How to sell a dead actor

Going to run with the idea of commodifying human beings (especially dead ones) a bit more. Today’s Los Angeles Times has a fascinating article on the “tough balancing act” Warner Brothers is trying to maintain as it markets the movie The Dark Knight to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Reporter Rachel Abramowitz puts it quite succinctly in the lead:

“How do you run an Oscar campaign for Heath Ledger, the widely admired young actor who died last January of an overdose of prescription drugs? Very carefully, it seems, as Warner Bros., the studio behind ‘The Dark Knight,’ tries to tread the line between tribute and exploitation in rallying academy support for Ledger’s performance as the maniacal, nihilistic Joker.”
Here we have one of those morality tales that Hollywood loves to death–literally–and it’s being handled with all the subtlety of a Ron Howard picture. Warner Bros., a massive multimedia subsidiary of Time Warner, desperately wants an Oscar statue inscribed with Ledger’s name. The company wants this because the phrase “Academy Award-winning” translates into actual, real money when printed on a movie poster or DVD box.
But the trick (and I use this word deliberately as well) here is that the Academy Warner Bros. is trying to woo is actually Warner Bros. itself. See, the Academy is made up of “motion picture professionals”–in other words, people who work at Warner Bros., among other studios.
Put another way, the “balancing act” that’s going on here isn’t really between Warner Bros. and the Academy, but between Warner Bros. and the Academy on one side and the movie-going public on the other. And this is a very delicate operation indeed, because it’s the public that ultimately pays for both movies and the Academy Awards program itself. This, Abramowitz writes, is something the Academy understands very well:
“Already, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members say that if Ledger is nominated, his spectral presence could help reverse the ratings slide for the Academy Awards show as fans tune in to see if his riveting turn as the demonic Joker is honored.”
What, too crass? Remember, the LA Times story began with the word “How,” not “Why.” Some questions are apparently so obvious that it’s ridiculous to ask them.

One thought on “How to sell a dead actor

  1. The Academy Awards used to include a skit called “not even nominated” to poke fun at themselves. There have been a number of incredible motion pictures and performances that never even got a nod. The Academy Awards is messy, and every voting member has a vested interest in something. They do some great things, like the screenwriting contest – the Nicholl fellowship – which I’ve always considered the best way for writers to break into the system. However, like making laws, awarding the Oscars is political, sentimental and, often, not pretty.Crass? (Probably to us, but not by Hollywood standards.) Just read all the “for your consideration” ads in the trades in the weeks prior to voting. Every studio pays a fortune to solicit votes.I guess I’d rather see the Oscar go toward a stunning performance, to an actor dead or alive, than to a weak performance just because the actor has been shamelessly overlooked in the past or for sentimental reasons.


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