Oscar Battle Over Category Move Rages On – And Critics Are Already Bracing for Next Year’s Fight

“It’s not about this year anymore — it’s about keeping them from doing it again,” a resigned Guillermo del Toro says

Oscar statuettes
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Film industry notables are continuing to pressure the Academy and the Oscar show producers over the recently announced plan to hand out awards in eight categories before the live telecast of this year’s Academy Awards begins.

But some critics of the plan, which will bestow awards in the Dolby Theatre during the Oscar preshow and then edit those presentations into the live telecast, are looking beyond this year to what could be the real battle for the show’s future.

“I’ve talked about it publicly and I’ve talked to people at the Academy about it privately, and I don’t think anything’s going to change,” “Nightmare Alley” director Guillermo del Toro told TheWrap this week. “At this point, It’s not about this year anymore. It’s about keeping them from doing it again.”

Reps for the Academy have pledged that every nominee will be mentioned, every winner will get a moment on the Dolby Theatre stage and the home audience will hardly know the difference between the categories handed out during the live telecast and the ones edited into that telecast.

Despite the Academy’s assurances, though, many Academy members have complained that the pomp around those eight awards will be very different since the Oscar red carpet will still be in full swing and the auditorium less than full. The Academy has said that nominees and stars will be given staggered times to enter during the preshow, so some will be in the room during those awards presentations. Still, as Oscar-winner Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men”) pointed out to TheWrap, the early winners are likely to look into the first few rows of the Dolby and see a larger-than-usual contingent of seat fillers along with only a portion of the staggering array of stars they’d see during the televised show.

“It’s insane to go up on that stage and look into the audience,” Bardem said. “It’s insane. And everybody who wins deserves that experience. It won’t be the same if it’s seat fillers.”

Other stars are adjusting their plans because of the Academy’s machinations. Jessica Chastain, a Best Actress nominee for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” told TheWrap she is determined to be inside for the other category in which her film is nominated, Best Makeup and Hairstyling. “All I can say is that I’m going to be sitting in that audience when their award is announced,” she said. “If that means I don’t do the red carpet, fine. A lot of attention goes to the actors, and people need to understand that the performance is more than one person.”

Del Toro and 74 other film professionals signed a letter sent to Academy President David Rubin on Wednesday urging Rubin and the Academy’s Awards Committee “in the strongest possible terms” to reverse the decision. The missive was signed by 15 Oscar winners and two producers, Joe Roth and Lili Fini Zanuck, who have themselves produced the Oscar show. And it included more than 50 composers, among them John Williams, who has five Oscars and 52 nominations, the most of any living person.

“To diminish any of these individual categories in the pursuit of ratings and short-term profits does irreparable damage to the Academy’s standing as impartial arbiters and responsible stewards of our industry’s most important awards,” the letter read in part. “Seeking new audiences by making the telecast more entertaining is a laudable and important goal, but this cannot be achieved by demeaning the very crafts that, in their most outstanding expressions, make the art of filmmaking worthy of celebration.”

This is not the first time the Academy has attempted such a move. When a similar plan was approved by the AMPAS Board of Governors in 2018 and then announced in greater detail less than two weeks before the Oscar ceremony in 2019, the outcry was so strong that within four days the Academy had reversed the plan and agreed to hand out all the awards live and on the air.

This year, critics of the plan — which affects Best Film Editing, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Sound and the three short-film categories — are still holding out hope that they can pressure the Academy into changing its mind once more.

But unlike in 2019, the Academy seems distinctly disinclined to change course. (A rep for the Academy not respond to TheWrap’s request for a comment.) The organization is under enormous pressure from ABC, which pays the Academy the vast majority of its operating income for the rights to the show despite steadily declining viewership. Last year’s pandemic-altered ceremony drew just 10.4 million viewers — less than half of the previous year’s record low.

In recent days, the battleground has shifted as critics focus on a line from the email that Academy President David Rubin sent to members when the change was announced: “Moving forward, we will assess this change and will continue to look for additional ways to make the show more entertaining and more thrilling for all involved, inside the Dolby Theatre and watching from home.”

“That’s the key,” one nominee said. “We have to keep up the pressure this year – but if that doesn’t work, we’ll have to put up with it and then try to stop it going forward.”

Then again, Lance Robertson (aka DJ LANCE Rock), hinted at one radical way to change the Academy’s mind. While hosting last Saturday’s ACE-Eddie Awards, the show put on by the American Cinema Editors, he mentioned the Oscar plan to edit the pre-telecast speeches into the show and then asked, “Who are they gonna get to cut that?”

Barring a strike by Oscar editors and sound mixers, though, we’re looking at a year in which the Academy will get to try out its new plan. And then it’ll be time for Round 2 of this heavyweight bout.