Hollywood can’t get out of its own way.
This week’s news that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will add a most popular movie Oscar not only sent civilian social media into conniptions, but also the Hollywood press and Oscar voters. Reaction was immediate and one-sided, mostly variations on, “what the heck were they thinking?”
Getting less attention, but as important, is the decision that, in the interest of keeping the broadcast to a viewer-friendly three hours, some awards will be presented during commercials, with winners getting their few seconds of fame via edited snippets as at the Tony Awards. That move speaks to an identity dilemma: Is the Oscars’ primary function the acknowledgment of achievement or entertainment? In a perfect world, the two would beautifully coexist, but the world is far from perfect, and Hollywood is hardly a nonprofit enterprise.
Still, it takes a village to make a movie. It’s sad that the organizers of this mega event, supposedly creative thinkers, can’t conjure a better way to reverse the ratings bleed (down 19 percent last year), than to de-emphasize the essential contributions of off-the-radar types. Before the new Popular Oscar gets added, there are 24 awards, which sound like a lot, until you look at the list. Which will go? To put a serious dent in the show’s overrun, it would have to be a good number. (Quite a few, given that the average Oscars speech clocks in at 45 seconds.)
So, which ones? Perhaps production design and hair and makeup? Then, documentary short? Animated short? Writing? Will it matter? While people complain about the show’s length, will anyone who didn’t watch last year tune in next time because of a promised time limit? Here’s a thought via David Sims of The Atlantic: Take a cue from the only other time-specific American television event left, the Super Bowl, which also airs on a Sunday. Start the show earlier, at 6:30 p.m. EST. That would play well in the U.S., while also engaging (for the early part at least) more European viewers, which would serve the academy’s stated desire to make the show “more globally accessible.”
The bigger brouhaha is about the popular category. As the academy released to its membership: “We will create a new category for outstanding achievement in popular film. Eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming.”
What? How does a group of intelligent, media-savvy people who are in the business of storytelling and message delivery not see about 1,000 problems in those two lines? For starters, what’s “popular” and who defines it? Did anyone perceive the second sentence, “Eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming” as a bit of an issue? Why not hold the announcement until those “key details” had forth come? For that matter, why not wait until the next awards cycle, allowing time to hammer out all of the particulars? Almost immediately, the academy issued a clarification, noting that a film could be nominated in both categories, “popular” and “best.”
What voice, if any, were academy members given? The original statement said, “The Board of Governors, staff, academy members, and various working groups spent the last several months discussing improvements to the show.” So, it seems that no input was sought from the broader membership prior to the decision. Might not the academy board have anticipated some twisted knickers?
Then there’s the Disney issue. Absent definition of what qualifies as “popular,” one can infer that the distinction will be applied to movies that were, well, popular, as in a whole lot of people went to see them. That would mean top box-office grossers, often of the action/superhero/animated genres. And, according to Box Office Mojo, guess who had five out of the top 10 of those this last year: “Black Panther”; “Avengers: Infinity War”; “Incredibles 2”; “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” (Another making the cut, “Deadpool 2,” is a product of Fox, soon to merge with Disney.) Obviously, Disney movies would figure prominently as nominees. In addition — and perhaps more to the point — Disney-owned ABC broadcasts the Oscars, and having blockbuster movies more deeply represented on the show would hopefully boost the ratings.
Whether or not Disney pushed for the addition of this excellence-in-fun-movies category, the academy’s rash announcement that lacked any concrete criteria swung the doors wide open for speculation.
Why do that now? Black Panther did more than gross $1.3 billion internationally, delighting even those audiences who typically poo-poo superhero fare. It also wowed the critics with its action, its artistry and its cultural resonance. It’s a genuine contender — many consider it the early frontrunner — for best film. A smart, megabucks-making crowd-pleaser with a real-deal chance to take the top honors might draw new viewers, more so than an add-on category that feels like a cop-out. Why muddy the playing field at this particular moment, when Miss Congeniality has a serious shot at Miss America?
Yet the sorriest aspect of the academy’s move is the grist it gives to those who view Hollywood as just-can’t-help-itself elitist. In an attempt at inclusivity, no less. By establishing a separate “popular” category to coexist with “Best Picture,” the academy acknowledges Hollywood’s ongoing dependence on quantifiable (box-office ratings) embrace by the hoi polloi. But it does so while holding its nose and adhering to its belief that those two, “popular” and “best,” seldom merge. Not a way to lure back disgruntled viewers. Conversely, a Best Picture nomination for “Black Panther” just may.
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Down the road: The 2020 Oscars will conflict with New York Fashion Week. CFDA, when it comes to that round of scheduling, Godspeed.