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Michael Cieply: Why Official Oscar Night Fun Doesn’t Come Cheap

In an idle moment, I kinda, sorta, half-thought (well, less than half, maybe a third) that it might be fun to leave the pros behind and spend March 10, Academy Awards night, with some real fans at the annual “one-of-a-kind” viewing party at the Academy Museum.

So I did some window shopping on the museum web site. Wow.

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Officially sponsored Oscar fun doesn’t come cheap. A single non-member ticket to the five-hour, black-tie optional affair goes for $250. For the arithmetically challenged, that’s $500 per couple, in exchange for which you get hors d’oeuvres and tacos, complimentary wine from European Oscar sponsors Clarendelle and Domaine Clarence Dillon (many of whose bottles are modestly priced), access to the museum galleries and store, and a shot at unreserved seating wherever.

For another $200, or $400 per couple — that’s 900 bucks in all — they’ll throw in dinner, free beer and cocktails, plus reserved seats in the Tea Room.

The Academy is clearly out to cover its costs on this one. As well it should be, given the heavy financial drag that has come with proprietorship of the giant movie museum on the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard.

This isn’t exactly unexpected. Academy officials knew what they were getting into when years ago they decided to invest a goodly share of their annual Oscar profits and then some in a glimmering motion picture showcase.

But it’s worth another look at the numbers, if only as a reminder that the ratings-challenged Oscar ceremony — which currently nets something like $87 million a year after expenses, mostly from broadcast contracts set to expire in 2028 — is a somewhat fragile support for a burden that has gotten much heavier since the museum opened in late 2021.

A little-noticed breakdown of expenses buried in a footnote to the Academy’s latest audited financial report, for the fiscal year ended last June 30, tells the tale.

Overall, the museum, which had only about $18 million in earned revenue for the year, incurred $91.2 million in expenses — about 42 percent of total expenses at the Academy. It accounted for the largest single category of expense, more than four times the roughly $22 million in general and administrative expenditures, and 60 percent more than the $56.9 million cost of staging the Academy Awards.

In cash terms, the burden was lighter, because $29.7 million in museum expense was attributed to depreciation, a noncash charge to earnings. But that still left museum-related cash expense of $61.5 million, including $10.5 million in interest on debt. To put things in perspective, that’s almost double the $32.2 million in contributions collected by the Motion Picture and Television Fund, a venerable Hollywood charity, in 2022, according to its latest available tax filing.

Subtract that $18 million in museum income from the $61.5 million in cash expense, and you’re $43.5 million in the hole for the year. Contributions for fiscal 2023 were $21.7 million; but that still left a gap of nearly $22 million, to be plugged by Oscar profits and investment income.

Fortunately, the Academy has had both profits and investment gains. But the museum’s needs are large, the Oscars are wobbly, and Academy executives are looking high and low for new revenue. Hence mailing list fees that can easily cost a contender $7,500 for a stack of email blasts, or Academy Screening Room fees of $20,000 per film (or $25,000 if you want your picture watermarked). Hence, too, the red carpet access fees, pricey theater rentals, and unabashedly commercial sponsorships by Rolex and others.

Indeed, a muted statement on Page 17 of an Oscar bond offering last September suddenly shouts a little louder. The museum foundation, notes the offering, “is still seeking pledge commitments from additional donors and such effort is expected to continue for the next several years.” There’s some fundraising on the horizon, and not just by the Biden campaign.

Given all that, I guess I can understand the $250 charge for some tacos (from Wolfgang Puck, at least) and a slosh of wine. And supposedly the event takes some expensive staging. Over 600 tickets have been sold to date, we’re told. But come March 10, I think I’ll do my viewing at home on the couch.

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