Oscar Wants Us Back

Moonlight director Barry Jenkins holds up the Oscar for best picture in 2017

“Change is coming to the Oscars,” the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences tweeted Wednesday morning, and many movie lovers spent the rest of the day complaining about it. In a letter sent to Academy members, newly reelected president John Bailey and CEO Dawn Hudson outlined “three key changes” approved by the Board on Tuesday night, all of them clearly aimed at reversing the year-by-year decline in the number of viewers tuning into the live broadcast of the Oscars ceremony. The least controversial of these changes is the shift of the date of the telecast, starting in 2020, from late February to earlier in the month. That shaves a few weeks off the annual marathon we call “awards season,” and I haven’t seen anyone objecting to that idea.

There has been some grumbling, though, about the Academy’s fresh commitment to produce “an entertaining show in three hours, delivering a more accessible Oscars for our viewers worldwide.” The plan is to carry on presenting awards in all twenty-four categories live in the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, but some of these, presumably the ones the Academy deems lesser in some way, would be given during commercial breaks. Those “winning moments” would then be edited down and somehow slipped into the broadcast later. Not only could snatching away a full, hard-earned moment in the sun from a makeup artist or sound mixer be seen as demeaning, but for some viewers, Oscar night should be long. Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan laid out his self-admittedly contrarian argument in March after this year’s ceremony, which ran three hours and fifty-three minutes. Yesterday, he added that “those stray, long moments are where all the weird and memorable shit tends to happen!”

The change that’s stirred the most discontent by far, though, is the addition of a new category, “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film.” No one really knows what that means, including the Academy itself, evidently. It’s promised that “eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming.” The Academy is probably operating on the assumption that some potential viewers aren’t watching because they’ve neither seen nor care about the nominated movies, but they might tune in if a Star Wars or Marvel or Mission: Impossible franchise entry were in the mix. Time’s Stephanie Zacharek suggests that the Academy “seems to be attempting, feebly, to honor these big moneymakers in some way—as if money weren’t its own reward in Hollywood.” At Uproxx, Caleb Reading has gathered some of the more amusing tweeted responses to the new category, including a why-stop-there list from director and comedian Adam McKay. How about “best movie where shit blowed up good” or “best back flip to avoid a thrown knife”?

Variety’s Daniel Holloway reports that all three of these changes are the result of a dire meeting between Academy leaders and Disney-ABC Television Group executives that took place days after this year’s ceremony drew a viewership nineteen percent below 2017’s. ABC, Holloway reports, sought to drive home a sobering message: “You are facing irrelevance.” Holloway’s story has prompted Mark Harris, author of Pictures at a Revolution, a book on the five nominees for best picture from 1967, to ask, “Is Disney, which houses Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Pixar, using its network ABC to strong-arm the Academy into creating an award from which it stands to benefit more than any other studio?”

Corporate intrigue aside, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody sees greater forces at work and a far bigger problem facing the industry as a whole. The supposed irrelevance of the Academy extends to all of Hollywood, he argues. Executives “were slow to change in the sixties in the face of cultural and political changes,” Brody points out, and “they scrambled in the face of artistic competition from independent filmmakers and producers in the nineties; and when, under financial pressure because of competition from so-called quality television, they relinquished the production of director-driven movies to independent producers, they dug their own artistic grave.”

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