Another Reason Not To Thank The Academy
The Oscars Will Do Everything to Make Their Show More Watchable — Except Face The Most Obvious Problem with Them
Earlier this week, the Oscars made an announcement that outraged countless people working in the film industry. In the next Academy Awards later this month, the first hour of the show will not feature eight awards that have to deal with the technical process including editing, make up and almost everything having to do with short films. Instead they will take place at an earlier ceremony which will be recorded and aired Numerous filmmakers, including Oscar winning director Guillermo Del Toro have been berating the Academy to the media.
Am I angry by this action? Yes. The erstwhile purpose of the Oscar is to acknowledge everybody in the film industry, not just the movie stars. Am I surprised by these actions? Only that it took this long for the Academy to do it.
As long as I have been watching the Academy Awards seriously — which by this point goes back more than a quarter of a century — I’ve been watching the Academy do everything under the sun to increase their audience numbers. They’ve moved it from Monday to Sunday, from March to February and back again. They’ve had ‘hipper’ hosts and comedians and no hosts at all. They’ve increased the number of nominated films, then changed it to a surprise number of films. They’ve moved the lifetime achievement awards into a separate ceremony in order to streamline it, and then last year put some of them back. They’ve increased the membership of the nominating committees to include more women and minorities. And each year the number of people watching continues to dip.
None of this should come as a shock to anybody. Because the Oscars are beholden to the film industry and the film industry will do anything to solve its problems except look in a mirror. I’m not talking about the fact that whoever hosts the show has to compete with entertaining the people in the theater, which takes itself too seriously and is not hip, and entertaining the people at home, who have a complete different sense of humor. I’m not talking about the fact that the Oscars will do everything in their power to make the show shorter except cut the self-congratulatory montages that nobody in the theater or at home wants to watch. No, the problem is simple. It’s the films they nominate which has always been a problem with them pretty much since the Oscars were conceived and as gotten exponentially worse with each successive year. And for that the Oscars have only themselves to blame because they decided — at least as far back as Star Wars, but coming to a critical mass during the last century in particular — about how they’ll deal with the films they consider for mass consumption and the films they consider worthy of their awards.
Consider this: In the summer, a movie like The Dark Knight or Captain America: Civil War or basically any movie based on a franchise comes out. The studios spend months, if not years, promoting it on every medium, television, film trailers, conventions and social media. You can’t ignore these films. When they finally come out, they appear in every single theater in the country and in multiplexes sometimes in four or five theaters. Any other smaller film that might be worthy of an Oscar — or indeed, interesting to someone who doesn’t like blockbusters — is either pushed out of theaters entirely or sent to one small theater twice a day. What critics think of these films is irrelevant even if they like it. All that matters are what the box office is opening weekend.
In December, you start hearing vague promotions for films considered ‘The Best Film of the Year’ by those same critics the industry cared nothing about the previous eleven months. They are given a limited release, which basically means if you live in New York or Los Angeles, you might be able to find a theater that plays them. In one of those paradoxes that the film industry has been playing off for decades, the ‘Best Film of the Year’ won’t get released to mass audiences — which again, means maybe one or two theaters in the state you live in — until the following January. The main release has been for awards shows which, in some cases, are often controversial themselves. And then the film industry says: “These films represent what we stand for, not the blockbusters that we’ve been releasing for eleven months.” Indeed, if a critic’s organization or an awards group actually nominates one of these films for Best Picture, it’s not considered a triumph but that the critics and awards are lowering their standards.
And somehow the Academy Awards is shocked when their audience numbers keep getting lower. So they try to fix this by saying they’ll nominate more movies, except they only nominate movies like Life of Pi and Beast of the Southern Wild instead of Skyfall and The Avengers. They try to nominate more minority filmmakers and say: “Look we nominated Black Panther for Best Picture this year!” Never mind they gave the Oscar to Green Book, which was pure Oscar bait.
And they still won’t deal with what is their even bigger problem. No matter how hard they try to change their look, almost every Oscar nominated film is fundamentally a drama. I can probably count on both hands the number of times a comedy has won Best Picture, and have room for the number of times a horror film or a science fiction movie has won Best Picture. And the Academy President may say some variation on “Film is the Universal language” but it does nothing to change the fact that in the Oscars, until 2019, it was only for Americans. There were exactly four films nominated for Best Picture in the 91 years prior to Parasite winning. The real reason everybody in the cast and the director was stunned? They knew their history.
And the thing is, the film industry knows this and doesn’t do anything. When Martin Scorsese castigated the Marvel Cinematic Universe for not being actual movies, the Internet buried him. There were lots of filmmakers defending him, but that doesn’t change the fact the film industry has already voted that Scorsese is an outlier to how they do business. There’s a reason The Irishman ended being made by Netflix rather than any of the bigger studios — the film industry has decided that creativity is relevant only when it has to do with the comic books it makes. Everything they release is either a franchise or a reboot of one. Even when Steven Spielberg made West Side Story — one of the best films of the year — the studio did next to nothing to promote in comparison with the most recent Spiderman movie that came out that same weekend.
I have no doubt the industry is trying to shift the blame for all the problems it’s having with movies these days on to the pandemic. I think that all the pandemic and quarantining did was accelerate the problems the film industry would be facing from the end of this coming decade to the start of it. The writing was on the wall well before Covid hit. Streaming services had been buying up Oscar worthy films and potential blockbusters alike. The independent film industry was facing a crisis long before this; now it’s become clear the entire movie industry is on the verge of collapse. The best talent in movies is going to streaming for the same reason the best talent in television went to cable in the 2000s — that’s where the creative freedom is. And just as that has fundamentally gutted broadcast TV creatively and financially, it’s doing the same to the movies. It is not encouraging that the film industry’s answer to this is the same as televisions — keeping doing reboots and sequels and hope the diminishing audiences keep coming.
None of this has to do with the problem I mentioned at the start of the article, because it’s ultimately irrelevant. The Oscars will either reverse itself next year or do some variation this year. The audience at home won’t give a damn and probably doesn’t one way or the other. The audience for this year’s Oscars will probably be higher than last years (considering that it was less than ten million, its hard to imagine it won’t be) and the Academy will move on. I imagine next year there’ll be a similar kerfuffle about the Academy decided to have a separate category for comedies or Film of the Year’ which will have the same protests. None of it changes the problem with the Oscars, which I will use a metaphor for the film that brought the Oscar its biggest audience even though it was one of the worst ones:
The Academy Awards, much like the film industry itself, is Titanic after it hit the iceberg. It’s sinking and only drastic measures can be done to save it. And rather than do anything to try and help, the membership of the Academy is rearranging deck chairs, trying to find ways to get out safely, or playing beautiful music as everyone else drowns and all the beautiful art goes to the bottom.