Sunday, February 24, 2019

Academy Awards 2019: How (Not) To Fix a Ceremony in Trouble

The 91st annual Academy Awards will be broadcast tonight. Longtime listeners to Sounds of Cinema are probably aware that I’ve made my feelings about the ceremony quite clear in past editorials (see: 2009, 2012, and 2016). The Academy Awards is little more than a glitzy diversion, a stupid and meaningless fashion show masquerading as art appreciation. But the 2019 ceremony has suffered a series of public debacles that are worth commenting upon because they lay bare the way in which the Academy is failing cinema and the audience.

The origins of the present fiasco trace back to the middle of last year, before many Oscar nominees were even released. In August, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced changes to the 2019 ceremony including the creation of a new category for “outstanding achievement in popular film” and the decision to award four of the categories during commercial breaks. The announcement drew criticism from within and without and the Academy’s board of governors eventually dropped both initiatives. These changes were a transparent play to boost the Oscar viewership which has been steadily dwindling over the past few years.

The Academy Awards does need an overhaul both in style and in substance but the way the Academy went about it was all wrong. Firstly, there is no reason to create a separate category for popular films. The Academy has historically nominated popular titles for best picture including Mary Poppins, The Exorcist, Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Silence of the Lambs, The Lord of the Rings, and Mad Max: Fury Road. Creating a separate popular film category implies that these movies are not serious cinematic work. That’s wrong and that message would do harm to these films, to cinema, and to the Academy itself. Instead of encouraging the public to take movies seriously, the popular film award would do the opposite. It would further discourage the public from thinking critically about the entertainment they consume while continuing to silo films and audiences. It’s difficult enough to get the average moviegoer to see something besides the latest blockbuster and a separate popular film category would discourage viewers from seeing movies that would presumably take the Oscar’s top prize. The popular film category would actually worsen the Academy’s image as an out-of-touch institution. 

Secondly, omitting craft awards from the Oscar telecast would be damaging to the Academy’s stated goal to “uphold excellence in the motion picture arts and sciences.” It’s notable that the awards that would have been omitted from the broadcast include cinematography and film editing—the essential crafts of cinema—as well as live-action short and make-up and hairstyling. The Academy initially said that the categories withheld from the broadcast would rotate every year but it is highly unlikely that awards with star nominees like best actor or best director would be relegated to the commercial breaks. Like the proposed popular film category, this move would impose a tier system on the awards. Truthfully, that preferential treatment among categories already exists but this new format would exacerbate it. The message to the crew members laboring below the line—the people who work just as hard and oftentimes harder than the acting talent—is that they don’t matter. And that message wouldn’t be lost on the television audience. Intended or not, the home viewers would internalize the idea that the contributions of editors and cinematographers are somehow irrelevant to the art of motion pictures. This is perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the Academy’s bid for populism. It actually risks damaging the audience’s appreciation and understanding of cinema.

There are changes the Academy could make to the ceremony. For one, they could get rid of the supporting actor and actress categories. These awards are a joke anyway. Leading performances regularly vie for a supporting actor nomination to better the chance of winning. Take The Favourite’s Olivia Colman who is nominated for best actress while her co-stars Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are both up for the supporting actress award despite the fact that Stone and Weisz are the real leads of that movie and Colman is a supporting player. This happens all the time. Manipulating the system creates an impression of dishonesty on the part of the studios and undermines the Academy’s integrity. The organization ought to scrap the supporting actor categories (but keep the best actor and actress) and institute a new award for best overall cast.

The best director award could also be eliminated. Unlike actors, writers, or any of the craftspeople, the director’s job is much more difficult for voters to evaluate. Consider Bryan Singer whose was fired off of Bohemian Rhapsody during its production. Bohemian Rhapsody was a financial success and it was nominated for several awards but there is little or no evidence of the behind-the-scenes chaos in the film itself. Just eliminate the best director category and include the filmmaker among those receiving the nomination for best picture (which is often the case anyway since many directors are also credited as producers).

There are also “populist” categories that could be added. Consider an award for “Best Trailer.” This would have the wide appeal that the Academy seeks and at the very least the home audience might actually see the nominees. Another category with mass appeal would be “Best Set Piece.” Nominees could include action or fight sequences as well as musical performances. Categories like these could allow for more mainstream films to achieve nominations, thereby appealing to the center, and do so while celebrating cinematic craftsmanship.

The Academy’s bid for populism stems from a struggle with its identity. The Oscar ceremony has changed very little since the first television broadcast in 1953 and the award show is a relic of Old Hollywood when film stars were mysterious and distant. Categories have come and gone over the years but then as now the Academy Awards is a gala event in which well-heeled celebrities dressed in tuxedos and nightgowns pat each other on the back while ostensibly celebrating the cinematic arts. It is an inherently exclusive and elitist event. But the Academy’s producers and the network that broadcasts it want to reach the Super Bowl audience. In purely commercial terms, the product is being marketed to the wrong consumer. The proposed changes to the Oscars attempted to remedy that but to potentially detrimental effect. But realizing that disconnect and correcting it might revitalize this institution.

Film appreciation is alive and well and is in fact is thriving online where commentators and fans create and share thoughtful articles and insightful videos about popular films as well as cult and classic cinema. The creators of that content and the viewers who consume it are the audience the Academy should seek. In order to connect with them, the format of the show has to change. The stuffy Old Hollywood dinner party format has to go in favor of a more pre-produced show. Pivot from celebrities and glamour to the craft of filmmaking. Make cinema the real star of the show and play to the audience’s love of it.

In this respect, the Academy could take a clue from sports. Something that professional sports leagues and their media outlets have done so well is turning athletic events into part of a narrative. Programs like HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and ESPN’s SportsCenter have combined personal stories of athletes with knowledgeable analysis of the game and a complex understanding of the business. That format has proven successful in sports and it would translate well to entertainment.

In its present format, the Academy Awards—as well as the rest of the Hollywood awards circuit—is a glamourous facade whose structure is crumbling. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a top to bottom reimagining of what the Oscars could be, an award show like this could entertain and educate and really celebrate the art of cinema in a way that doesn’t insult our intelligence or cravenly appeal to the lowest common denominator.  But at present the Academy is pursuing an audience that just isn’t there and it risks devaluing the very art form it is supposed to celebrate.