Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: The Academy went crazy with an Oscar overhaul yesterday. I feared they might go the other way, making it harder for streamers like Netflix. Instead, they made sweeping changes to be more inclusive, trying to halt a continual ratings side with the most dramatic moves since they broadened the Best Picture category from five to a possible 10 in hopes of including more mainstream movies and giving the audience something to root for. Now, they’ll relegate most of the creative arts categories to commercial breaks to cut a four-hour broadcast to three; they’ll move the Oscarcast up two weeks to compress the endless awards season; and they’ve added a Most Popular category Oscar. The latter drew an immediate avalanche of criticism, even from Rob Lowe, who called it the death of the film business. Many felt that if he didn’t kill Oscars with his Snow White duet in 1989, Oscars would never die. You’re a voter. What say you?
BART: I realize it’s trendy to disdain all Academy decisions, but I applaud the governors for making these changes. Implementation will be dicey, however.
But let’s start with the irony of timing: The next Oscar ceremony surely will honor Black Panther in many categories, so a ratings bump was inevitable. However, paying homage to a mega hit marks a major departure from the recent obsession of bestowing honors on art movies like 2011’s The Artist, 2014’s Birdman, or 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. TV viewers of the Oscar show will probably have seen Black Panther. This hasn’t happened to an Oscar winner since the days of Avatar or Titanic.
FLEMING: If you give a Most Popular to Black Panther or Mary Poppins Returns, you’ve hurt their chances for Best Picture. Some feel that has happened with animated movies like Inside Out, Up and Toy Story 3. Like, here’s your Best Animated trophy, now go away! If the Academy plans to define popularity by gross, the obvious problem is holiday releases open in time to qualify but fatten up grosses after the award is presented. The Greatest Showman is a good example: When it opened December 20, who knew it would gross $434 million? And who accepts that Most Popular Oscar? The producer accepts Best Picture, but isn’t the reason a movie is popular. Star? Director? The entire cast of Avengers: Infinity War? Oscar was a reasonably exclusive club and the trophy meant something. Do you cheapen its value when so many people can claim to have won it?
BART: How do you define “popular”? Some years ago when I was editor of Variety my impatience with Best Picture choices spurred me to create an annual lunch designed to honor the year’s blockbusters. Statuettes were given to the heads of distribution and marketing — remember them? The events were very popular and also very amusing. We were praising campaigns as well as the movies themselves. Campaigns are also an art form, worthy of singling out for praise. But these events took place before superhero movies totally confiscated the box office charts. The process of singling out “popular” films for special honors would today, in my mind, entail steering clear of a Star Wars franchise or even a superhero franchise (with an exception here or there).
FLEMING: I spoke with many Academy members yesterday, who didn’t question the need for change as much as the abruptness with which the Academy provided it. Bill Mechanic’s exit from the Academy Board of Governors put the focus on many internal problems and likely fomented some of these reforms. I tracked him down in China and here is his assessment:
“I think this is a big step forward for an organization that doesn’t so much fight change as not think it through before blasting forward,” Mechanic wrote me. “The only way to fix the show is clear room and time because there’s so many awards, and this allows artistic achievement in a collaborative field to be recognized on air without overwhelming the show. The Tony’s have done this successfully. Because the studios are manufacturing marketing packages, and because the Academy’s inclusion push has come from non-Hollywood members, perhaps the only way to have the audience have a rooting interest is the new category. It’s certainly worth a try. And the date being the least important is literally the only way to fight off award fatigue, though I don’t think this will make a big difference.”
I am with Mechanic on that last point. We are past caring about Best Picture contenders by late February; shortening the season two weeks can only help.
BART: Assembling a list of the 50 most popular, and award-worthy, movies of recent years would, according to my criteria, embrace the likes of E.T. (19th on the domestic box office list), Wonder Woman (24), Deadpool (44), Inside Out (45) Guardians of the Galaxy (56) and Forrest Gump (58). Except for Gump, these were not Oscar winners. I cite them as examples; there are a lot of good movies out there that find an audience but not an award.
FLEMING: But should they get an Oscar? We can see today that Fox’s quarterly earnings were boosted by Deadpool 2 and Viacom got a boost thanks to A Quiet Place. Avengers: Infinity War bested all of these, becoming only the fourth film ever to crack $2 billion worldwide. Terrific, hugely profitable franchise films. But Oscar?
BART: Creating a list of current “popular” movies that wouldn’t likely get Oscar recognition otherwise will prove more demanding. I would endorse A Quiet Place, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, and Incredibles 2. The fall releases, aimed at awards recognition, will surely offer a longer list of candidates.
The list will be controversial — that in itself would be a good thing.
FLEMING: Not if it undermines integrity. Should the film that moves the most Happy Meals also win what was considered the only movie award that mattered, partly because peers choose winners? Let’s face it, the Golden Globes bestowed by 90 foreign journalists you never heard of, or People’s Choice and MTV Movie Awards, they are only important for fanning the hype machine. Calling a prize Most Popular Movie hardly attests to excellence. The Academy wanted more mainstream hits when it broadened the Best Picture category from five to as many as 10, after The Dark Knight missed the cut. Get Out was a pleasant Best Picture surprise last year and there have been others like District 9, but what we’ve mostly seen nominated are still more prestige films the global Oscar audience haven’t seen. Can we expect the world to care which film wins, when they haven’t seen them?
A Most Popular Award attempts to address this, but winning a popularity contest loses its luster after high school for most. Best Picture signifies the year’s biggest cinematic accomplishment and now it will stand alongside what, best four-quadrant offering with the biggest gross? Will candidates qualify through a write-in campaign that invites the general public to become involved like they do on America’s Got Talent and The Voice? One thing for sure: The Academy should have chosen a more inspired name before it came out of the gate with this Most Popular award. It seems what they are trying to honor is excellence in visual storytelling on a large-scale, big-budget canvas. Steven Spielberg hatched that quality blockbuster formula with Jaws in 1975 and has honed it since. Name if after him? Then again, Spielberg might not be comfortable with that. After all, if he had already won the most popular Oscar for E.T., Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark, would his Best Picture win for Schindler’s List have been as sweet an accomplishment?
BART: I would call the “popular” award the “E.T. Award” to remind members of those moments when awards voters, in their eagerness to be socially aware and culturally relevant, snub a brilliant “people picture.” Ghandi won that year (1982). Its heart was in the right place but it was profoundly dull. Just because a filmmaker makes the most popular list with regularity doesn’t mean they will be forever barred from getting recognition for their serious pictures, as Spielberg did finally, and as Adam McKay did with The Big Short.
FLEMING: Let’s switch gears and address the potential problems in shunting creative arts categories to commercial breaks to shorten a four-hour broadcast to three. Regular attendees tell me attending the Oscars is a six-hour ordeal, and that people rush to the exits during commercials to go to the bathroom or get a drink, and then rush back before they are locked out. Creative arts and short film categories hobble the pace of the broadcast: winners the mass audience doesn’t know or care about wax on and thank loved ones. But these are the people who toil anonymously as the backbone of great movies, and this has been their glory moment. How are they going to feel, looking out and seeing the bathroom breakers turn the aisle into an expressway, as they list loved ones who won’t hear their names called because they’re dropped from the broadcast? How rude!
And for an Oscarcast so recently marred by a star-struck, tweet-happy accountant who handed Warren Beatty the wrong Best Picture envelope, employing commercial breaks like this presents yet another thing that can go wrong in a live broadcast. I recall once attending the DGA Awards in New York, taking a leak alongside Jonathan Demme, who won at that very moment. We heard his name called, he quickly washed up and rushed to the stage. Everybody laughed. But it’s not funny when things go wrong at the Oscars. That’s why other shows give out those awards in separate ceremonies, and a well-edited short clip makes the actual broadcast.
BART: Having attended many Oscar events, first as a studio executive, then as a newspaper editor, I’ve always enjoyed the commercial breaks as a time to have a quick martini and schmooze with random nominees. Is it therefore disrespectful to sneak in a few awards for, say, short subjects? Possibly so. An alternative would be equally problematic — giving awards but barring acceptance speeches. Or presenting the awards and speeches off camera and broadcasting edited versions. Something’s got to give. The late Gil Cates favored the last approach but was shouted down. Here’s the irony: The President of the Academy, John Bailey, is only the second below the line member to hold that post. I respect him, therefore, for advocating these changes affecting his sector of the Academy.
FLEMING: The Academy spit out all these changes with a promise to worry later about the logistics. This is odd, because past Oscarcast producers who lobbied for these changes were always shot down by the board. Several sources told me that when Bill Condon and Laurence Mark produced the Hugh Jackman-hosted Oscarcast, they pushed to shorten the broadcast a little by giving out the three short film categories on the red carpet, with plans to feature edited footage during the broadcast. No way, the Academy said. According to multiple Academy sources, last year’s team led by producers Mike De Luca and Jennifer Todd actually presented a cut of how it would look if the creative arts prizes were given out during commercials and seen briefly in the broadcast — exactly the move the Academy has now embraced. Again, no dice. Several members were concerned that the Academy has panicked and this all becomes another thing that changes Oscar from an elite club. Like relaxing strict past membership criteria to let in 1000 new voters to address a diversity crisis, even though many of the newcomers would not have made the cut in the past.
BART: The effort to expand membership is misunderstood by many. Examine the lists of newcomers and you find many distinguished and promising filmmakers from overseas. The move reflects an intelligent effort to recognize the international nature of the creative community. It’s not just about diversity or empowerment — there were other criteria as well, by my observation.
FLEMING: So how do you fix the awards? I still like the proposal that WME agent Robert Newman made a couple years ago to the New York Times. During the broadcast, begin eliminating one Best Picture contender after another, heightening the tension down as the list winnows to a couple finalists. It’s done all the time with network reality talent shows. This would at least swing the big category back into focus, between all the political Trump-bashing speeches, which likely has much to do with polarizing the audience and getting so many in this country to not even bother tuning in. And how about letting the public know the voting results?
But let’s face it. If Lowe, Snow White, and that tweeting accountant couldn’t kill Oscar, nothing can.
BART: My opinions on Academy policies are affected (or tainted) by my own complex background. I was initiated into the Academy as a film executive. I later became a producer and filmmaker. And still later I became a journalist and editor. Hence I see the business from several points of view, which is both good and bad. I understand the art and science of making commercial movies. On the other hand, in my early days at Paramount, my studio produced what were basically art films under the banner of studio films. I state all this as a way of explaining my support for what the Academy ineptly calls a popular film. The Academy performs a great service in bringing art films to the attention of a broader audience — that’s what the Oscar show has become. On the other hand, why not also reinforce the presence of commercial, or popular films — especially those rare exceptions that are not about superheroes.