Adam McKay Wants to Start a World-Improvement Conference

Director Adam McKay.
Director Adam McKay. Photo: Miller Mobley

Shortly after dropping out of Temple University, Adam McKay drove to Chicago to study improvisational comedy. There, he co-founded the scrappy improv troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, which became known for producing some of Chicago’s edgiest theater. (One skit involved McKay advertising his own suicide.) It was a deliciously preposterous, taboo-busting brand of art that revelled in the absurdity of everyday life and exposed the often paper-thin veil between comedy and tragedy.

McKay went on to write for Saturday Night Live for six years beginning in 1995; later, he achieved a new level of success after directing and writing a series of blockbuster comedies starring his former SNL colleague Will Ferrell (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, The Other Guys and Anchorman 2). Then McKay switched gears. His 2015 film, The Big Short, a star-studded adaptation of Michael Lewis’s best-selling book about the 2007 housing and banking collapse, earned him his first Academy Award (for best adapted screenplay). Last year, McKay returned with Vice, which chronicles the political rise of former Vice President Dick Cheney. Even though viewers found it to be polarizing, the film received eight Oscar nominations, including for best director, best picture and best original screenplay.

McKay’s latest project, the eight-episode Amazon Prime docuseries This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy, is centered around the world’s financial systems. It builds on themes explored in his two most recent films, namely those of money and corruption, shining a light on the people who exploit the systems for their own schemes. As with The Big Short and Vice, McKay humanizes these systems, attempting to show the scope for agency or complicity within them, all with his uncommon eye toward absurdity. WSJ. spoke with McKay by phone ahead of the Amazon series’ February 22 premiere:

WSJ.: You initially auditioned for Saturday Night Live. You didn’t get cast, but you started writing for the show. What was it like to go from telling the joke to writing for others?

Adam McKay: I was directing and writing and performing in Chicago, so it was a natural [transition] for me. SNL was very collaborative. Lorne [Michaels] gives the writers a lot of leeway as far as how they do sketches. The first couple of years are insane. They’re like 80-hour weeks. But it was thrilling. You’re working in 30 Rock. You’re making a regular paycheck. You’re around fun and cool people. At the same time, you’re trying to filter it through someone else’s vision. It’s clearly Lorne Michaels’s show.

So you meet Will Ferrell there and go on to write and direct five films in which he stars. The first was Anchorman. Did you expect it to do as well as it did?

I did not. When the movie came out it did pretty well. It made a profit, and the reviews were generally good. We were like, Good, we get to make another one—that’s the only way we thought of it. It wasn’t until a year and a half later that my wife called me on Halloween night to say that she’d seen five people dressed like Ron Burgundy.

Your last two film projects were The Big Short and Vice. What inspired the transition to projects that wrestle with financial policy and corruption?

It goes back to Chicago. There’s a long tradition of that kind of work there. Even at SNL I was writing a lot of cold opens that were certainly political. But the economic collapse changed everything. Like, my dad lost his house. I happened to read The Big Short, and I couldn’t put it down. I got really inspired. I was making comedies, and my agent asked me, “If you could do anything, what would you do?” And I said, “Why isn’t The Big Short a movie?” It was so satisfying and fun and challenging in a different way. The world proceeded to get even crazier while we were making it, so it just felt like it made no sense to go back to those types of comedies afterwards.

It also indicated a shift from mass audiences to prestige cinema.

There’s definitely an awards lens that exists, but you don’t really make the movie thinking about that—you just make the movie you want to make. But there’s a freedom that’s different than when you’re doing comedy. When you’re doing comedy, you kind of feel compelled to get a laugh in every scene, and you have to have a happy ending. The big takeaway from The Big Short was that freedom. Suddenly there weren’t as many rules, and that timed up nicely with what I wanted to say as far as what was going on in the world.

Each episode of your new project This Beast That Is the Global Economy explores a specific subject, including money laundering, counterfeit goods and rubber. How did you determine what areas you were going to cover?

We had a long list of different subjects—I think it’s part of what inspired the title, This Giant Beast! [Co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money] Adam Davidson, who was a consultant on The Big Short and now is a really good friend, sent out an initial sheet of a dozen ideas. I threw in some ideas. I really wanted to talk about corruption as its own kind of thing. We wanted to go more psychological with one. Is it a ruthless nature that leads to people being rich? Or if people are rich then do they become ruthless? Honestly, you could do a thousand of these episodes, it’s so vast and huge.

On This Beast That Is the Global Economy, Kal Penn visits a bee farm to learn about AI.
On This Beast That Is the Global Economy, Kal Penn visits a bee farm to learn about AI. Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

I wanted to ask you about that straight-to-camera delivery style—“the explainers”—in which complex ideas are made more digestible. Here you have cameos from people like Ted Danson, Rashida Jones and Meghan Trainor. How do you think it serves the message?

The idea is that you’re not obeying the regular rules of storytelling. You’re able to just hit the beat and pivot. It’s definitely an aggressive move. You want it to be jarring. You’re breaking the comfortable rhythm that the audience is in; you’re shattering that and trying to make it uncomfortable.

So you’re wading in these waters of corruption and greed and globalization. After wrapping something like this, how do you go on and not get bogged down?

I think it’s the question. It’s the question for all of us. We were just in Europe for eight days and heard a lot of people talking in concerned tones about the rise of the right wing over there and corruption. The way I think about it? We haven’t been doing democracy that long, and we’ve clearly missed some stuff. I would be really interested to see some sort of conference about what we can do better. Why does corruption proliferate? Why do people freak out when stuff gets uncertain and turn towards blaming immigrants? The trends you see over and over again. It can get depressing. But we have to go back to learning and figuring this out, which is why I like the idea of continuing with shows and movies like this one. Let’s keep driving at it until we can see what the common faults and threads are throughout them.

How will the show galvanize people, do you think?

It’s like how I was excited by The Big Short when I first read it. There are some people out there that will watch this who are already curious and who will be sparked even more. There are other people that didn’t even know that they were curious who will take it further. I would be excited by any kind of engagement.

Kal Penn hosts the show, and he also has a political background, having worked in the Obama administration.

[He’s] a great blend of comedy and policy. The big key with Kal was his curiosity. He really wanted to immerse himself in this stuff.

Speaking of hosts, the Oscars are obviously without one.

Honestly, I haven’t been paying attention at all. I was actually surprised the other day when someone told me, “Oh, yeah, there’s no host.” It will be interesting though!

Penn interviews Raimundo Soto.
Penn interviews Raimundo Soto. Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Any excitement for the ceremony? You’ve been nominated before.

You dive into the experience. The old cliché of you’re just happy to be nominated definitely plays.

Really, though?

That really is true. You want your movie to be talked about. As a writer-director, I definitely want my actors and editor and hair and makeup to be acknowledged. You’re rooting for them, but the win is without a doubt being on that list. So you strap into your tuxedo and jump into your car and dive in. It’s kind of a blinding, blur of a night.

And what’s next?

We have the second season of Succession. [McKay is an executive producer of the HBO series.] I’m also trying to crack something on global warming for a feature film. I think I would probably change up the approach from Vice and The Big Short. That’s what I’m kicking around!

Need More Kitchen Storage? Roll In a Library Ladder

STEP UP TO THE PLATES In Lake Charles, La., Historical Concepts and Carter Kay hooked up a rolling ladder to access high storage.
STEP UP TO THE PLATES In Lake Charles, La., Historical Concepts and Carter Kay hooked up a rolling ladder to access high storage. Photo: Emily Jenkins Followill

It’s every reader’s fantasy: curled up like an otter on a Chesterfield sofa in front of a fragrant fire, getting lost in Austen or Auden. The setting? A moody mahogany library lined with cases of books so towering you need a rolling ladder to reach the top shelves.

Decorators in search of creative storage solutions are thinking outside the library and importing the romance of rolling ladders into book-free zones, from hallways to dressing rooms and, most blessedly, kitchens. Shelves and cabinets built high into previously unused spaces are but a few rungs away when a ladder is at hand. Emancipated from richly wooded reading rooms (though undeniably steamy in the sex-in-the-stacks scene in the 2007 film “Atonement”), ladders are being adapted for kitchens of various styles, from traditional to sleekly contemporary.

Atlanta interior designer Carter Kay installed a metal library ladder in the farmhouse-style kitchen of a Lake Charles, La., home she designed with architectural firm Historical Concepts. The petite owner wanted to display a collection of French porcelain she’d inherited, but she also wanted to use it. “She entertains all the time and needs access to all that storage,” said Ms. Kay. The answer: ceiling-grazing glass-front cabinets that showcase the china, and a ladder and track of satin-black steel that blends with the soapstone counters and cabinet hardware of oil-rubbed bronze. “It circles the entire kitchen, so there’s nothing out of reach,” said Ms. Kay. When it’s not being used, the ladder nestles in a purpose-built niche in the wall between the kitchen and pantry.

A classic version at Eshott Hall in Morpeth, England.
A classic version at Eshott Hall in Morpeth, England. Photo: Tim Clinch/The Interior Archive

Kathryn Scott decided to step it up when she renovated her circa-1855 Brooklyn brownstone. The interior designer’s house had been divided into a three-family home, so the parlor floor housed a kitchen-cum-dining room with 12-foot ceilings. Installing a rolling ladder was not just a practical solution but a way to give the retrofitted space more historical authenticity, a nod to the home’s archaeological layers. “I wanted it to look like an old library turned into a kitchen,” Ms. Scott said. She consulted historic-house museums to get the detailing and proportions right, and had a woodworker custom-make the ladder to match her glass-fronted walnut cabinets, inspired by a Victorian butler’s pantry. The result was so successful Ms. Scott featured it on the cover of her recent book “Creating Beauty: Interiors” (Rizzoli).

Architect Geoff Chick has never installed a rolling ladder in a library, but he’s introduced them just about everywhere else: in kitchens, closets, pantries and wine cellars. In the Florida Panhandle, where he’s based, “real-estate values are so high that people are trying to squeeze a lot of storage into small footprints,” he said. Even a pedestrian space like a laundry room becomes palatial with a soaring ceiling and a ladder gracefully circling a beautiful chandelier, he noted.

‘The track circles the kitchen so nothing is out of reach.’

If you have ladder lust—and ceilings at least 9 feet high—you too can reprise Belle’s balletic drift across the bookshop in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Kits can be bought online, with either wheels or hooks to attach ladders to their tracks. Mr. Chick recommends installation by a crack cabinet maker and cautions that in a compact, high-traffic space like a kitchen, an angled ladder can get in the way. Solution: Hook it on a small storage bar installed slightly higher than the track so the ladder can hang flat against the wall when not in use.

Experts suggest installing ladders where they won’t interfere with your ability to open doors or cabinets. Ms. Scott designed her kitchen cabinets with sliding doors, to avoid collisions. And be sure to consider materials where the ladder meets the floor. You don’t want unprotected metal to gouge the floor unattractively when you cut loose for a graceful glide, Belle style.

More in Design & Decorating

The Art of Eating Simply

TASTE MAKER James Oseland in his Mexico City kitchen.
TASTE MAKER James Oseland in his Mexico City kitchen. Photo: Alicia Vera for The Wall Street Journal

FOR THOSE FAMILIAR with San Francisco only after the tech boom, the grittier, artier city depicted in the new memoir “Jimmy Neurosis” (Feb. 5, Ecco) may come as something of a surprise. Similarly, those who know the author, James Oseland, as the longtime editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine and head judge on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters may do a double-take upon encountering the alienated, teeth-grinding teenager revealed in the book. Chapter by chapter, Mr. Oseland replays the late 1970s, when he was a young gay man shuttling between the suburb of San Carlos, where he and his mother struggled to rebuild a life in the wake of his father’s abrupt exit, and San Francisco’s avant-garde-film and punk-rock scenes.

Since then Mr. Oseland has spent decades traveling the world, particularly in Southeast Asia, more often than not in kitchens, which ultimately led him to write the award-winning cookbook “Cradle of Flavor.” “I generally believe that food is an extraordinary gift to human beings wherever you are on the planet. It defies being a trend,” he said. Now he divides his time between New York and Mexico City, where he’s producing “World Food,” a cookbook series from Ten Speed Press launching in fall 2020. We caught up with Mr. Oseland at the wooden kitchen counter that is the center of his Mexico City home.

The kitchen tools I can’t live without are: a knife I’m comfortable with—not necessarily the best or fanciest, but one that works with me. Right now it’s a classic Wüsthof chef knife. We’re attached at the hip. In Mexico City, I can’t live without my molcajete [mortar and pestle].

A couple of favorite cookbooks.
A couple of favorite cookbooks. Photo: Alicia Vera for The Wall Street Journal

The cookbooks I turn to again and again are: Grace Young’s “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen.” It makes me a better cook and reminds me of how important legacy and understanding of ancestry is to good cooking. Meanwhile, Alice Waters’ “Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook,” is one of the most exciting collections of recipes ever printed on paper.

The pan I reach for most is: a working man’s cast-iron skillet. I also use my aluminum saucepan about 300 times a day.

The ingredients I’m most excited about right now are: Mexican guavas. They’re in season and so full of perfume.

Fragrant Mexican guavas.
Fragrant Mexican guavas. Photo: Alicia Vera for The Wall Street Journal

My refrigerator is always stocked with: a delicious cheese, fresh eggs and, depending on where I am in the world, the starch of choice in that particular place. Right now I have these beautiful handmade blue-corn tortillas from a grandmother who comes in from the countryside and sells them on the street corner. They’re heaven.

During the week, I typically cook: a large lunch. I’ll heat those tortillas directly over the flame until they’ve picked up some char. I’ll make guacamole and serve it with a little bowlful of beans I’ll invariably have in the fridge, plus a piece of cheese from a local farmer. The one I have right now is a Manchego shot through with chipotle. It’s divine. I’ll lay all those things out and make taquitos out of them.

A spread of local cheeses.
A spread of local cheeses. Photo: Alicia Vera for The Wall Street Journal

My favorite cooking technique is: a good, classic, southern-Chinese-style stir fry involving intensely hot fire and minimal cooking time. Not every food is suited to this technique, but for ingredients that are, there’s no better, more sophisticated or more pure way of cooking.

The thing most people notice first about my kitchen is: how immaculate it is. I take neat-freakishness to extremes.

The best feature of my kitchen is: the long wooden countertop a local craftsman made. I conjure meals and also consume them here.

His workhorse aluminum pot.
His workhorse aluminum pot. Photo: Alicia Vera for The Wall Street Journal

When I entertain, I like to: be the kind of host who recedes into the background and helps create an environment of conviviality and pleasure. It’s not about me. It’s about the enjoyment of the people I’ve invited into my home.

A typical breakfast is: cyclical with me. The cycles tend to go in 5-year periods. Right now I’m eating scrambled eggs, homemade salsa, those blue-corn tortillas or some counterpart, and a scoop or two of fresh avocado. Don’t get me started on the muesli era…

If I’m not in my kitchen, I’m probably: on my balcony, which overlooks a convent dating to the 1500s, where the poet Sor Juana lived. It’s a real energy source for me.

In addition to food, I’m obsessed with: botany and biology. I’m a closet botanist and biologist and a constant chronicler of the living things around me.

A food I could happily have every day of my life is: good milk chocolate. My doctor wouldn’t agree with that.

Salsa Roja
The Art of Eating Simply
Photo: Alicia Vera for The Wall Street Journal

In Mexico, salsa is the staple seasoning on the breakfast, lunch and dinner table. According to Mr. Oseland, among the infinite varieties, salsa roja reigns supreme. Employing fundamental Mexican cooking techniques and tools, it can be endlessly expanded upon and makes virtually every savory dish taste better. The secret to its intriguing smoky flavor is charring most of the ingredients on a comal, the traditional Mexican griddle pan.

TOTAL TIME: 25 minutes MAKES: 1½ cups

3 large, very ripe Roma tomatoes

½ small white onion, peeled, quartered, and separated into individual layers

3 cloves garlic, unpeeled

1-5 fresh árbol, serrano chiles (depending on how hot you want it)

½ cup cilantro leaves with tender stems

½ teaspoon salt

1. Heat a comal or a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add tomatoes, onions, garlic and chiles. Griddle, turning occasionally, until all ingredients are covered in charred spots, 10-20 minutes.

2. Stem chiles. Peel garlic. Coarsely chop onion. If using a molcajete or other large mortar and pestle, add onions and garlic, then add chiles and cilantro, and then tomatoes, grinding after the addition of each ingredient. Or process ingredients in a blender, pulsing a bit at a time until salsa reaches desired consistency, whether coarse, smooth or in between. Add salt if needed. Serve at once, or store in refrigerator up to 5 days.

The Taste of Winter, Brewed and Bottled

From left: Upslope Spruce Tip IPA; NoDa Hop Cakes; Dogfish Head Pennsylvania Tuxedo; Ballast Point Spruce Tip Sculpin; Scratch Sap Series: Maple; Second Self JunIPA
From left: Upslope Spruce Tip IPA; NoDa Hop Cakes; Dogfish Head Pennsylvania Tuxedo; Ballast Point Spruce Tip Sculpin; Scratch Sap Series: Maple; Second Self JunIPA Photo: F. Martin Ramin/ The Wall Street Journal

SEASONS HAVE their scents, and nothing conjures winter like a brisk whiff of the forest. Now, a new crop of beers infused with tree essences delivers woodsy aromas and rich flavors ideal for cold-weather drinking.

Brewing with trees actually has deep roots. Without the balancing bite of hops or other herbs, a brew is sickly sweet; minus the preservative effects of bitter oils it can go sour fast. In hop-barren Finland, for example, juniper has stood in for hops in a brew called sahti for centuries.

IPAs are often described as “piney” or “resinous” thanks to pinene and myrcene, found in both evergreens and hops. Some brewers use tree needles much like hops, adjusting when and for how long they boil in beer to extract a bitter snap and that forest scent.

“Our goal was a beer with a sense of place, and our place is in the middle of the woods,” said Marika Josephson of her Sap Series for Scratch Brewing Company, sited on 80 family-owned acres in southern Illinois. It’s not all about evergreens: Ms. Josephson brews the sap of walnut, birch and maple, and boils the bark of other trees such as shagbark hickory, which lends “intense toasted-marshmallow flavors.”

Delaware’s Dogfish Head sometimes brews with exotic woods such as South American palo santo. But founder Sam Calagione looked closer to home for his latest tree beer. “In the Midatlantic, we don’t have hop farms. We have huge spruce forests,” he said. “When the soft [spruce] tips come out, they taste really citrusy.” A collaboration with Pennsylvania outdoor-clothing company Woolrich, Pennsylvania Tuxedo harnesses that bright flavor.

Ballast Point Brewing Company’s James Murray found inspiration in a spruce-needle tea brewed by an employee’s aunt. “It had a mild citrus character with red berry and just a hint of pine,” he recalled. He added spruce tips to Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA, not as a replacement for the hops but as a complement. “The spruce cuts through the bitterness and brings the berry flavors to the forefront.”

To make Hop Cakes, NoDa Brewing Company in Charlotte, N.C., turned to maple syrup. “Using sugar to make a stronger beer isn’t a new idea,” said NoDa’s Chad Henderson. The resulting strong, slightly sweet IPA is so popular that fans line up for its release each February. “People swear up and down they can taste the syrup, but really it just turns into another flavor of alcohol, with a sweeter backbone,” Mr. Henderson said.

Seek out any of the options at left for a beer as comforting as a stack of pancakes, invigorating as a forest stroll.

1. Upslope Spruce Tip IPA (7.5% ABV)

Orange and cream, lemon and powdered sugar: Like pine boughs freshly frosted.

2. NoDa Hop Cakes (10.0% ABV)

Mandarin sorbet drizzled in a swirl of pine sap and honey.

3. Dogfish Head Pennsylvania Tuxedo (8.5% ABV)

Like spruce-sap caramel, chewy and smooth. Prickly pine turned sweetly soft.

4. Ballast Point Spruce Tip Sculpin (7.0% ABV)

A winter remedy worth a double dose, tasty and soothing like red licorice.

5. Scratch Sap Series: Maple (6.8% ABV)

Made with sap, not syrup, it’s startlingly spicy: anise and clove, with a dry black-pepper finish.

6. Second Self JunIPA (6.4% ABV)

Juniper, rosemary and spruce flavors combine with bursting blackberry and snappy lemongrass.

Will the Oscar Finally Go to These Hollywood Veterans?

It’s not an official Oscar category or even a real thing, yet multiple nominees will be vying for an It’s About Time award on Sunday.

This always-overdue honor doesn’t come as a gold statuette but rather in the form of vindication, the kind Martin Scorsese got when he finally won an actual Oscar for directing the 2006 film “The Departed.” It was his first (and so far only) after years of nominations and denials for classics such as “Goodfellas” and “Raging Bull.”

Wellness Getaways That Come With Tequila

AIRLINES TREAT fliers to guided meditation videos, fine hotels employ shamans and India’s time-honored ayurvedic therapies have become spa staples around the world. In short, wellness getaways are alive and well. Grueling, low-cal, high-cardio regimens still have plenty of overachieving fans, but resorts like the four here cater to another clientele. Their guests don’t want Pilates classes or sunrise boot camps to pre-empt the indulgences that make vacations worth waiting for. Is there any reason to forgo fine tequila or a slab of cake for the sake of a more virtuous triangle pose? Of course not.

Bali Six Senses…

How to Love Green Peppers

SEARCH FOR MENTIONS of green bell pepper online and you’ll find fighting words: “detestable,” “NASTY,” “the worst!” Haters, take heed: Chefs are reclaiming the bittersweet nightshade. “That’s our job: to help you realize it’s [bleeping] delicious,” said Doug Adams, chef-owner of Bullard in Portland, Ore.

Green peppers owe their divisive pungency to 2-methoxy-3-isobutylpyrazine, a compound so odoriferous we detect it at minuscule levels. It lessens in concentration as peppers ripen; hence the mellower flavor of a red pepper,…

Wearing Your Coat Like a Cape: The Ultimate Female Power Move?

FASHION EDITORS do it. Instagram influencers definitely do it. First lady Melania Trump has done it for countless photo ops; Kim Kardashian West has done it in Paris. Last spring, Meghan Markle notably did it on her way to a royal engagement in London. Occasionally, Jimmy Fallon does it, too, when shimmying on stage at “The Tonight Show.”

It’s the confounding and often controversial styling trick of slinging a coat (or blazer or other jacket) over your shoulders but stopping short of putting your arms through the sleeves….

Can Anything Go Right for the 2019 Oscars?

Rob Lowe’s duet with Snow White is an indelible memory of the host-less 1989 Oscars; 2016 host Kevin Hart, center, was hired and fired for this year’s show; Dwayne Johnson, right, declined to host.
Rob Lowe’s duet with Snow White is an indelible memory of the host-less 1989 Oscars; 2016 host Kevin Hart, center, was hired and fired for this year’s show; Dwayne Johnson, right, declined to host. Photo: From left: Reed Saxon/Associated Press; Mario Anzuoni/Reuters; Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Los Angeles

Are these the Oscars from hell?

In the runup to Sunday night’s ceremony on ABC, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has weathered a string of controversies that have alienated everyone from the Screen Actors Guild to makeup artists to Allison Janney.

As producers of this year’s show struggle to reverse a 40% decline in ratings over the last five years—and rejuvenate a telecast many see as moribund—they’ve proved the adage that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. From Kevin Hart’s hiring, firing, and then possible rehiring as host to the abrupt about-face on last week’s announcement that four category winners will be announced during commercial breaks, the Oscar producers have found themselves addressing myriad controversies weeks before any winner is revealed.

ABC Entertainment President Karey Burke subscribes to the theory that bad buzz is better than no buzz at all. “I, ironically, have found that the lack of clarity around the Oscars has kept the Oscars really in the conversation and that the mystery has been really compelling,” Ms. Burke said at a news briefing this month. ABC largely plays a spectator role when it comes to producing the Oscars but the network has pressured the Academy to shorten the show to three hours.

“Our mission is to promote these movies and this art form to the widest possible audience. We have a 91-year history of evolving to meet that goal—and discussions about how to keep the show relevant are ongoing,” an Academy spokeswoman said.

‘Move quickly!’ At a lunch this month, Academy President John Bailey urged nominees to hotfoot it to the stage at the Oscars ceremony.
‘Move quickly!’ At a lunch this month, Academy President John Bailey urged nominees to hotfoot it to the stage at the Oscars ceremony. Photo: Matt Petit/A.M.P.A.S.

Telecast producers are striving to satisfy two constituents: a network that wants to reverse a dramatic ratings decline and Academy members or die-hard fans who view such changes as antithetical to Oscar tradition.

To shorten the show, which in some years has run more than four hours, the producers are focusing on a practical sticking point: How much time winners take to reach the stage.

At an annual lunch in Beverly Hills where nominees pose for a “class photo” and get marching orders on matters such as keeping acceptance speeches succinct, the telecast’s producers stopped just short of asking winners to wear sneakers and sprint from their seats to the podium.

“Move quickly!” Academy President John Bailey beseeched the nominees. “Show us how eager you are to get up there.”

To say the Oscar telecast is in a ratings slump would be an understatement. Last year’s broadcast averaged a record low 26.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen. The show’s ratings have plummeted from the 1990s, when about 45 million tuned in. This year, Walt Disney Co.’s ABC is paying more than $75 million for the rights to the telecast, about the same as last year, a person familiar with the pact said.

Last week, the Academy took just a few days to reverse a plan to announce four of its 24 winners during commercial breaks, then air just the acceptance speeches later during the ceremony. The categories that would have lost their moment on live TV: cinematography, editing, live-action short film and makeup and hairstyling. Blowback was swift.

“Cinematography and Editing are at the very heart of our craft,” last year’s best director winner, Guillermo del Toro, wrote in a tweet following the announcement. “They … are cinema itself.” Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese urged the Academy to reverse course, in a public letter calling the commercial-break plan “nothing less than an insult.”

Guillermo del Toro, who won best director and best picture last year for ‘The Shape of Water,’ spoke out against announcing some awards during commercials.
Guillermo del Toro, who won best director and best picture last year for ‘The Shape of Water,’ spoke out against announcing some awards during commercials. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

In announcing the reversal, the organization’s board of governors said, “The Academy has heard the feedback from its membership.”

In another bid for wider appeal, the Academy initially asked Dwayne Johnson to host, according to a person familiar with the matter. After he declined, the Academy in December hired Mr. Hart, only to fire him two days later over homophobic tweets and jokes he had made.

With no replacement for Mr. Hart, Sunday’s ceremony will be the first hostless Oscars since 1989, when the show notoriously opened with Rob Lowe performing a duet with an unknown actress dressed as Snow White. Audiences were flummoxed by the performance and the ensuing ceremony often is cited as memorable—for all the wrong reasons.

Six months ago, in a bid to pull in more viewers, the Academy announced a “best popular film” award. The announcement came with few details, including what constituted a “popular” film and how that would differ from best picture. A month later the plan was scrapped. The Academy ended up nominating hugely popular movies anyway: the blockbusters “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star Is Born” are all up for best picture.

Over the past month, nearly every Academy decision about the Oscars was rejected and ultimately reversed. The Academy began enforcing rules on how many other awards shows presenters may participate in before the Oscars. If Jennifer Lawrence or Chadwick Boseman haven’t been on television much lately, the thinking went, viewers may tune to the Oscars to see them.

The Screen Actors Guild criticized the Academy last month over the rules, assailing what it called the organization’s “graceless pressure tactics and attempts to control the awards show talent pipeline.” The dispute remains unresolved.

Ten days later, Hollywood trade magazines reported that in a departure from tradition, only two of the five nominated songs would be performed during the ceremony. After fan outcry, the producers reversed course a week later and said all five songs would be sung.

Less than a week after that, it was revealed that the producers weren’t planning to have last year’s winners hand out prizes this year. The reasons behind the decision, which ran counter to yet another tradition, weren’t clear.

“It breaks my heart,” Ms. Janney, a winner last year for “I, Tonya,” wrote on Instagram. Within days, the producers reversed course again and added back winners from the prior year.

Allison Janney won best supporting actress award at the 2018 Oscars.
Allison Janney won best supporting actress award at the 2018 Oscars. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Despite the decline in viewers, the price to advertise during the Oscars continues to rise. Last year, the average 30-second spot in the broadcast went for more than $2.1 million, according to advertising-tracking firm Kantar Media, an increase of 10% from the previous year and up 20% from five years ago. This year, the price of the average spot went up single digits and some commercials went for as much as $2.6 million, a person familiar with the matter said.

“We continue to see an increase in rates,” said Rita Ferro, president of Disney Advertising Sales. Ms. Ferro said 16 companies created commercials specifically for the Oscars, 12 of which celebrate the entertainment industry.

This year ABC is taking the unusual step of premiering a series—the spy thriller “Whiskey Cavalier”—after the Oscars, making the three-hour deadline all the more important.

ABC’s current deal with the Academy runs through 2028—and when it comes to controversy, there appears to be a sequel in the making. Mr. Bailey, the Academy president, said he still supports reviving the most-popular movie award, suggesting it could return under a different name. “General” or “wide-release” were two terms he threw out. “Categories have long been in flux,” he said. “People seem to act like they’re written in stone.”

Write to Erich Schwartzel at erich.schwartzel@wsj.com and Joe Flint at joe.flint@wsj.com