As Academy Board Meets, Are The Oscars Ready For Radical Change? Don’t Bet On It

The Board Of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will have its first meeting tonight since this year’s Oscar show, the lowest-rated since 2009, and the agenda for these post-show meetings usually revolves around a review of the Oscarcast in order to get feedback on what worked and what didn’t. However, this may also be the most publicized (not by the Academy) governors meeting in a long time — if you go by breathless media reports that the Academy may also be considering taking the Best Picture race back to a set number of five nominees rather than the 5-to-10-nominee model used in the past few years. This year there were eight. In the previous three years the rule has been in effect there were nine.

Outlets including Variety, Newsweek, Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly, Hollywood Reporter, Indiewire and others have picked up on this mysterious development which was apparently planted by an anonymous member(s) of a “faction” of the Academy who wants to return to a more rigid five-way Best Picture race, rather than the way it is now. It all started when the Academy moved to 10 nominees in 2009 and then later tweaked it to its current state a couple of years after that.

The fact is there has always been a so-called “faction” in the Academy that didn’t want the change in the first place and has been champing at the bit to take it back to five. Going to the media in advance and trying to drum up this kind of talk is, I suppose, a way of forcing the issue on to the Academy’s agenda one way or another. Having just finished six years as a member of the Board of Governors of the Television Academy, I assure you that if someone wants to bring up something at one of these meetings they will find a way. It was in fact at one of these post-show dissection meetings that the bold recommendation to switch to 10 nominees was made in 2009 by 81st Oscar show producers Bill Condon (a current member of the board repping the Writers Branch) and Laurence Mark. That was the year The Dark Knight was bypassed for a Best Picture nod. Their feeling was with a field of 10 it would be easier to see more popular but deserving fare nominated in the marquee category, thus engaging a bigger television audience who presumably would have a rooting factor.

It seemed to be off to a good start at the 82nd Academy Award nominations with box office hits like Avatar, District 9, The Blind Side, Inglourious Basterds and Up among the inaugural 10, but the Academy ultimately gave their top honor to The Hurt Locker, the lowest-grossing BestBirdman Oscars Picture winner in modern Oscar history, That led to the show’s lowest ratings numbers until this year when, in a field full of indie movies (save American Sniper), Birdman won Best Picture becoming the lowest grosser to do that since Locker. Although I loved Birdman and had it in my top 10 for the year, it’s clear in talking to friends and others not in the industry that this was not an overwhelmingly popular win with those “out there in the dark.” It wouldn’t have hurt to have thrown in something like a Guardians Of The Galaxy into the mix, instead of being a much more expensive version of the Independent Spirit Awards. But popularity rarely translates into big awards action. If it did I would start betting on The Walking Dead to sweep the Emmys this year, instead of being relegated to the Special Effects categories.

I am not sure if this “faction” (why do I feel like I am in the middle of a Divergent movie using this term) wants to claim this year’s lower ratings (the show was down 16%) was caused because the Academy lost “prestige” in the Best Picture contest by allowing so many interlopers, but that seems to be part of the argument. The fact is most of the major awards shows were down this year including the Golden Globes and the Grammys. It’s cyclical and if anAmerican-Sniper-Movie-Posterything, the fact that the Academy was able to agree on eight films this year — instead of being stuck with a maximum of five — likely kept the ratings slide from going even deeper.

Based on conversations with Oscar voters, and just the way things came down in the end, it is fairly easy to assume that the Best Picture nominees this year in a field that only allowed five would have been Birdman, Boyhood, The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Whiplash. My guess is The Theory Of Everything, Selma  and American Sniper would have been left on the sidelines. The latter, while very much loved by many in the Academy, also was somewhat polarizing, and the fact is Clint Eastwood was snubbed by the Directors Branch, another indicator in many cases of Best Picture strength. So assuming that was the case, Sniper, the top-grossing film of 2014, might have saved the day in part thanks to that Picture nomination, bringing in a larger and more involved TV audience. It’s a distinct possibility that wouldn’t have happened with the more exclusive five-nominee rule, which by the way didn’t always come up with the best choices when it was in effect.

Glory OscarsAnd then there’s Selma. That film made the Academy the media’s whipping boy and brought renewed cries for more diversity in the Academy this year, even though they did nominate it for Best Picture (and Best Song, which it won). The fact it was overlooked for Director and Actor led to idiotic headlines of “snub.” The Academy doesn’t “snub” you by nominating your movie for their most prestigious award. That Best Picture nomination almost assuredly would not have come in a field of five, but it certainly made it a lot easier to defend the Academy against unfair accusations of snubbing Selma. It’s another strong reason to keep things as they are. Why flip-flop?   One prominent member, and a past producer of the Oscars, told me recently the Academy should take a breath and not jump to conclusions or more change just because some members are lobbying for it.

I have no idea if this subject will even come up at tonight’s meeting. There will be plenty to talk about with the critically unacclaimed Oscarcast alone. Since the February 22nd ABC broadcast, produced for the third consecutive year by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, I have heard plenty of grumbling among A87th Annual Academy Awards - Showcademy members, but criticizing the Oscars in every way imaginable is almost a national pastime. Zadan and Meron’s fate in returning for a fourth consecutive show is said to be undecided, but no one seems to be expecting it. It’s unlikely the Academy will be making any announcement of producers for the 88th Oscars anytime soon, certainly not as early as April when Zadan and Meron’s re-up was revealed last year.

I couldn’t find anyone who didn’t think the Lady Gaga/Julie Andrews Sound Of Music segment was not one for the ages, and it set social media rocking. There was the same euphoric reaction for the “Glory” staging with John Legend and Common. No, the talk is likely going to revolve around the length of the show (doesn’t it always?) and the unfortunately mediocre writing and an off nightLady Gaga Oscars for host Neil Patrick Harris. After four superlative turns hosting the Tonys and two Emmy shows, he failed to be the fresh face the Oscars needed and his comic bits just didn’t work — at times they were even tone deaf. But it happens. The great television producer Don Mischer, who has produced a couple of Oscar shows himself as well as just about everything else including last year’s Emmys, told us in a TV Academy Board meeting, “With these shows you live or die with your host. The lesson here: hire a smart comedian, and don’t dump the opening monologue (as happened this year).

A lot of the suggestions (some incredibly dumb and naive) for changes in the Oscar show are the same you hear every year but will never happen. The Academy is absolutely right to hold its ground and keep all 24 categories on the air. These are the Oscars, not the Golden Globes or a music-driven showcase like the Grammys. Keep a little dignity and find another way to make the show entertaining. In the end, when all is said and done in a long season with what seems like hundreds of awards shows, the only real phrase your hear is “Academy Award Winner”. That’s the one thing the Academy doesn’t have to worry will ever change, whether the ratings are up or down. It is still the one that matters.  

Have a good meeting.

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