Cat Fights on the Back Lot


Donald and Rosie, Simon's Idol ranting, Oscar mania—wherever you turn in Tinseltown, there's a battle brewing

There must be something in the air that media folk are breathing these days. Everyone, it seems, is getting hypernasty and aggressive. Even more so than usual, I mean.

A few weeks back it was Donald Trump and Rosie O'Donnell squaring off. Last week it was that paragon of civility, American Idol's Simon Cowell, who sank to levels even unimaginable for his low standards by demeaning two contestants who were mentally challenged. And then there's the annual scrum called the Academy Awards, where all manner of behind-the-scenes drama is unfolding, from bending rules to skirmishes over who gets to rush the stage in the event there's a statue to be handed out.

I can't help but think that the media world's ills—fragmentation of the TV audience, falling DVD sales, the creeping loss of eyeballs to the Internet—are starting to hit home.

Take Donald Trump. No secret that ratings are falling for his Apprentice TV show. The world can only take so much of his smarmy "You're fired" shtick.

So when Rosie takes on The Donald for forgiving a beauty queen for unqueenly behavior, ol' comb-over sees an opening. What better way to get some free publicity for his white-collar version of Survivor than to hit the airwaves with a rebuttal?

Anything But Boring

It starts with a nasty retort on the Imus in the Morning syndicated radio show, which gets Trump a gig on the evening talk shows. Rosie fires back, and off we go.

Of course, then the fifth season of The Apprentice debuts in early January to 9.1 million viewers. True, it's off by 6% from a year ago but manages to finish a respectable second to CBS's powerhouse Without a Trace. So, you figure that, heck, maybe Donald beat the odds once more—cheating Nielsen death by some few choice words aimed at Rosie.

But how do you explain Simon going off the reservation? Even for him, it was bad behavior to sneer, grimace, and compare a singer's large eyes to an African animal.

American Idol is the hottest show on the planet, with each of its first three installments this season collecting roughly one-third of U.S. households and trailing only an NFL championship game for viewers. Speaking to reporters at a press junket the next day, Cowell was hardly apologetic. Don't criticize him for lambasting the helpless, he protested: "Otherwise, it's going to be, like, a boring show."

The only thing I can figure is that, with all the American Idol-wannabes out there—let's find the next hot rock singer, the next hot clothes designer, or whatever—that Simon must be feeling some heat, despite the show's terrific numbers. Maybe that's why Idol producers hauled out young, blond, and beautiful Jewel. She sure isn't going to hurt ratings, especially among the young males who might be defecting to the Internet.

The Oscar Machine

But onward to the Oscars. There's nothing quite like the maneuvering that goes on when Hollywood starts its annual political campaign, also known as awards season. It wasn't long ago that the Oscar race—which takes places after the primaries known as the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, and other award ceremonies—was a gentle affair.

Of course, that was before former-Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein brought his own brand of campaigning—which resulted in an impressive string of Oscars—and saw box office boosts with every gold statute he lugged down from the stage. According to the Internet site Box Office Mojo, for the last five years just getting a nomination has boosted a film's box office by an average of 19.5%, with a win meaning an additional 7%.

So with DVD sales stagnating and the box office getting to be more treacherous by the moment, everyone, it seems, is making a play for the little golden guy. Last year, Lionsgate pulled a shrewd move, shipping DVDS of its film Crash to every one of the 130,000 SAG members—even though only 1,500 of them were Oscar voters.

Paramount Blunder

That cost the smallish independent studio a pretty penny, but the payback was big: Crash created enough buzz that it got a SAG award, which gave it the visibility to topple heavy favorite Brokeback Mountain and be the surprise winner of the Best Picture Oscar. And, of course, sales of the Crash DVD went bonkers.

So this year, Paramount decides to pull its own shrewd move, taking advantage of what it sees as a loophole in the rules for Directors Guild of America voters and ships DVDs of its own Dreamgirls to each Guild member. Bad move. The DGA, you see, prides itself on having its members see all potential flicks at special theater screenings on the big screen—as God intended.

So all of Hollywood screamed, the DGA said Paramount (VIA) had committed a no-no, and there was a new villain to crucify at Beverly Hills watering holes. Worse yet, it seemed to backfire, as Dreamgirls, so heavily decorated by the writers who select Golden Globe winners, was shut out of the best picture race by Academy voters.

Credit Where It's Due

My favorite little bit of nastiness, however, is the fight going on over how many producers will lug home an Oscar, if The Departed happens to walk away with gold during the Feb. 25 telecast. Paramount studio chief Brad Grey, a former top talent manager before taking this gig, isn't listed as a producer on the film even though he bought the script and helped enlist some of its stars.

Still, the Producers Guild of America could only list either him or actor Brad Pitt, whose Plan B Entertainment company helped make the film, as producer on the flick. Grey lost an appeal to the PGA and is now appealing to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences to get his name restored.

Grey isn't likely to make any more money if he gets to walk on stage on Oscar night. So why is he bothering to make a fuss? Because this is Hollywood, and power is worth fighting for.

Ron Grover is Los Angeles bureau manager for BusinessWeek, a position he assumed in 1987. Author of The Disney Touch, Ron writes Power Lunch for BusinessWeek.com every other week.

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