On May 16, 1929, the first ever Academy Award ceremony took place, and was quite different from today’s ceremonies. It did not have a radio or television broadcast, the winners were announced three months in advance, it was more or less a fancy private dinner, and the ceremony only lasted 15 minutes.
But what is perhaps the most interesting is how that ceremony saw two Best Picture winners. At the time, two categories were created to recognize two of the best movies of the year. The first one was “Outstanding Picture,” which focused on more commercial fare such as that category’s winner, the war film Wings. The second was “Best Unique and Artistic Picture,” which focused on films that were…well, more unique and artistic than the usual commercial fare, with the first and only film to receive that nomination being Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. It was later removed as the idea of an award for commercial blockbusters and an award for experimental works was unnecessary.
89 years later, history repeats itself, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has recently announced new rules and changes for their upcoming ceremonies, including shortening down the ceremony to only three hours, shifting release dates for upcoming ceremonies, and adding in new categories. The problem comes with the execution, as these policies and changes will result in “lesser” categories getting the shaft, some films earning less at the box office, and ghettoizing of both what is considered “popular” and “genre,” as if they have no worth to these stuffy elites within the Academy.
Ironic because the reason these policies are being enacted are so the Oscars can seem more relevant. It’s no secret that the Academy Awards have been under heavy scrutiny and have been considered passe for the past couple of years, what with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign in 2016, the mixed reviews the ceremony has received for the past few years, and the recent ratings lows. This year’s ceremony saw only 26.5 million viewers, a decrease of 16 percent from the previous year, and the lowest-rated televised ceremony in Oscar history.
With that waning audience comes a lot of complaints, but some of the most notable have been the ceremonies being too long, too far away from other award ceremonies, and too focused on arthouse pics than major blockbusters. While box office smashes like Titanic, Gladiator, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King have won Best Picture over a decade ago, films like Spotlight, Moonlight, and The Shape of Water are this decade’s winners, all of whom largely played in arthouse theaters and failed to cross $100 million in the domestic box office. The last Best Picture winner to do that was at the 2013 ceremony, which saw Argo take home the most prestigious prize.
As a result, Academy president John Bailey released a message to his members about what is expected to occur this season and beyond. Certain awards, most likely below the line categories like shorts, will now be presented during commercial breaks, and will later be added and edited into the program. While the 2019 ceremony will stay in place, the 2020 ceremony has moved up to February 9, largely due to complaints of the Oscars arriving so late that due to the onslaught of other awards shows such as the Golden Globes and the Critics’ Choice Awards. Therefore, having it early and ahead of other ceremonies, most notably guild awards, offers more of a surprise for viewers.
But the one that has garnered the most attention is a plan for a new category dedicated to “achievement in popular film.” Bailey stated there will be more information on the guidelines for that category, but one can surmise that the category will be given to films that are more recognized by regular moviegoers, likely ones that gross more than $100M in the box office or from genres that are typically ignored by the academy, like action, comedy, horror, or superhero. The most prominent example from this year is Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, currently the highest-grossing film in the United States, and has garnered a lot of awards buzz, including for Best Picture.
And while on paper, all of these ideas seem to improve the Academy’s shortcomings, the truth is every single decision made here is in fact a regression, diminishing the qualities of certain releases and professions, all in cheap attempts to boost ratings at a time when streaming has become the dominant form of television.
For starters, while the specific categories that will be presented during commercials and added in later in the ceremony haven’t been specified, it seems obvious the more technical and crafty categories are going to be shafted, meaning editors, sound designers and mixers, costume designers, make-up and hair artists, visual effects artists, cinematographers, and the shorts categories will all be presented during commercials and be pushed as nothing more than an aside. Below the line workers in the film industry barely get attention already, to the point where the Oscars are the only time they are able to be recognized. Their contributions being sidelined not only shows an elitist attitude (“Only the big celebrities matter here”), but it sidelines the real problem when it comes to the ceremony’s length.
The Oscars have been criticized for being overlong for years, and I do believe there should be curbing when it comes to its length. But the problem comes with the endless padding the ceremony is known for. Countless film montages, musical performances, unfunny skits with the hosts, and painful attempts at shoehorning in famous celebrities in humorous scenarios all in an attempt to seem “hip.” Ellen DeGeneres ordering a pizza, people taking selfies with famous actors, and a bunch of celebrities surprising a group of people watching an advance screening of Disney’s, which owns ABC, A Wrinkle in Time that coincidentally released a week later. The skits and celebrity sequences in particular were all cheap, pathetic attempts at trying to add bits of comedy and making these supposed Hollywood elites seem “relatable,” and only dragged out the run time. But to the eyes of the Academy, I guess garbage comedy is more important than celebrating filmmaking.
The proposed 2020 release date sounds fine on paper, but it negatively impacts the box office for a lot of awards hopefuls. Films such as Phantom Thread or Call Me By Your Name relied on Oscar nominations to stay in theaters, notably rural theaters, throughout January and February. Having the ceremony earlier will hurt many smaller films’ box office and exhibition, only furthering the domination of blockbusters and tentpoles.
But what is perhaps the most baffling addition of all is the “Most Popular Film” award, which seemingly was forced in by ABC to boost their ratings. Admittedly, as I said earlier, John Bailey hasn’t specified the qualifications to be in the running for “Most Popular Film,” but if one is to assume it comes down to box office gross, there are a lot of problems that come with such qualifications. For starters, if one is to assume the limit to qualify is $100M, then a lot of hopeful Best Picture contenders can very well qualify for this category. Last year, Dunkirk and Get Out would have qualified. This year, films like Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, Damien Chazelle’s First Man, and Steve McQueen’s Widows all have potential to cross $100M, and would therefore qualify. The problem comes with late-release films that become sleeper hits during the holidays or after award voting closes. Because the Oscar votes close and nominations are announced in January, films that opened in platform release or had a soft opening and eventually legged itself out to a stellar total (see last Christmas’ The Greatest Showman) will get ignored, in spite being popular films. As an example, American Sniper was the highest-grossing film in 2014, but before Oscar voting, due to only opening in 4 theaters, the film only managed to gross $3.3 million. It wasn’t until its wide release in January 2015 the film managed to gross over $350 million in the domestic box office.
If it’s focusing on genres that are popular with audiences, then as mentioned before, Get Out would have been able to qualify for the award, while this year, films like A Quiet Place, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Avengers: Infinity War, and the previously mentioned Black Panther, all of which are a part of genres that rarely, if ever garner recognition for above-the-line categories like Screenplay, Actor, Director, or Picture, seem to be the front runners.
Of course, while this doesn’t mean a “popular film” won’t be allowed to be a Best Picture nominee, there’s now a larger uphill battle for many films. Using another infamous awards category, Best Animated Feature reportedly was solely created to ghettoize the animation medium into their own category. In Variety writer Kristopher Tapley’s article on these recent changes, he mentions an anonymous voter who stated, “The dirty little secret about the animated feature category is they created it so popular films could pick up nominations.”
While Pixar’s Up and Toy Story 3 landed Oscar nominations, one can argue it was due to the Best Picture category expanding to 10 nominees, as well as the severe backlash voters received when Pixar’s previous film Wall-E failed to make the Best Picture list. Meanwhile, animated features like Inside Out, Zootopia, and Coco were all considered some of the best movies of their year, many arguing they were better than some of the Best Picture nominees of their year. They all won Best Animated Feature, but none of them were nominated for Best Picture. Because of the Animated Feature category (as well as the Academy’s indifference and disliking of animation as an art form), these films were able to get their own award, but in the process it’s a backhanded and condescending effort that only pushes certain films as if they are lesser art forms.
This very much applies here. Using Black Panther, disregarding the fact that this new category is being implemented just after a film about, by, and for black audiences grossed over $700 million in the domestic box office, as Mark Harris tweeted, “the Academy’s reaction is ‘We need to create something separate…but equal,” the fact of the matter is that the Academy already created a great way to recognize “popular films.”
After the 2009 ceremony, which saw the Best Picture line-up exclude mainstream classics like The Dark Knight and Wall-E, the Academy decided that instead of having 5 nominees, they would offer 10. This was exceedingly beneficial, as inbetween films like An Education and Winter’s Bone, mainstream and genre features like District 9, Up, Toy Story 3, and Avatar were included.
Even with the category changing their voting system and moving the nominees from around 5-10 instead of just 10, this still rung true, with Mad Max: Fury Road and Get Out getting nominations and wins. Better yet, even though the film didn’t cross $100 million, The Shape of Water, a creature feature romance, actually won Best Picture.
Disney already had an awards team ready for the Ryan Coogler blockbuster to get major Oscar consideration, and there was a lot of internal support among voters, but because of this change, ironically from a Disney subsidiary, Black Panther is given a simple “thanks for playing,” rather than earning the respect many feel it deserves. Much like what has happened to animated movies, we could come to the point where, similar to the first Academy Awards, we see two Best Pictures, only this time, only one is considered “prestigous.” After all, superheroes are nothing more than child’s play, and can’t possibly be as incredible as “real movies.”
I understand why the Academy and ABC would implement these rules. After all, they just hit a ratings low this year. But this is not the way to do it. Disregarding the fact television is becoming more and more obsolete with the rise of streaming, especially when it comes to younger viewers, nobody wants any of these new proposals. People don’t find overlong skits amusing, nor do they find 4+ hours of famous celebrities acting “relatable” endearing. In fact, why would anyone want to watch a three-hour long ceremony for only one category?
Due to the sharp backlash online by Oscar prognostics and film fans, at the very least, I can see the “popular film” category being removed after this upcoming ceremony, but what all of this proves is that the Academy still has a lot to learn if they want to stay in touch.