I have been on vacation in Hawaii this week waiting for the hurricane. It missed us but apparently hit the Oscars instead.
Sitting in my beach cabana I made calls and sent emails to see if the perspective from Academy members matched the social media firestorm — and I mean firestorm — aimed at the Oscar’s additions. A new category for “Popular” film; a two-week move backward in the calendar; the telecast downsizing of some undetermined below the line categories.
On the surface I would say the Board Of Governors’ vote at Tuesday night’s meeting is a brilliant way to answer all the criticism aimed at the Oscar show, at once. What’s so bad about a new category that reflects movies ABC’s viewers actually see, OR promising a streamlined three-hour telecast not bogged down by speeches from people you have never heard of, OR shortening the endless awards season to make the Oscars a little more relevant? Isn’t this exactly what the complainers have complained about? But the way things have been going, you just had to know that, in trying to address constant criticism about the Oscar show, the Academy once again became a punching bag once it revealed instantly controversial solutions from ‘the gang that couldn’t shoot straight’ according to its critics.
Nobody wanted to be quoted, but here is a sampling of what I heard from the front lines.
“I think it’s awful,” said one member who works on Oscar campaigns, who qualified that it might “pave the way” for the more “intelligent” film they have been promoting for Best Picture. “So then that is good for me!”
Another veteran member with a lot of AMPAS committee experience said the moves were understandable in an environment of declining ratings and loss of younger viewers the organization will need to cultivate to secure its future as a prime TV show. “95% of the Academy’s income comes from ABC, so I completely understand what they are doing but I think they unwisely rushed the announcement,” this member said, while praising the idea of recognizing “popular” movies as a good one if it is better defined. “I loved Crazy Rich Asians. It would be good for Tom Cruise and Mission: Impossible. These are movies that would not get noticed by the Academy otherwise.”
Another member: “I was horrified when I got the very brief email and then started reading up more about how bad a deal this really is. It is embarrassing how the Academy is destroying itself and every bit of good it has done throughout history.” This member then went on to list a litany of grievances about recent diversity moves, taking in “unqualified” members, and politicizing the Oscar show itself. This person might be onto something there. The Academy, like other Hollywood-based kudos fests may be turning off Trump’s America by not curtailing the infusion of politics into the show, an additional cause of ratings erosion.
Yet another longtime voter: “Pretty interesting. Crazy to hear all the kickback from people on the comments. It’s a good idea but unfortunately the press release was too vague. It seems regular people are fine (with it) and really don’t care. It seems film people are the ones knee-jerking.”
This from a new member: “It’s horrible – most people hate it – it so downgrades the Academy. I think they should have let all the members vote on it, but they just care about ratings and taking categories off the show. Ugh.” This member’s thought was echoed by a top major studio executive to whom I spoke, who also suggested that a membership meeting should have been called for input from the Academy’s rank and file, before making any drastic moves pinned to a desire for better ratings. Ironically this particular exec and his studio’s films, could actually stand to benefit from the introduction of a “popular” category.
One top exhibition executive whose chain is especially devoted to showcasing specialty films was more blunt, bordering on seething: “I think this is an attack on independent film. They call themselves the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences. Where is the art in this? They just want ratings. The Oscars have been very important to our business, but cutting the time between nominations and the show will kill it.” The exec added that he and many other exhibition reps were recently summoned to a meeting by AMPAS toppers where they were asked how the Academy and exhibition could better work together for the benefit of the Oscars. “After the meeting, I got wind of the plan to move the show earlier,” he said. “I was very upset and wanted to do something to stop it. I’m so mad I really might just take away the privilege of passing members free into our theaters.”
OKAY, then. I guess the Academy has some explaining to do, even though it wasn’t making newly re-elected President John Bailey available yesterday. At a recent private screening event we both attended, Bailey told me that he was running again, and if elected, he planned to try and “radically” change the Oscar show, with the hope of making it feel less like the Independent Spirit Awards. There has been an uncanny match between the Best Picture choices of both organizations, with the notable exception of 2017. The Shape Of Water took the Best Picture Oscar, but was shut out at the Spirits, even though it was eligible.
The more severe critics of yesterday’s move called it a simple ratings grab, that the Academy, which used to be devoted to a mission of excellence in film, had succumbed to ABC’s desire for bigger ratings which only come when there is a blockbuster in contention like Titanic or The Lord Of The Rings. In my conversations with Bailey, he seemed genuinely concerned that the Oscar show was headed in the wrong direction. This was even when I first met him a few years ago and he told me of his concern about the Neil Patrick Harris-hosted show that had aired three days earlier.
I am persuaded these moves weren’t borne of sudden desperation. Various Academy committees have been meeting in recent months on this issue. A few months ago I heard of a ludicrous proposal being floated in which there would be a requirement to have three audience-favored movies guaranteed Best Picture slots. I completely dismissed it, believing this was not the conservative Academy I knew. The rough idea, as I understood it, would involve having two ballots with one listing only the “popular” movies. Three top vote getters from that ballot would then be integrated into the other ballot in which all films were eligible, thus creating your Best Picture nominees. It seems the new “Popular” category might have evolved from something like that, as unlikely as this idea sounded at the time. It is pretty much in theory how the nine foreign language finalists are chosen by a committee, not the entire membership.
It is ironic that it has come in a year in which a Best Picture nomination for Black Panther is possible, the first Marvel film and comic book movie to be so honored, if it happened. Perhaps the “Popular” category was rushed in as an insurance policy to make sure Black Panther ( a Disney-distributed film from the company that owns Oscar broadcaster ABC) was represented properly. Its omission, after all, would have inevitably sparked new outrage at Oscar and slapped the org’s attempt at diversity in the face again ala #OscarsSoWhite. Disney has been prepared to launch a major Best Picture campaign on its behalf and even hired top campaign consultant Cynthia Swartz to help orchestrate it. Does this new category diminish its chances for a Best Picture nomination, even though the Academy later clarified all “Popular” movies would also be eligible for Best Pic too? Will voters feel the “Popular” designation covers it? How ironic would that be since these changes were clearly orchestrated with heavy input from Disney owned ABC?
I am as concerned as other purists. I study the Oscars. I love the Oscars. The Academy might look to its British counterparts for help clarifying this new category. The Brits have a popular category called EE Rising Star Award (formerly sponsored by Orange), most recently won by Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya. It is a specially blue-tinted BAFTA statuette that goes to a winner voted by the people. It’s given prime exposure and equal time on the BAFTA show. That’s a radical idea for the previously insulated Oscar process. But why not design a special statuette and turn the vote for Popular Film to the masses? It would deliver a marketing hook and might compel more people to watch and root on someone they nominated. It would also remove the embarrassment some Oscar voters might feel being forced to vote for a film based on its popular appeal. Just sayin’. It would also help not tarnish the value of a Best Picture win. The Academy could even make money off of it by enlisting a top sponsor associated with moviegoing, just as BAFTA does. How about Coca-Cola’s Popular Movie Oscar? If you are going to do this, why not present it in a transparent way?
As for doling out some of the crafts categories during commercials, with speeches edited to play via tape later in the show, I remain astounded this ever got the approval of a Board dominated by crafts branches. I confess I never thought I would see the day. It is bound to cause in-fighting among those Governors involved, who gets relegated to this second tier treatment. It is the way many awards shows operate, including the Tonys, Grammys and even the Critics Choice Awards (the group to which I belong). All of them hand them out in pre-shows and merge them into the main show one way or another.
When I was a Governor (for six years) representing the writers branch of the Television Academy, we were faced with the prospect of losing some of our guaranteed writing categories on the prime time telecast. We fought that and won. I learned that if you give an inch, the networks are likely to take a mile. By enlisting the Writers Guild in our effort, we never gave an inch. In the case of past Oscar producers like Gil Cates, they’ve tried different ideas to deal with the less viewer friendly categories, like handing Oscars to some winners in their seats, or lining up documentary directors onstage and declaring a winner. Like the Miss America pageant. It was never revisited, but I wonder if this idea should be given a chance in the spirit of ratings boosting. Seeing these dramatic changes enacted under a second term president who is a cinematographer and hails from one of these branches is akin to Nixon opening up China to the U.S. No Democratic President could have done that and lived to tell the tale.
As for moving up the ceremony by two weeks starting 2020, the Academy was nice enough to give other shows the chance to reshuffle their own dates. AMPAS motivation behind this is to eliminate the feeling of ennui among viewers who watch the same winners march to the stage and hone their speeches prior to the Oscars. This won’t stop, but at least it will all be over sooner. The dilemma is the move gives Oscar voters less time to actually see the movies. That is a complaint I heard commonly even before this. One Academy member told me he hoped the show would move to April, as it was in the 60’s. Good luck with that. It’s a new era. The bigger question is will it become a new error?
To be continued.