-About Those Oscar Changes…

I should have seen this coming. I knew that last year’s Oscar telecast had the worst ratings in a long time—44 years, to be exact—so I knew the Academy would be falling all over itself to try to right the ship, but I had no idea they’d do THIS.

Today, on Twitter, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced:

“Change is coming to the #Oscars. Here’s what you need to know:
– A new category is being designed around achievement in popular film.
– We’ve set an earlier airdate for 2020: mark your calendars for February 9.
– We’re planning a more globally accessible, three-hour telecast.”

With that one tweet, the Academy caused a thousand film bloggers’ heads to explode, including this one. The tweet announces the first major changes to the Oscar telecast since the addition of the Best Animated Feature Film category in 2001 and the expansion of the number of Best Picture nominees in 2010. While those additions were welcome and widely applauded, the changes announced today are filling me with a massive sense of dread and disappointment. If the Academy decides to go through with these changes, the Oscars as we have known (and loved) them for 90 years will change forever. Worse than that, however, is the message the changes are sending, especially now.

Let’s go through them one by one.

“A new category is being designed around achievement in popular film.”

This new category is obviously inspired and motivated by money, both literally (the only movies eligible to win the award will be movies that have earned over a certain number of dollars at the box office) and figuratively (ratings). The Oscars have been trying to figure out how to include blockbusters in the awards since 2009, when The Dark Knight missed a Best Picture nomination. The next year, they expanded the number of Best Picture contenders from 5 to between 5 and 10, but it still hasn’t done what they hoped it would do. Since the expansion, no huge blockbuster has been nominated and the apparent last straw was when Wonder Woman missed the cut last year. Now, in 2018, it seems the Academy is absolutely determined to find a way to honor Black Panther, so far this year’s obvious critical/commercial success, a worldwide phenomenon that, if not included in the Oscars, would make the show look not only racist, but even more out of date than it already does. So, in addition to making sure they have a way to award Black Panther (in case it can’t merit a Best Picture nomination on its own, which is another story a few years removed from #OscarsSoWhite), it is probably also hoping that the other well-reviewed blockbusters that would be eligible, like Avengers: Infinity War, A Quiet Place and Mission: Impossible – Fallout, for example, will find their way onto the Best Popular Film ballot, thus seemingly making the Oscars more populist and thusly, the theory goes, resulting in more viewers for the telecast—which means better ratings. But this doesn’t feel at all like something being done for the audience, it feels only like pandering to ABC (owned by Disney, who owns Marvel), the studio system and to the industry that now is all about selling movies overseas with bigger, louder and less character-, story- and dialogue-driven movies in favor of spectacle, special effects and franchises. Do those movies REALLY need to be awarded? The little movies that don’t get a lot of attention but are of high quality, those are the ones that the Oscars truly benefit. What is the point of awarding a movie like the Avengers, if for no other reason than to kiss the boots of a franchise that is employing a lot of people and keeping the dollars flowing. While there’s nothing wrong with recognizing the movies that everybody loves and paid money to see, it has nothing to do with art.

But the main thing about this new category that bugs me is the implication that successful movies can’t be good, or vice versa. Giving out an award just to movies that have made more than $100 million, for example, implies that they aren’t good enough to get a consideration on their own merit for Best Picture. And I strongly disagree with that. Even though I’m a huge fan of small, independent movies, anyone who knows me knows how much I love a blockbuster and some of the movies that I consider the best of all time made a lot of money, including my all-time favorite, Tootsie (which was nominated for Best Picture and at the time was SONY/Columbia’s highest grossing film ever).

Exceptional movies CAN make a lot of money. Take a look at this list of the Biggest Box Office Best Picture Winners of all time (adjusted for inflation):

1. Gone with the Wind (1939): $1.85 billion
2. The Sound of Music (1965): $1.3 billiion
3. Titanic (1997): $1.244 billion
4. Ben-Hur (1959): $900 million
5. The Sting (1973): $818 million
6. The Godfather (1972): $724.5 million
7. Forrest Gump (1994): $722 million
8. Around the World in 80 Days (1956): $593 million
9. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003): $566 million
10. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952): $550.8 million
11. My Fair Lady (1964): $550.8 million
12. West Side Story (1961): $514 million
13. Lawrence of Arabia (1962): $508 million
14. Rocky (1976): $505 million
15. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946): $504.9 million

For the record, Black Panther has already made $1.3 billion, which would tie it at #2 with The Sound of Music if it won Best Picture.

The great thing about the Oscars is that it recognizes movies, no matter the country of origin, genre, style, budget OR box office take. The Hurt Locker won Best Picture in 2009, having only earned $49 million, and Moonlight in 2016 made only $69 million. You can be a great film and still make money and you can make zero dollars and still be a great film. All films should strive for the exact same prize: Best Picture, awarded by your peers. A small-budget indie and a $100 million budget blockbuster should both be judged the same way: how it makes you feel. When we are only judging blockbusters against other blockbusters and indies against indies, the whole POINT of the Oscars is gone. Separate is NOT equal.

Which brings me to the other to changes, which, I believe, work hand-in-hand:

“- We’ve set an earlier airdate for 2020: mark your calendars for February 9.
– We’re planning a more globally accessible, three-hour telecast.”

It’s pretty clear both of these changes are also all about the ratings. The ratings for the Oscar telecast has been going down steadily, year to year, and last year’s telecast had the lowest ratings in 44 years. The Academy is not only pointing to the lack of blockbuster nominees, but also to the other things that plague the Oscar show: length and award season fatigue. It is true, the show is always too long (something you never notice when you’re having a party with friends on the West Coast, but I can imagine a 3+ hour show that ends past midnight on a school night on the East Coast might be annoying) and by the time the Oscars roll around, we’ve all seen the same actors, seen all the same movie clips and pretty much know who’s going to win because of the proliferation of awards shows at the end of the year. And, because the Oscars are the biggest awards of all, they always have to be the last. Or do they? No other award is the one truly given out solely by their peers (in all categories), so would it really take the shine off the Oscar to give it out earlier in the year? I know what it would do—it would take the shine off OTHER award shows. Would anyone really care who won the Golden Globe AFTER the Oscars? It might be interesting to see, and might make any foregone conclusions a thing of the past, which would be really nice.

So, yes, moving it up in the season is A-OK with me. But they also, not surprisingly, want to make the show shorter. I think they’ve been trying to do this for years, but nothing has really worked. Nobody is really sure HOW they will cut the show, but the common guess is that they will take some of the awards off the broadcast, like the short subject and/or documentary awards. Taking these off the show wouldn’t be totally unexpected, to be honest I’m surprised it hasn’t been done before now. But it will change the tone of the show. Removing Best Live Action Short and Sound Editing, for example, is another move away from what makes the Oscars special: movie makers honoring their colleagues, even the ones who aren’t household names. We sometimes forget all it takes to make a movie, all the artists beyond the actors, directors and writers that make the movie actually live and breathe. And isn’t part of the fun for us out here the fact that we really don’t know what a sound editor does, but the Oscars can have a chance to enlighten us? There have been a few Oscar shows that really tried to do something clever and fun to explain to us what these below-the-line artists did—I want more of that, not the removal of them altogether.

To that end, I offer some of my own suggestions to make the Oscars better:

-Better hosts. The highest rated Oscar telecast of the last 10 years was the last time Ellen DeGeneres hosted in 2014. She obviously is popular. ABC is reluctant to reach out to Ellen or Jimmy Fallon or Stephen Colbert, for example, because they work for rival networks. GET OVER IT! If you really care about your show, you need to figure this out. Get someone funny and popular. And use their strengths. I’m NOT a fan of Jimmy Fallon, but we need to see what he would do with the Oscars. I loved the year Hugh Jackman hosted. There are many talented actors who can sing and dance AND make you laugh, find them.

-Instead of removing categories from the broadcast, cut the bits that you think are funny that have nothing to do with the Oscars. The sequences in the last two shows where host Jimmy Kimmel went out to the street and brought tourists in, or went to a showing of A Wrinkle in Time and had Armie Hammer shoot hot dogs into the crowd both took up massive amounts of time and were unentertaining. However, when Ellen went out into the audience and had the front row lift their feet so she could vacuum the carpet? Or she asked movie stars to take a selfie with her and the picture rocketed around the world in a viral moment? (For the record, that was the best moment in Oscars history). These take hardly any time at all and were loved and talked about. Stop with the strangers outside the theatre. We’re watching because we care about the stars INSIDE the theatre. Keep throwing candy at them. Keep bringing them pizza. Keep having Lupita Nyong’o, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams dance with Pharrell Williams. Do more short bits like this and keep the awards.

-In fact, there are some categories that should be ADDED, like awards for stunts, casting and the one that should have been added long ago, voice acting. And how ahead of the curve would the Oscars be if they were the first ones to honor performance in motion capture? Get with the times.

-I’ve been watching the Oscars all my adult life and the last time I actually remember watching a Best Song nominee be performed was Adele singing “Skyfall” in 2013. Seriously, cut the songs already. I know it will be controversial, but it could never be as controversial or universally hated as the changes you’re making today. I know the Oscars don’t want to miss out on a chance to have Bruce Springsteen or Common perform, so keep them! I honestly wouldn’t be offended if you pandered to what the audience REALLY wants to see. (Lady Gaga will likely be nominated this year. We’d better see her perform.) If you’ve got a great upbeat song with a great performer, like Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” or Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” use it to open the show and then you’re done. Please, no more of one unknown guy strumming a guitar with dancers in leotards around him. Kill me. It may work in the movie, but it kills a live show.

-The Oscars need to figure out a way to engage social media, so there is the impetus to watch live. The ratings haven’t gone down because people aren’t interested, it’s that they have so many other things to watch instead, especially on a Sunday night. It has to be an EVENT that is essential to watch live. People need to engage on a live forum. Have stars live tweeting from their seats. Act out live scenes from movies with stars, like the live musicals on TV that score massive ratings. Learn what works and apply it to your format. If you’re going to pander, pander to social media, not the studios.

-The Oscars had a golden chance to make the most of Envelope Gate last year. In 2017, the big foul up with the announcement of the wrong Best Picture was the biggest mistake in Oscar history, and should have been mined the next year for comedy and ratings gold. But, instead, they did hardly anything and the ratings plummeted as a result. The Academy is so stuffy that they couldn’t laugh at themselves. Again, they need to GET OVER IT! My advice: lighten up and realize that you are rich celebrities in gowns and tuxes. We want to see you have a sense of humor about yourselves. We have enough serious things to worry about, an awards show should be fun and self-deprecating, because, in the scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter.

-The show is live across the country (don’t change that) and people love to guess who will win. The Oscars need to KNOW how many people play with their friends and online to guess the winners. They need to make more of that. Taking away the harder-to-guess awards will make the show much more predictable. Instead, the Oscars need to engage the viewers who are watching just to see who wins.

-The Oscars always have been and need to continue to be a love letter to movies. It can never lose that or it will lose everything. They’ve got 90 years of movies to mine from and everybody loves movies (at least the people who are watching the Oscars), so I’d love to see more montages, more bits about how movies are made—really, what does a sound editor do—and more stars! Everybody has a favorite movie—remind them of it. You’re the Oscars. That’s why I watch.

-Finally, they must STAY TRUE to themselves. The Tonys don’t care about ratings, they know their niche audience and they give them what they want. The Grammy broadcast is like 4 hours long and nobody cares. The Oscars should adapt to the times, yes, but they also need to remember that they are the granddaddy of all awards shows. They should never have to pander to ANYONE.