The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

The Academy Awards shot themselves in the foot

Written by: Robert Hamer, CC2K Staff Writer

Did you hear the big news last week? No, not the one about yet another Republican being indicted on several felony counts. I’m talking about this hot mess of an announcement from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

The Board of Governors, staff, Academy members, and various working groups spent the last several months discussing improvements to the show.

Tonight, the Board approved three key changes:

SPOILER ALERT: All but one of these changes are terrible and reek of a pathetic desperation to chase ratings that have been plummeting for reasons they are still unaware of. Let’s go through them to assess the damage. Starting with the least-awful one:

The date of the 92nd Oscars telecast will move to Sunday, February 9, 2020, from the previously announced February 23. The date change will not affect awards eligibility dates or the voting process.

This is easily the best of the three new decisions by default. In the past, ceremonies used to be held as late as the end of March, allowing producers and arthouse cottage industries to wait until the last week of December to release their prestige historical drama in one Los Angeles theater to qualify, then spend the rest of their marketing budgets on appealing solely to voters so they could use the manufactured “Oscar buzz” to sllllloooooooowwwwwwly expand to a wider audience. Allowing these kinds of films to gain such a foothold in the awards conversation is a big part of why the Oscars are often seen as isolated from broader audience consensus, and the last time the Academy tightened the date of the ceremony it increased the viability of earlier releases like The Grand Budapest Hotel and Get Out. Times are different and people generally aren’t prone to waiting for year-end, best-of celebrations. The theater-to-home cycle is faster and the cultural conversation more fleeting. Forcing studios to release their movies earlier and get wider audience recognition first before making their case to AMPAS voters is a step to making the Oscars more accessible.

Finally, one of the real reasons the Oscars experienced a declining viewership is the glut of awards shows that act as “precursors” to this one; rubber-stamping the same winners for the same movies over and over again. There aren’t a whole lot of things AMPAS can do directly to end them (though the broadcaster actually pulling the strings on this might be able to…more on that later), but moving their date up could alleviate the “fatigue” these other shows have been putting on the whole affair.

We are committed to producing an entertaining show in three hours, delivering a more accessible Oscars for our viewers worldwide.

To honor all 24 award categories, we will present select categories live, in the Dolby Theatre, during commercial breaks (categories to be determined). The winning moments will then be edited and aired later in the broadcast.

Here we come to the first big mistake, and aside from the shorts I have no idea which categories they’re going to deem as “lesser” and cut from the main broadcast without major blowback from whichever unions those categories represent. They already took the Honorary Awards, they’ve cut the speeches down despite being far-and-away the best parts of these ceremonies, and the people who are honored “below-the-line” never get the spotlight at any other time in their entire careers. This is the only real opportunity for millions of people to be reminded that, oh, right, there are hardworking professionals who ensure the movies we love are lit correctly, sound right, are cut properly, and have good scripts.

Now the Academy is flat-out announcing that recognizing these people doesn’t matter as much as seeing famous actors try to act surprised that they won a thirtieth award for the same performance. Watch as these same people do nothing to cut down on the number of unfunny comedy skits that have always dragged the show down. Watch as the opening monologue continues to go on and on. Those “Magic Of The Cinema” back-patting nostalgia montages are going to continue to put us all to sleep. Those will stay.

Then, there’s the dumbest new rule change that proves the Academy is still oblivious to the needs of their own ceremony going into the future. This latest attempt to be “hip” and “popular” only reveals just how stuffy and out-of-touch they are:

We will create a new category for outstanding achievement in popular film. Eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming.

Finally, the Academy will reward popular films like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King!

I’m struggling to decide where to start with this one, folks. With this panic move attempting to quell criticism that they’re too “elitist” and “closed-minded,” they created a category ghetto to shunt off box office hits into, while presumably Best Picture is still reserved for “Real” movies. Make no mistake, that’s exactly what this category is — a ghetto to further narrow what’s perceived as Oscar-worthy.

Every time the Academy creates a new category for a certain type of movie to be honored, they slam the door on any chance that kind of film ever has at winning Best Picture. Look at what happened when they added Best Animated Feature in 2001. Despite a dramatic uptick in the number of critically-acclaimed and widely-popular animated films that have been released over the last seventeen years, only two of them have been nominated for Best Picture since: Toy Story 3 and Up. And the lack of a Best Director nomination for both films strongly suggests they only made it at all because of the expansion of the Best Picture nominations that happened in 2009 (wait a minute, wasn’t that move supposed to help popular films have an easier time getting recognized?). We will never see an animated movie win Best Picture, because no voter will seriously consider it when they can give it a patronizing “consolation prize,” instead. This is also why no movie exclusively in a foreign language or a documentary will ever win the top award, either — they also have their own category they can go to.

But unlike animated films, foreign language films, and documentaries, all of which could be argued need their own category due to their continued snubbing for the top prizes, the Academy has never had a problem honoring popular movies. DunkirkGet Out, Hidden FiguresLa La LandThe Revenant, and Mad Max: Fury Road all made over $150 million in the United States. The Martian grossed over $200 million domestically. American Sniper was the highest domestic-grossing film of 2014. Every single one of these popular hits were nominated for Best Picture over the last four years, and most of them won at least one Oscar (in the categories that will no longer be aired on the main telecast) during this big ratings slide the Academy is now hyperventilating over.

Since the first Oscar ceremony in May 1929, ten movies have broken the record for highest-grossing film of all time. All but one managed to get nominated for Best Picture, and four of them ended up winning. This is ignoring the mid-to-small-budget movies that became box office success stories precisely because of the awards attention they garnered during their initial theatrical run. With this new category, it’s not only possible, but extremely likely, that the next time a Get Out-sized surprise hit comes along, voters won’t be pressured to look past their genre biases and nominate it for Best Picture. Now, they can give it this fake award that doesn’t carry even a fraction of the weight that “Best Picture nominee” does. I’m sure Ryan Coogler will just love seeing the first billion-dollar grossing film with a predominately black cast and crew go on to win what amounts to a separate-but-equal award.

If they’re so desperate to nominate Black Panther for an Oscar, here’s an idea: JUST NOMINATE BLACK PANTHER FOR BEST PICTURE!

Those ratings the Academy Awards enjoyed ten, twenty, thirty years ago? Those came from a different media landscape that is never returning and they need to accept that. Yes, ratings have been dropping considerably in recent years, but all awards shows have been sharply declining in the ratings over the same span. The rise of streaming services, the explosion in the number of channels and shows over the last thirty years, social media instantly delivering awards results on mobile devices, and the decline in traditional cable subscriptions have more to do with that than failing to put more attention on The Fate of the Furious or Minions. Adding new categories to pander to every single viewer demographic like the Grammys, shoving hardworking professionals off to the side in favor of more airtime for glamorous movie stars like the Golden Globes, and chasing mediocre moneymaking hits instead of true artistic excellence like the People’s Choice Awards will not help boost ratings. I know this because all three of those shows have lower ratings than the Oscars.

If the Academy wants to increase their audience, they need to wake up. Broaden their membership’s view of what constitutes an Oscar-worthy achievement. Engage and integrate social media more. (Did you know the 86th Academy Awards enjoyed a spike in ratings? The one where Ellen DeGeneres took that selfie with the audience and posted it on Twitter? Maybe they should do more of that in the future, huh?) Set realistic ratings expectations. Find ways to downplay or straight-up end these dumb precursors that act as little more than Oscar predictors these days, so some element of suspense returns to the awards season. Maybe establish an executive committee like the one they created for Best Foreign Language Film that acts to “save” genuinely deserving cultural phenomenons like The Dark Knight from getting shut out of Best Picture. Those are moves that may actually widen their viewership. Creating a brand-new category based solely on how much money a film makes comes off as a doubling-down on the same closed-minded “Old Guard” mentality that got them into this mess in the first place.

It’s no secret this wasn’t something the board of AMPAS even wanted. They were strong-armed into doing this by their broadcaster ABC. Do you want to guess who owns ABC? This isn’t about doing more to honor box office hits since we’ve already established the Academy has always done that. This is about greasing the gears for the kinds of tentpole franchise megahits Disney owns the vast majority of these days. Get ready for them to become more blatant if this is allowed to stand. Get ready for a “Best Achievement in Superheroes” Oscar for Marvel to win every year.

Only one part of this catastrophic decision gives me hope, and it’s the part where they say: “Eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming.” Here’s what that sentence really means: “We have no confidence in this and don’t know what we’re going to do to make it work.” It’s their way to telegraph their complete lack of faith in this new award to be their ratings saving grace, and if enough of us contact them and tell them what a bad idea this “Popular Film” category is, they will probably abandon it.