Oscar is the subject of this week’s, I Gripe, a new op-ed series from film critic Ben Cahlamer as he explores the frustrating aspects of Hollywood, the constant politicking that affects the business of filmmaking, thusly poking the ire of social mediaists and general filmgoers.
Oscar has a new President and New Rules; Reactions galore
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the organization behind the Academy Awards announced on August 8th that cinematographer John Bailey had been elected the 36th president, succeeding Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the outgoing president.
Along with this announcement, AMPAS also revealed changes to several rules governing the Oscar telecast, namely shortening the telecast to a firm three hours and setting an earlier date for the ceremony in 2020. The third change, the creation of a new category for outstanding achievement in popular film, has had Twitter’s undies twisted, both inside Hollywood and outside of it as well.
My initial reaction was one of “yeah, that’s interesting.” I’ll admit that it seemed kind of odd for the Academy to adopt such a rule because its implications are profound. However, the letter Mr. Bailey issued to Academy members stated that they had not yet defined the rules that would guide their selection of a popular film. No need for me to get my undies in a twist (because it is very painful to get them untwisted.)
A number of friends on Facebook sounded off, expressing frustration.
Rob Lowe’s tweet is one of the more creative I’ve seen. It’s spot-on too.
Why is everyone up in arms over this change when the rules haven’t even been defined yet and why am I not as worried about it? Remember, I don’t want to get my undies twisted; it’s not pretty.
Then again, neither has the reaction to this brewing storm.
What caused the Twitter Rage this time?
In short, we can partially blame Black Panther for being as successful as it was. No, I’m not knocking the talented cast and crew or its success. (You can read my review here if you’re really so inclined.) Pundits have suggested that Disney will mount an Oscar campaign for the film.
Disney would be right to do so. The film stretches its boundaries well beyond your traditional comic book – based film. However, the Academy has previously overlooked Sci-Fi and fantasy films for the premiere awards creating an air of elitism when it comes to their annual ceremony.
This is something The Dark Knight fans are all-too-well aware of: their favored film was overlooked in 2008. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar, a deserved nod for his excellent performance.
Supporters of the film weren’t happy with Ledger’s sole major win; they really wanted the film to be recognized as their favorite film of that year. AMPAS heard their cries and pleas and four months after the 2009 telecast, AMPAS changed its rules expanding the best picture category from five to 10 nominees. Their hope was that there would be room for the more popular films.
Short Term Gain, Long Term Pain
AMPAS was all too well aware that they were losing viewers in each of their successive telecasts; by opening the field up to more films, the hope was that they would reach those viewers who were disenfranchised by the Academy’s lack of recognition for a wider array of films, some of which are rewarded with box office dollars.
In a recent Variety article, “the 2009 Oscars telecast director, Bill Condon, suggested it [the expansion] in his postmortem with the Academy. It wasn’t a new idea after all; from 1931 to 1943, the organization had employed a more inclusive paradigm. Why not give it another shot?”
Why not indeed.
The expanded field led to The Blind Side, District 9 and Up being recognized, all popular films to be sure. The 2010 ceremony saw a “battle royale” between Avatar (the highest grossing best picture nominee) and The Hurt Locker (the lowest-grossing winner), creating a nice mix of artist-inspired independent films and blockbuster, popular films.
Even with these changes, modern audiences continue to be disenfranchised with the Oscars and, despite being a ratings juggernaut, those ratings are still seeing YOY declines.
I find it funny that during ‘Oscar Season,’ I will encounter friends who claim they’ve never heard of a film that’s being recognized for an award.
Yet, when the Academy recognizes mainstream movies, the viewership increases.
When James Cameron’s Titanic scored with audiences and attracted a bevy of nominations, more than 57 million viewers tuned in for the 70th Academy Awards in 1998. In 2004, when The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was nominated for 11 Awards including Best Picture (which it won, ironically), drew 43 million viewers.
When the Academy recognizes films that jibe with the mainstream, their viewership numbers go up. Like a piece of music or a painting in an art gallery, films are meant to be discovered. It’s partially why I subscribe to the good that the Academy does with the Oscars.
The adage, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” is such a true paradigm: you can’t compel mass audiences to see something that either never makes it to their local theaters or just simply doesn’t appeal to them. People have to discover new trends on their own.
Yet with major tentpole films, audiences will come out in droves to be spoon-fed entertainment where they can escape from their everyday lives. If I’m not giving audiences much credit these days, it’s because there was a period of time where I turned Hollywood completely off; I was tired of being spoon fed.
My Pain, My Gain, Yet I Gripe
I was tired of seeing the same recycled stories, or reimaginings like 2009’s Star Trek. That’s a story for another time though. In 2010, I was brought back in to the fold. I had a different outlook because I’ve recognized that not every movie is for every single person and that helped me to discover smaller, more intimate films alongside the bigger tentpoles.
My epiphany has also changed my outlook on what motion pictures are. I still “believe a man can fly” yet for a time I didn’t think that comic book movies were worthy of the highest prize in all of Filmland.
Which is why my I Gripe is focused on the new category.
This is the second year where a comic book movie has been circulated as a best picture Oscar contender. Black Panther is certainly a story worthy of the highest accolades especially Oscar, but I can’t see it winning, even if the Academy suddenly became less conservative than it already is. That doesn’t meant that I wouldn’t support its inclusion in the 10 slots currently available for best picture.
That’s not what this is about though.
I doubt the Academy knows just yet what an outstanding achievement in popular film looks like, other than it has PR value and proves that they don’t fully understand modern audiences. What I do know is that ABC (Disney) was partially behind the push. They extended their agreement with AMPAS for the telecast through 2028, and they were concerned over the declining viewership.
This isn’t as nefarious as it sounds, but one has to wonder if the plethora of fantastical films beyond comic book movies that we get year in – year out isn’t shaping the minds of modern movie goers. They would rather sit at home with access to 1000’s of hours of content rather than venturing out to the theater to see something that opens the mind to new experiences and stories that their own lives can’t replicate.
Sure, dinosaurs chasing you as volcanoes explode behind you can’t happen either, but you simply enjoy those stories, rather than experiencing those stories. To be fair, there are stories that you can watch at home that are just as powerful.
This new category doesn’t give audiences enough credit either, negating The Shape of Water’s win last year. Yes, it is a fantastical story and it is a higher form of art at the same time, the best of both worlds. The fact that Guillermo del Toro directed it might have had some impact. I hadn’t really visited his work prior to Shape, but he seems to be an art lover’s director and not a mainstream director.
Had Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri won the virtual world would have dismissed it as “the Academy not recognizing what I like.”
This is the point at which we look at some Oscar history. I get a little murky and make some grand assumptions, so if I cock this up, let me know on social media.
Future History Unfolding
The Oscars started in 1929 as a banquet dinner at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. It was not broadcast and the ceremony lasted 15 minutes. This screams to me “elite,” though you could buy a ticket to the event at that time (something I don’t think you can do today.) Elite might not be a fair word though because at the time, movies were of a different breed.
The focus of the program created by Louis B. Mayer was ultimately to honor the best achievement in multiple categories. Covertly, the reason for the Oscars was that Mayer formed an industry association to gain an advantage over the unions from gaining strength. The nominees’ peers conducted voting, not the public at large. As the years have gone on, Oscar is Hollywood’s opportunity to put their own on a pedestal.
This new category assumes that Hollywood truly wants to represent . . . . what, the highest grossing film? or the film that most resonates with modern audiences? It doesn’t take into account that those films really excel at generating cash, something Hollywood has also seen erode over the years.
This really doesn’t instill any more confidence within the existing studio system to put more content out there that opens minds, or even spoon feeds audiences either, because I doubt Hollywood has time to watch everything that comes out in a year.
Mind you, when the Academy was created, the number of films was considerably fewer and the first ceremony represented two years of films. Running parallel to Outstanding Picture, the Unique and Artistic Picture category was created and was awarded to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Wings would go on to win Outstanding Picture (later renamed Best Picture).
The Academy retired the Unique and Artistic Picture category after the first ceremony, opting to focus on Outstanding Picture. What’s interesting is that there were two Director categories for Comedy and Dramatic Picture, which were also subsequently retired in favor of one best director category.
This means that the Academy has been tweaking its categories since its inception, including a special merit for Unique and Artistic Picture, but that doesn’t mean they’ve gotten it right.
Even Best Picture, which started out as the aforementioned Outstanding Picture has undergone its share of renaming. In 1929, it was changed to Outstanding Production; in 1941, it was Outstanding Motion Picture; in 1944, Best Motion Picture and finally, in 1962, it settled on its current name, Best Picture.
When the award was first issued, it was bestowed on the production company behind the film, not an individual. The frequency with which the name changed also tells me that they weren’t sure what the prestigious category represented, so my understanding of what Best Picture represents might be a bit murky as well.
Who Gets Rewarded and Who Gets Left Behind, Today and in the Future?
Today, a nominated film’s producers are recognized. Well, sometimes they are.
To me, this represents not the final product, but the effort it took to get the final product budgeted, financed and distributed. Oftentimes, the smaller, independently financed films struggle to find footing because they are working with a smaller budget than bigger, tentpole films. Often, I hear “well, the smaller films wouldn’t get made if the tentpole films didn’t make money.”
I understand that thought process, but it seems like a number of the films that are nominated are smaller films that eventually get picked up by a studio rather than a studio financing the picture outright. Moonlight is the best example from recent times. The film found its producers at Telluride, but A24 financed the film, its first. The budget is purported to be between $1 million to $4 million and is the second lowest grossing Best Picture winner, behind The Hurt Locker.
With the new category, could films like Black Panther or a future Inception win Best Picture leaving a future Moonlight as a Popular Film? History says no.
I genuinely think this is a lot of hot air between the Academy, who is trying to find an audience and a Multimedia company, Disney looking to ensure a high ad spend during future Oscars telecasts. Disney is underestimating their audience and the Academy is grasping at straws trying to drive more viewers.
With a three hour run time, the Oscars telecast is more about keeping the mood light then it has been about the movies and the people.
One of the other rules introduced the other day aimed at keeping the telecast shrunk to three hours. To accomplish this, the “below the line” nominations (editing, sound design, etc.) would be taped during commercial breaks and then edited into the telecast later on, giving the more prestigious awards time to thank their “Aunt Fanny from Biloxi.” Because the Academy did not define which awards would be subject to this editing technique, reactions have been all over the board, reflecting the shortsightedness of the Academy’s new rules.
Conclusion: Oscar, Our Misguided Guide
No rule can change the films that appeal to the Academy member’s hearts and minds, or ours. No more than our hearts and minds can be changed to appreciate the smaller, more intimate works of art.
It took my taking a break from the “West Coast Stock Exchange” for a year or two to find my path. That’s why I’m writing about it now.
Oscar helps us find our way. The journey of his discovery of the most worthy films has been filled with horse manure, which has been repeatedly stomped on. His history reminds us that there is room for the bigger tentpoles alongside the smaller fare and the recognition that goes with it. He has been lost in the midst of his prestige, creating and then ultimately defeating his own rules.
Oscar should look in the mirror before making another change that further tarnishes his image.