Written by: Robert Hamer, CC2K Staff Writer
Savor the small victories, folks. We don’t get them very often these days.
Last week, the Academy finally received the message loud and clear that their half-baked plan to introduce a new “Best Popular Film” category was a terrible, condescending idea by announcing the award will not be implemented at the next Oscar ceremony:
While it’s a shame they’re still committed to shafting between six to eight categories by presenting them during commercial breaks (which, as I and others have observed, will hurt “popular” films more than any other kind since those often win the sound, editing, and visual effects awards), it is immensely satisfying seeing an organization propose an idea, actually listen to the overwhelming negative feedback, and reverse their decision. That’s an impressive display of humility and corrective action that, ahem, others could learn from.
We won this round for the soul of the Oscars, but we’re coming dangerously close to forgetting the next question which should be on everyone’s mind:
We have a bad habit of resting on our laurels at the first sign of victory and not doing the hard work of building and sustaining those victories onward. Because here’s the thing: the desire to pander to blockbuster films and chase ratings didn’t come from nowhere. It wasn’t an impulsive action just for giggles. The Academy is clearly spooked, not only by their declining ratings, but also the fear of appearing “out-of-touch” to potential viewers. They have not, as that press release carefully explains, killed this proposed category permanently. It’s only been “postponed.” Which means if their fortunes don’t change, it will come roaring back.
The movie industry faces one of the most uncertain transition periods since the birth of the sound era. The Academy top brass know this and are trying their best to keep up with the changing landscape. Whether they succeed or fail depends on us. We can push them to that happy medium, allow them to recognize more popular, wider-release films without compromising their integrity. We can make the Oscars as relevant now as they’ve been for almost a century. But in order for that to happen, we have to make it happen.
But that is not going to happen if we whine, grouse, pout, and resign ourselves to the Academy making the same “Old Guard” mistakes. The reason they’re in this mess is they have been listening to a disproportionate amount of feedback from people who fundamentally dislike the Oscars and do not understand their appeal. The fans, not the haters, need to drive this change.
In order for the Academy Awards to evolve in a way that is positive, relevant, and reflective of what is truly the best of the film industry, three specific groups must step up:
- 1. The Academy Board of Governors: Drop this “Best Popular Film” category. Don’t make a big announcement about it. Don’t draw attention to the thing any more than you already have. Just let it die on its own. It will not make you more visible or boost your ratings. You are not the People’s Choice Awards or the MTV Movie Awards. You are the most prestigious cinema awards body in the world; start acting like it.
I understand the widening rift between genuine artistic achievements and movies that make a lot of money makes you nervous. However, there are many ways to recognize their achievements without pretending Deadpool 2 is an Oscar-worthy endeavor. For example, create an executive committee for Best Picture like the one you already have for Best Foreign Language Film which can “save” popular features that may have fallen through the cracks of your ballot scoring system. This solution also helps regularly “round out” the number of nominees to ten since it’s mathematically impossible for there to be ten Best Picture nominees under the current system. There is also nothing stopping you from giving out Special Academy Awards specifically for achievements in popular cinema, like the one you gave to Richard Williams for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and John Lasseter for Toy Story. Did you know the Marvel Cinematic Universe – unquestionably one of the most influential things to happen to the blockbuster landscape in the 21st-century – is enjoying its tenth anniversary this year? Might be a good time to give Kevin Feige a Special Achievement Oscar to mark the occasion.
In addition, you need to be more aggressive about making your membership less old, white, and male. In a year where younger, racially diverse coalitions are stepping up to change Congress, you should be following their example.
But even the leadership of the Academy can’t change on their own. The entire awards season needs to evolve so ceremonies don’t resort to patronizing “separate-but-equal” prizes. Which means…
- 2. Critics organizations, union guilds, and other “precursor” awards bodies: Stop giving out awards like Oscar pundits and do more to distinguish yourselves. With the exception of a handful of early critics groups, the same four performers win the same four acting awards over and over and over. This is not only disheartening to viewers, but crushingly boring to witness.
To be clear: I am not complaining that Frances McDormand, Gary Oldman, Allison Janney, and Sam Rockwell won Oscars from the 90th Academy Awards for their work last year. I am upset – and I know I’m not alone in this – that all four of them, without exception, won the Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice, and SAG awards for their performances. This resulted in the likes of Timothée Chalamet, Saoirse Ronan, Willem Dafoe, Laurie Metcalf, Margot Robbie, Daniel Kaluuya, Sally Hawkins, and Lesley Manville receiving no recognition whatsoever from those major awards bodies. Such unanimity strikes me as disingenuous, but more to the point, that “coronation” narrative is a surefire way to turn off potential viewers for every one of these awards ceremonies who otherwise might have tuned in for the suspense of a real competition.
As I mentioned a month ago, it’s instructive to look back on the 86th Academy Awards, their highest-rated ceremony in over a decade. There was genuine uncertainty in the Best Supporting Actress race, with lines clearly drawn between “Team Lupita” and “Team Jennifer.” While Cate Blanchett swept every Best Actress award, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto’s awards momentum was not quite as dominant. A single authentically competitive acting race made that season exciting, and millions more people tuned in to see how it would end. Viewers should not be able to predict every winner in advance of tuning in to the Oscars. The fun is in guessing and debating who will (and who should) win up until the name is called out at the podium. If critics are as exhausted of boring inevitabilities going into the last few ceremonies as I am, they need to set the example.
It’s not just a ratings problem, either: remember when the nominations for the 88th Academy Awards rolled out, and, for the second year in a row, all twenty acting nominees were white? That was embarrassing and wrong on the part of AMPAS. However, what made it worse was seeing so many critics lecture them over their lack of diversity, even though many of their own acting winners were just as racially homogeneous.
Awards from these critics organizations do influence the final Oscar nominees. The same year critics were hypocritically demanding a diverse set of acting nominees while failing to recognize many non-white performances themselves, over a dozen independent critics organizations banded together to celebrate a relentlessly propulsive, dystopian action thriller with radical feminist subtext as the best film of that year. It is impossible to believe Mad Max: Fury Road would have had any chance of being nominated for a whopping ten Oscars, including Best Picture and Director, let alone walk away with six, had it not been for such united critical support. The same is true of Willem Dafoe helping The Florida Project avoid a complete shutout earlier this year, the legendary Isabelle Huppert earning the first nomination of her career, and Amour making the cut for Best Director.
Precursors think rubber-stamping the Oscars makes them more “legit,” when all it does is make them seem superfluous. They – especially critics – need to start thinking of themselves as lobbying organizations, holding up and promoting the film achievements Academy voters might have overlooked. It’s a unique opportunity they need to stop squandering.
- 3. The fans: We need to be heard. We need to get involved. I mentioned earlier that the Academy is listening disproportionately to feedback from people who dislike the Oscars. It’s time for us to change that equation.
When I railed against the Academy’s ratings-chasing announcement, I begged everyone to call the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and voice your disapproval to them personally. I don’t know how many of you did that, but I am grateful to all who did and I’m sure we weren’t the only ones. I’m asking you all to do it again, but this time, thank them. Thank them for not going through with their original plan and offer constructive solutions. If enough of us make ourselves heard, they will listen again.
Oh, and you better tune in to the 91st Academy Awards ceremony next year, because if ratings continue to go down, no amount of protesting will prevent the creation of that dumb “popular film” category the next time it comes up.
Author: Robert Hamer, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert Hamer is CC2K’s resident opinion columnist. In addition to being a self-centered 30 year-old white man living in northeastern suburbia who obsesses over movies and nerd culture ephemera, he also works to ensure Donald Trump does not succeed in permanently destroying the United States.