The Academy’s Board of Governors introduced four ideas to remake the Oscar show
Streets were closed, scaffolding was up and rolls of red carpet were sitting on Hollywood Boulevard on Wednesday afternoon, as workers prepared for the arrival of a whole lot of movie stars in four-days time. But as I walked around and eyed the preparations for the 92nd Academy Awards, one thing was immediately obvious: By Wednesday of Oscar week, they’re usually farther along than this.
But then, is anybody surprised that things are coming together later than usual? This is the year of the Academy Awards on Feb. 9, the earliest Oscars ever. This is the year when everything feels rushed, when five awards shows were crammed into one night on Jan. 25, when voters struggled to find time to watch the eligible movies and came up with a slate of films in which 41 of the nominations were split between only four movies.
It is a year whose truncated schedule was hatched during a board meeting that produced the Great Oscars Makeover of 2018 , which turned out to not be so great after all. Much more on that meeting in a minute — but first, can we just look at what it did on Saturday evening, when the Writers Guild of America handed out its annual awards?
Because the WGA, West and the WGA, East hold simultaneous ceremonies in L.A. and New York, and because the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) was handing out its own awards in London on Sunday, almost all the film nominees headed to the New York WGA ceremony, which put them that much closer to London.
In addition, the WGA gave the nominees more time to get to the U.K. by scheduling the Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay as the first two awards, rather than using them as the usual grand finale. With the L.A. and N.Y. shows running on slightly different timelines, it turned out that the two big categories had already been handed out by the WGA, East before the WGA, West’s host, Ana Gasteyer, had even completed her opening monologue.
And the film winners and nominees headed to London as the shows were going on, as this Tweet by adapted-screenplay winner Taika Waititi of his pal, original-screenplay winner Bong Joon Ho, shows:
— Taika Waititi (@TaikaWaititi) February 2, 2020
So yes, this is a frantic, messy awards season for almost everybody. We’ll all be happy to be done with it a week from now, but we’re pretty fried now — and, perhaps, grateful that next year the Academy has opted to go back to the usual timetable, with the awards in late February.
Will they ever go back to the shorter schedule? “Never say never,” one person close to the Academy said to me this week. At the Oscar Nominees Luncheon on Jan. 27, an event that was moved to a different location because of the truncated schedule, one member of the Board of Governors admitted to me that the board had gotten so much pushback on the earlier date that it was unlikely to happen again.
So this week, in particular, I can’t help but think back to the board meeting of August 7, 2018, which has to go down as one of the least productive meetings ever, unless you’re talking about the category of “lessons learned.”
It was the night that produced that Great Oscars Makeover, except that none of the makeover ideas actually worked.
At that meeting, under extreme pressure from ABC to do something to increase the steadily declining ratings of the Oscar show, the board agreed to an Oscar overhaul that included four significant changes:
1. The institution of what came to be dubbed the Popcorn Oscar, a new award that would be given out for “achievement in popular film,” whatever that means.
2. The moving of some awards into the commercial breaks on the Oscar telecast, after which their presentations would be edited and placed back into the show but would take up less time.
3. A guarantee of a three-hour show, a mark the Oscars hadn’t hit since the early ’70s.
4. The rescheduling of the 2020 show from its planned Feb. 23 date to Feb. 9, the earliest ever.
Now let’s see how those worked out, shall we?
The Popular Oscar
When this new category was announced, the Academy was very light on details about how a film would qualify and what “popular” actually meant. The details, they said, would come later, even though they also promised that the category would be in place for the Oscars that were only six months away.
A month later, after a big outcry and much confusion, the Academy announced that the new category required further study and would not be given out in 2019 after all. The further study may have taken place, but AMPAS has yet to bring up the idea of a popular Oscar again.
Awards in the commercials
This idea lasted several months longer than the popular Oscar. In fact, it got all the way to the point where the Academy revealed that the categories that would be handed out during commercial breaks would be Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Live Action Short Film.
AMPAS President John Bailey, himself a member of the Cinematographers Branch, made the announcement in an email to members on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019, less than two weeks before the Oscars. The outcry from inside and outside the film industry was immediate and loud; the Academy stuck to its guns for all of three days, then gave in and killed the plan that Friday.
A three-hour show
If you go by IMDb, which lists the running time of the 2019 show as 2 hours and 36 minutes, this idea worked brilliantly. In real life, though, the show ran 3 hours and 23 minutes.
We don’t know how long this year’s show will be. At the Nominees Luncheon on Jan. 27, producers Lynette Howell Taylor and Stephanie Allain, in their remarks urging winners to keep their speeches short, said, “We signed a contract to deliver a three-hour show.” But an Academy spokesperson said that was a joke and there is no such contract.
And with performances of all five nominated songs, plus two other musical performers who’ve been announced so far, it’s safe to say that the 92nd Academy Awards, like every other show for the last 40-odd years, will be longer than three hours.
The earlier date
The rationale behind moving the Oscars up by two weeks was that it would increase the ratings by putting less time between the release of the nominated films and the date of the show. A shorter window, went the reasoning, would mean more excitement and less of a sense that we’d already seen these people winning awards over and over by the time the Oscars rolled around.
Of course, all the other shows just moved earlier, too, and by the time the Oscars have rolled around we have seen Joaquin Phoenix and Renee Zellweger and Brad Pitt and Laura Dern winning awards over and over.
The shorter schedule hasn’t worked to make the Oscars seem more vital, and the ratings will probably drop from last year because this year’s contenders don’t include “Black Panther” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star Is Born,” the three $200-million-plus films that helped boost last year’s ratings.
That makes the August 2018 board meeting 0-for-4 on Oscars makeover ideas (though I’m sure they decided some other things that night that did work out).
And as I walked around the red-carpet-to-be on Wednesday afternoon, it struck me that those 54 governors probably could have found a better way to spend their evening those 18 months ago.