Cinema's Super Sunday

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The streets outside Morton's will still be jammed with limousines arriving for the star-studded post-Oscar Vanity Fair party.

Los Angeles police will still be out in force at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to keep screaming fans separated from the waving celebrities walking up the red carpet.

And, in the sky overhead, news helicopters will again hover like noisy wasps recording the glittering scene below as nominees dressed in designer gowns and snazzy tuxedos make their way past the paparazzi.

But something's going to be different about this 71st annual Academy Awards. For the first time in its storied history, the Oscars will be held on a Sunday night.

Shifting the entertainment industry's biggest awards show to Sunday will change the whole rhythm of Hollywood--and Los Angeles in general.

When the show was held on Monday nights, the stars not only had to get off work, they also had to fight the interminable rush-hour traffic gridlock that has become endemic to greater L.A.

"The city's quieter on Sundays," said Gil Cates, who is producing his ninth Oscar telecast. "Traffic to and from the Los Angeles Music Center will be better. The actors have Sundays off, so it's not a question of finding a star in L.A. It should make it into a bigger event than it already is, if that's possible."

Los Angeles police say their job will be easier. The throngs of spectators may be heavier than usual, but there won't be rush-hour hassles to contend with, police say.

"From talking to the planners on our side, it's going to go smoothly," said LAPD Capt. Sandy Wasson, who said more than 100 police officers will take up positions outside the Music Center.

Wasson said the American Civil Liberties Union has informed him that about 100 protesters are planning to demonstrate outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to protest an honorary Oscar being presented to director Elia Kazan, who went before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 and informed on fellow former members of the Communist Party working in the film industry.

By shifting the Oscars to Sunday night, academy officials hope that the show will become to movies what the Super Bowl is to football.

Academy President Robert Rehme said he envisions Oscar Sunday eventually becoming an "all-day event" with the media airing Oscar-related shows throughout the day and people getting together in groups to watch the telecast.

"Just like they have events all day long leading up to the Super Bowl, we expect the same for the Oscars," Rehme said. "It may take more than one year [to establish], however."

One major reason the academy moved the show to Sunday, Rehme said, was because viewers on the East Coast had to stay up past midnight if they wanted to see the final awards--including best picture--being given out.

"The ratings on the East Coast were a big factor" in the academy's decision to switch to Sunday, Rehme said.

Despite some of the highest ratings in years, Rehme said, "the ratings on the East Coast during that last half-hour affected the overall ratings. If we expect that to be improved, we decided to start a half-hour earlier."

Though the Oscars have always had terrific ratings, Rehme said, the overall ratings begin to drop off on the East Coast once the telecast runs past midnight. Now, he said, the show will start at 8:30 p.m. on the East Coast (5:30 p.m. on the West Coast), leaving a half-hour cushion for any spillover. And there is always spillover.

"The show hasn't been three hours in several decades," he said. "It's funny how people cling to that three-hour myth."

Cates said the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences always avoided Sunday nights because theater owners "thought Sunday was a big movie day and didn't want the Oscars to interfere with ticket sales."

To break with tradition and alert the public that the show will be on Sunday this year, the academy has publicized this year's show as "Sunday at the Oscars," and ABC is promoting the Sunday theme in its commercials.

It might seem that the film industry's gaudy celebration of itself has always been held on a Monday night. But, in fact, since the first Oscars were handed out in 1929, the event has hopscotched to every day but Sunday.

The first show was held on a Thursday night at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood and was hosted by Douglas Fairbanks.

From 1930 to 1932, the event was held in November--on Wednesday, Tuesday and Friday, respectively. In 1931, the eligibility period for films stretched from Aug. 1, 1931, to July 31, 1932. The next year, the period was stretched to 17 months to allow future Oscars to be based on the calendar year.

By the time Will Rogers hosted the sixth Academy Awards in 1934, it was switched to March 16, a Wednesday.

From 1936 to 1947, the Oscars were held on Thursday nights at venues ranging from the Biltmore Hotel to Grauman's Chinese Theater.

The first Monday night Oscars occurred in 1959 at the RKO Pantages Theater in Hollywood.

Since then there have been only two exceptions to the Monday night Oscar tradition: In 1981 the academy decided to hold the Oscars on a Tuesday night because of the assassination attempt on President Reagan. And in 1989 the show was held on a Wednesday night because of conflicts that year with Passover and Easter holidays.

The Sunday night shift is not the only change; this year the academy is taking over what might be called the pregame show.

In recent years, as the number of TV outlets covering entertainment news has exploded, "pre-Oscar" shows have grown in popularity, most notably Joan Rivers' offering of snippy comments on E! Channel about what the stars are wearing.

For the first time in its history, the academy this year will produce its own pre-Oscar show, for ABC; the premiere show will be hosted by Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis; veteran CNN news and entertainment anchor Jim Moret will be the "red carpet arrivals" correspondent. It will be televised live from 5 to 5:30 p.m. (PST), offering vistas of the arrivals of stars as well as unprecedented access to lobbies, backstage areas and the auditorium.

During that pre-show, no other TV network or cable outlet will be permitted to broadcast live from the Oscars.

For KABC-TV in Los Angeles, the problems will not be significant because the ABC affiliate will air the official Oscar pre-show. As in the past, KABC will have both a two-hour pre-Oscar show and a post-Oscar telecast, each featuring film critic Roger Ebert.

On the E! Channel, Rivers and her daughter, Melissa, will greet and grill the legion of celebrities walking down the red carpet starting at 3 p.m. But at 5 p.m. they have to be off that area. CNN said it will air its pre-Oscar coverage from 4 to 5 p.m. (on the West Coast) but resume its regular news programming during the half-hour that the academy's pre-show is being aired on ABC.

KCBS Channel 2 News Director Larry Perret said his station plans to cover the Oscars as it would any live news event, but added, "We'll play by the rules."

Even though the academy is preempting stations from broadcasting live from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion during their pre-show, Perret said that won't stop his station from covering the event.

"I'll put a chopper over it," Perret said. "Hey, it's major news in this town. It deserves coverage. I don't think there is a way to stop you shooting from the sky, at least Madonna couldn't do that at her wedding."

As for the academy's own pre-Oscar show, host Davis said at a news conference in January that she has no plans to mimic Rivers.

"The one thing that I can virtually guarantee that it will not include, however, is anybody yelling, 'Who made your dress?' " the actress said, as journalists erupted in laughter.

Rehme said the academy board had been talking about doing its own pre-show for five years, "but we move relatively slowly at the academy so it took five years to put it together."

As for the idea that having the Oscars on Sunday might take box office away from theater chains, Rehme replied:

"The feeling was that the important thing for the academy and for the industry and for the artists that make up the industry is that as many people as possible view the Oscars ceremonies. And we felt the entire industry and those artists would benefit by continuing to maintain a very high rating so more people could be exposed to movies."

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