As the award season comes to an end, it feels befitting to complete my unofficial trilogy about The Oscars. Two years ago was an idealistic pipedream on how to fix its format. Last year, it was the role of the Oscar voter and whether nominated films had a fair chance of winning. But this year feels more prevalent given its circumstances.
Whatever side of the argument you stand, you must admit that it has been a strange and inexplicable year for the Academy. In the aftermath of arguably the strongest year for films which has celebrated every diverse compass of the filmmaking genre, the 2019 Oscars has been stoked in calamitous controversies and baffling decisions.
It started with the announcement (and reversal) of the ‘Best Popular Film’ category, a cynical yet undefined award covered in devalued tokenism, introduced to sideline films unfitting of the traditional award model with an MTV-style accreditation. It was followed by the saga of Kevin Hart as Oscar host (and reversal) due to his homophobic commentary which resurfaced on social media, leaving the ceremony without a host (you would have to go back to 1989 when a ‘hostless’ Oscar night was last introduced). In a world where Steve McQueen’s Widows, Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, Damien Chazelle’s First Man and Ari Aster’s Hereditary can be overlooked and snubbed in the main categories, it didn’t stopped the inclusion of Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book despite their controversial reputations. Let’s not forget the ninety-second restriction on award speeches and performers singing their nominated songs (yet there was time for Queen to kickstart the show) or the scrapping (and reversal) of tradition where previous award winners could ‘pass the accolade torch’ to the new class. Then like an incoherent Trump tweet-storm, the Academy unleashed their version of hell with the announcement (and reversal) of three award categories to be relegated from the live broadcast.
The reasoning behind all of this is the vain pursuit for ratings within a condensed three-hour runtime.
Given the topsy-turvy nature of the scenario, this years’ Oscars has been the equivalent of the Fyre Festival. It doesn’t share a moment that will make you re-think your consumption of Evian water, but just like the Netflix documentary, the antics stretch into a disbelieving head-spin.
But once the dust settles from this drunken dumpster fire and everyone catches their breath to tally up their Oscar predictions, how do we even begin recovering from this?
Unwittingly, the Academy has set a precedent that could effectively re-define the Oscars as we know it, where arts and crafts are easily sacrificed in a split moment for ‘fortune and glory’ as Indiana Jones would say. It’s worth remembering that this is nothing new, given throughout its nine-decade history, there has always been a formulaic presence that preserves the status quo that wholly benefits the institution rather than the creative forces behind the craft or general public opinion. Perhaps these random announcements (in particular the off-air categories) are a prelude to further changes down the line. But whatever the justification, along with this fractured timeline we’re living in, the ideology behind the award is a complete disconnect from the idolised principles it’s supposed to stand for.
Only the Oscars can you find voters talking to online publications to give their brutally honest opinions about nominees and their films, and by doing so, you question the logic in their participation. Subjective thoughts aside, it remains a comical practice due to voters’ lack of interest and engagement towards films (you can read the class of 2019 here, here and here). For example, you don’t see BAFTA voters doing the exact thing by giving their opinions to The Sun newspaper!
Only the Oscars can you find mass-marketed studios flushed with money campaigning for award attention like a political election (For Your Consideration ads), effectively creating a barrier for smaller studios who don’t have the financial clout to compete (or if you’re a predatory influencer, derailing the competition so your films can take home the significant honours).
Only the Oscars can you find conflicting standards. It’s understandable that punishing films is a tough route to go down, irrespective of its quality or the talent behind the screen. But in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the problematic nomination of Bohemian Rhapsody for example, what messages are we sending with regards to the existing problems within the Hollywood structure and its frequent abuse of power? “Hey #MeToo – we heard you, and you had your fun, now let’s get back to normal?”
Only the Oscars can you find the ushered thoughtlessness of introducing a ‘Best Popular Award’ when deserving categories such as ‘Best Stunt’, ‘Best Cast Ensemble’ or ‘Best Voiceover or Motion Capture performance’ are higher priorities amongst the film community as a fluid response to the increased dynamism of the entertainment field.
There are other examples; genre favouritism meaning there’s more chance of a dramatic film winning Best Picture instead science fiction, comedy, animated or foreign films, the influx of ‘Oscar-friendly’ films meaning regular, ‘safe choice’ nominations and winners instead of films which push the boundaries of filmmaking (e.g. Green Book‘s Best Picture win over the class of 2019), the expansion of the Best Picture nominees from five to ten but never utilising the full allocated slots, the whole ‘it’s their time’ narrative which comes across as the Academy giving out Lifetime Achievement awards instead of awarding the performance, or how about the infamous ‘Oscar Window’ where films released during the periods of September to January have more of a chance of being nominated in comparison to films released outside of that time.
Driving home the point, the Oscars has never been a level playing field. It’s sad, but it is true. Operating on auto-pilot where it repetitively walks off the trodden path, it’s current format is inconsistent. It’s understandable that they want something that ‘plays well’ on TV to reach more of a global audience, but does that mean sacrificing its integrity?
The great sadness out of this predicament is that in the last few years, we’ve seen progressive changes. If it wasn’t for April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign and former Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs’ active presence to diversify its voting pool, could you have imagined the likes of Moonlight, Black Panther, Get Out or BlacKkKlansman given the credible attention it deserves? Could you have envisioned a situation where (and most importantly) black characters are the heroes in the stories, representing deeply complex figures which reflect the human condition rather than the stereotypically nominated portrayals of servants, slaves, gangsters or ‘mammy’ figures?
Since the 2014 Oscars where Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave walked away with the biggest honour, it’s difficult to argue against the winners selected. Spotlight remains one of my favourite Best Picture winners for its showcase of investigative journalism (which is still relevant in the era of Fake News and news integrity and the horrific crimes hidden behind the societal veil of Catholicism). Of course, there is a still a long way to go for equal representation across the board for ethnic and gender recognition (especially female directors despite their obvious existence), but the rapid developmental changes in the wrong areas as we’ve seen recently could also detrimentally undermine that long-term process of reformation.
Whether The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences realises it or not, their current practices are outdated, the process is flawed, with an overwhelming feeling of ‘fresh perspectives needed’.
But what could their next steps involve? The Academy’s contract with ABC won’t run out until 2028 where they still exhibit great influence and control over the broadcast. Could streaming be the answer with a big player like Netflix or Amazon Prime? The Academy offers a limited streaming service through its existing partnership, but could they gain more creative control by heading down that path?
It may be contentious, especially as Steven Spielberg recently came out again voicing his opinion about preserving the ‘cinematic experience’. But given his illustrious career that re-shaped the Hollywood landscape, Spielberg has earnt the right to say what’s on his mind. Trust me, for someone who completely agrees with his viewpoint with cinema functioning as my ‘second home’, films should be shown in the best possible environment. But there is room for both.
Despite record attendance numbers in 2018 at the UK Box Office (which involved a long hot summer, a World Cup which united a Brexit-torn nation and a notable boost by tentpole films like Avengers: Infinity War), the powerhouse of Netflix and Amazon Prime illustrate their positioning at fulfilling a gap in the market – accessibility. Accessibility for filmmakers to get their work out to a broader audience when traditional distribution deals don’t materialise, and accessibility for audiences to watch content in a centralised location that partly minimises our pirating habits.
Our love affair with cinema will never die, especially in the era of ‘event movies’ (e.g. Avengers: Endgame or a new Christopher Nolan film). But it’s not always possible to watch a film in an oversaturated market where films easily disappear than arrive, increased ticket prices (which includes a ‘blockbuster tax’ or in the case of Odeon, up to £40 a ticket at their flagship cinema), poor cinema etiquettes, and a lack of investment to showcase films in the best quality. Sometimes the economics and experience are a driving factor in our decisions, and that is despite monthly subscription initiatives like Odeon Limitless or Cineworld Unlimited.
When consumer habits have drastically changed, judging the viewership of an award show is like judging a serialised TV show based solely on the Nielsen ratings. There’s no mistake that Netflix and Prime have shaken up the industry. That might feel threatening, but it’s also a declaration of experimental engagement, putting the creative freedom back in the hands of artists and seeking opportunities that might not have existed in the past due to ‘gatekeeping’ practices.
Hosting the Oscars may not interest them (especially the economics in running and broadcasting an award show), but their platform is a ready-made system that already taps into a global audience and market. It could help UK viewers across the pond where our Oscar engagement is stuck behind a paywall movie subscription thanks to Sky. But most importantly, it gives the necessary space where awards can be presented without interruptions (unless your internet speeds are unreliable) or pressurised influences (if control is granted). It may not solve the inconsistent voting strategies, but if reformation continues correctly, then we might get informed decisions that are impartial and benefits the process of the competition.
Start the event early. Don’t have a host. Let stars have their ‘moment to shine’ when they accept their awards because they may not get that moment again. The Oscars are not supposed to be ‘ordinary’ – it’s a special event! If the Superbowl, The Grammys or even YouTube broadcasting Coachella can all cope with long running times, the Academy can too.
In truth, judging by the Academy’s responses (which includes going as far as blaming miscommunication), they don’t seem to have come to terms with a new direction. Since its first introduction in 1927, the Academy was built on the foundations of glamour, prestige and history – the ‘Superbowl’ of awards. The power of receiving an Oscar still holds value by today’s standards, elevating creative artists onto their next projects. The appeal of the Oscars won’t fade, but the stubbornness and lack of substance are costing them, and this so-called chase for ‘rating greatness’ will continually put an out-of-touch wedge between themselves and film communities.
Inevitably, this post may sound negative, but it is an open-call challenge for the Academy to do better because it can do better. We have no right to care about any of this! It’s just an award show after all with aspects you can’t take seriously, especially when directors like Kubrick or Hitchcock failed to receive a Best Director Oscar or the simple observation that most Oscar winners have disappeared from our social consciousness in comparison to films that are still talked about today. How many of us have resonated with Driving Miss Daisy in comparison to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (which was snubbed that year)? The Kings Speech over Christopher Nolan’s Inception or David Fincher’s The Social Network? Or how about the FUBAR decision of Shakespeare in Love over Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan?
Of course, those examples are subjective, but it proves that the evidence doesn’t lie and the very fact that we can debate about it is because we do care! Voicing our opinion about this years’ mishaps might sound cruel, but it’s not done because it’s fun or we enjoy it like online trolls destroying films before their release dates. It’s done in the hope that the necessary changes will bring about a rewarding experience that is truly reflective of an ever-changing industry. The mediums behind their expressive forms of genre storytelling and the hardworking talent behind that deserve to be celebrated and awarded accordingly. If you don’t have an awards ceremony that encompasses that, then what is the point? You’re just an award show losing relevancy and validation every single year.
Time will tell whether anything substantial will be cemented. The Academy could easily ‘shut their eyes’ and move forward, pretending ‘nothing happened’ as if we all imagined the entire thing. Or, the Academy could stop, think and maybe listen to its respected members and film community on how to bring an award show to fruition that goes back to the heart of what it stands for – “to recognise and uphold excellence in the cinematic arts, inspire imagination and help connect the world through the universal medium of motion pictures”.
Whatever happens, I hope they’re on the right side of history.