn't have voted. Period. I'm surprised at them for thinking that way. They're artists. Why wouldn't they, as artists, be curious about material that's been lauded by their fellow artists?

Q: Does it bother you that Oscar campaigns have gotten so elaborate and expensive?

Ganis: First of all, I believe that you can take out trade ads from now until two days before the show, and it won't influence one academy member. And I say that because that's what I used to do, as a marketing person. I don't want to sound naïve about this, but I believe that. And I'm kind of used to the campaigns now. We have in place some very firm restrictions on advertising and publicizing to academy members. Of course, there's always a way around the restrictions. (laughs)

Q: Everywhere you turn now, particularly on places like this site, people are predicting the Oscars, handicapping the Oscars, and either writing about the Oscar chances of movies they haven't seen, or bemoaning the fact that other people are predicting and handicapping the Oscars. Do you mind that so much of that goes on?

Ganis: No, I don't mind it. It's flattering, in a certain sense. I like that we are the criteria for excellence. Nope, I don't mind it at all. There are plenty of others, but it's ultimately all about Oscar.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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