You’re already up to date, I’m sure. Mostly because, even if you weren’t up to date, everything’s gone back to normal anyway so it doesn’t matter.
Recap: After warning last year that the 91st Academy Awards would see a few categories cut from live broadcast, this week AMPAS – headed by cinematographer John Bailey – officially announced that Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup & Hairstyling and Best Live Action Short would indeed be relegated to commercial breaks under new plans to make the show shorter and more accessible. People were not happy. There were petitions and open letters, angry tweets and op-eds; eventually the board reneged and reinstated the usual, 24-category live broadcast.
As with the Academy’s previous brouhaha, the outrage was basically on behalf of the films and their production teams – giving the uncomfortable impression that the American Academy for Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is working in opposition to motion picture arts and, perhaps, sciences. Last year’s initial statement managed to bury the lede somewhat, packaging the broadcast bombshell with the announcement of a Best Popular Film category, one notoriously nixed among outcries being echoed this week: this is insulting to the “popular films”, implying they shouldn’t have to compete with the “good” films. And now the focus has shifted back to the usual categories, it’s the same thing: how dare the Academy demonstrate such disregard for four important filmmaking categories? Why do they seem to hate films so much?
Yes, I’m being rhetorical. But there was a notable element of stupidity to the categories selected; I won’t quote everyone – you’ve seen it all now – but Guillermo del Toro’s tweet put it perfectly:
To be clear, the plan, until its demise, was to edit the four categories and show them later in the evening, preserving the speeches in the broadcast. It had been heavily implied that the speeches themselves would be edited for time; it was never really stated whether the nominees themselves would be read out in full and given their moment in the spotlight.
Essentially, the entire thing was ill-thought-through, in exactly the same way as Best Popular Film had been, and the Academy’s fascinating approach to their hosting problem – that is, replace a single host with a large number of stars, possibly while bullying the Screen Actors Guild to do so. What we’re seeing here, people, is abject desperation. (Their initial response to the Kevin Hart controversy – that he could still host as long as he actually apologised for the first time – was a far sounder decision, even if it backfired.)
The Academy’s main problem is their falling ratings, or, more accurately, the ratings for ABC’s broadcast of the Oscars event. There’s an important difference in emphasis there. Yes, the broadcast is always too long, and this is never helpful for an organisation battling measurable drops in engagement. AMPAS, like any single film fan, are invested in promoting the medium as widely as possible. So maybe, as Steve argues convincingly, we could shove aside all of the above and accept that this week’s proposal was a pretty good compromise. After all, the winners would still get their moments in the sun – even if edited – and the problematic “lesser-than” factor would be balanced by the categories’ yearly swap-outs. Fine. Except it’s still not a real solution.
Let’s put it simply: this is the broadcast of the Academy Awards. Not the ABC Broadcast of the Stars with Some Awards Attached. Sure, that’s how ABC see it, as they’re paid to do; but that’s not how it should be for the Oscars, and for film fans. This absurdity was a top-down decision prompted by an assumed commercial necessity (fine), itself based on the assumption that the ABC broadcast is the first priority here (surely not fine). The onus should never have been on AMPAS’ Board of Governors to figure out how to crowbar their long-established celebration into ABC’s given restrictions, and which parts should be sacrificed to do so. This ceremony is literally older than television.
What AMPAS should be focusing on – what the organisation does spend a lot of its year doing, outside all this Oscar madness – is simply promoting cinema, and especially its evolution into the brave new world represented by its 91st Best Picture frontrunner. What ABC should be focusing on, as a television giant, is essentially the same: progression. The missing categories were to be broadcast live online during the TV commercial breaks; it was an acknowledgment (or concession) from both parties that viewers consume in a multi-platform world, but still a tacit insult to the people working in those categories. And so it simply missed the point; instead of scrambling to slap bandages on the slow death of the decades-old Oscars broadcast, these organisations should be working together to preserve the actual important part – the celebrating films, the freakin’ awards – with a method that totally embraces the progress of moving-picture communication media.
In other words, sure, broadcast improvements could be one way to go. But the Oscars were never supposed to be about the broadcast. (Publicity, sure, but that’s not tied to a televised format.) This short-lived controversy was a placebo for a real issue that the Academy, as long-time arbiters of American cinema, and ABC, as a major force in American television, needed and still need to be working into in a serious way. There are ways to improve how the Oscars can be served to us; but an awkward hack job, with conspicuous disregard for the event’s basic ethos, is not one of them.