This year’s Academy Awards ceremony looks to be especially troubled, and it’s coming as no surprise. We’ve seen the writing on the wall as the Academy first toyed with doing a “Best Popular Film” category, and then through the mishigoss that has led to a year without a host. Then the Academy decided to do away with the tradition of last year’s winner announcing this year’s winner in the gender-opposite category, likely due to a fear of a repeat of the Casey Affleck situation. We also got word that the show would be presenting performances for only a couple of the Best Song nominees, kneecapping one of the more delightful (and often weird) parts of the night.
Now the Academy has come to the ‘insult to injury’ stage of it all, announcing that four categories will be presented during the commercial breaks. And they won’t be minor categories, at least not to film lovers – they include cinematography and editing. Editing, I shouldn’t have to tell you, is literally the foundational discipline of what makes cinema cinema. Without editing you don’t have the art of the movies. And without cinematography you have radio plays.
It’s insane that it has come to this. What has gone wrong with the Oscars? It seems to me that the Academy’s actions have largely been about appeasing people who don’t actually like the show; this is a strategy of madness, one that always leads to destruction. If you have a thing, and people like it, you don’t change the thing to appeal to the people who don’t like it. That’s how you lose the people who already like the thing, how you alienate your whole fanbase.
The Oscars, I believe, are partially the victim of social media. While some complaints that have come through social media are unequivocally good – the changes wrought by #OscarsSoWhite are very positive, and will hopefully continue – it seems as if the Academy is now listening to the group of people who watch the Oscars just to snark about it on Twitter; the direction of the show is now being dictated by people who watch the show only to make fun of it.
Because here’s the real truth: film fans do not watch the Oscars and complain about the length. The Oscars, as the most important film awards, as the pinnacle of achievement in Hollywood, deserve all the time they take. It’s not like you were doing something else on a Sunday night anyway (unless you’re like me. I usually work at a coffee shop on Sunday nights, so I had to take the night off work for the Oscars), and the epic length is earned by the in-industry importance of the event. Yes, I’m sure many people in the theater wish it was shorter, but tough shit. We’re out here in the world living vicariously through the glamor and the excitement and the heartbreak.
Yes, making fun of the show is part of loving the show. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t snark on Twitter about the show, but rather that snark shouldn’t be the barometer against which we judge the presentation. Snark about the Oscars is like that joke about the old lady complaining about her food: “It tastes terrible… and such small portions!” We’re gonna make jokes no matter what.
Of course there’s empirical data about how the Oscars are received – last year’s telecast was the least watched in history. But at the same time it was the 9th most watched thing on TV all year. The reality is that TV viewing is changing, and viewership will, no matter what the Academy does, likely keep trending down.
But the other reality is that Oscar viewership takes hits in years when nobody knows the nominees. I think AMPAS has actually taken initial steps towards correcting that, with the ten nominees for Best Picture and by opening up the voting rolls to more and more diverse folks. The fact that Black Panther is nominated for Best Picture this year is a testament to the changes that have been happening, and I think that we will continue to see changes in what movies and personnel are nominated in the years to come.
That might take a while. Once upon a time Hollywood made big, popular movies that were also very good, and that got nominated for Oscars. It might take the behemoth a little while to wake up to the possibility that it can make films that both earn money and earn awards, but I believe that future is possible, and Ryan Coogler is one of the people paving the way towards it.
In the meantime it’s foolish for AMPAS to undercut itself by ruining the show, thus turning the Oscars into yet another bullshit awards presentation to ignore. The only solution is to go big, to embrace the enormity and the silliness and the length and the corniness. I want to feel exhausted after a night watching the Oscars. I want a reason to have friends come over and sit together and laugh and talk and have a great time debating the winners. I want it big, as big as the dreams of all the people who entered this ridiculous business and found themselves inches away from the greatest award they can win.
More than that, the Oscars should stake a claim to being the only awards show that matters. It should double down on every other award simply being a precursor for this, the real night where the real winners are crowned. It should lean heavily on the history and the gravitas of the award. It should be THE annual celebration of all the cinematic arts, even the ones where the winners are less than perfectly photogenic. Instead of trying to fit in with with the modern world the Oscars should invite the modern world to come sit down and partake of its old school glamor and bombast.
Make the Oscars long! Give the winners a little bit of time to speak! Show us all these people who have worked so hard to get where they are! Give us big musical numbers that are jarring and bizarre! Make this a special night, not just yet another livetweet opportunity. Make the Oscars great again!