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The Oscars’ connection to the commercial side of Hollywood has long been tenuous, with blockbusters rarely lining up with the Best Picture nominees. But there’s growing unrest among a crucial segment of movie production professionals over the lack of an award for what they consider to be their valuable contributions to the art and business of cinema.
“I don’t think there is a single good argument against stunt professionals at the Oscars,” director Chad Stahelski told TheWrap. His action-packed “John Wick: Chapter 4” has topped $270 million at the worldwide box office to become Hollywood’s biggest R-rated grosser since Sony’s pre-pandemic “Bad Boys for Life.”
Even lights and cameras get a nod from the Academy. So where’s the award for action? That’s the question the people behind the stunts that pack theaters are increasingly asking.
If there’s a year to institute Best Action, 2023 might be it. Besides “John Wick 4,” there’s Paramount’s “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part I,” Universal’s “Fast X” and Disney’s “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.” For an industry kept commercially alive by stunt-heavy action-adventure films, proponents of a Best Action award feel like these movies will make their work increasingly hard to ignore.
“You almost can’t believe it doesn’t exist,” screenwriter Zack Stentz (“X-Men: First Class,” “Thor”) told TheWrap, “It’s such a no-brainer.”
Missing in Best Action
Action-packed movies get Oscars, of course, like the latest Best Picture winner “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” That A24 smash stars Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan — who also won Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor — and they both did most of their own stunts.
“We are as much a part of capturing the audiences’ heart as any other artist involved in the process,” said stunt driver-turned-motocross champion Zandara Kennedy.
“It feels like action cinema is in a place where it’s moved into having real action auteurs,” said journalist Brandon Streussnig, who worked with film critic Bilge Ebiri to create this year’s exhaustive Stunt Awards for Vulture. “Directors like Stahelski or actor-producers like Tom Cruise are being given full freedom to craft astonishing stunt work at the highest level.”
Advocates are hoping for more direct recognition for all the work that goes into eye-catching, jaw-dropping stunts, whether or not a star is involved in executing them.
“There is a genuine hurt wrapping productions knowing every department on the shoot has the potential to be rewarded by industry peers but them,” Streussnig said.
Little time for change
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently established a new Production and Technology branch, which grants membership to a broad category of stunt-related roles, including stunt coordinators, movement directors, and heads of visual effects production. Those workers previously belonged to the Academy as members-at-large. (The new branch only elects one governor to the Academy board, while the other 17 branches elect three governors, which doesn’t suggest it’s viewed with equal status.)
The existence of a branch doesn’t correspond to the creation of a new award category, though members of a branch typically vote on a specialized award if it exists. Moreover, there isn’t much time.
The Academy’s Board of Governors meets at the end of April to make its annual review of Oscar rules. Barring that, the next and last shot for inclusion in the 96th Academy Awards would be in August, when a newly elected board, which would include the new branch’s single governor, meets. That means a narrow window for the stunt lobby to make its case. The Academy didn’t respond to TheWrap’s requests for comment.
And the Oscar for Longest Awards Program goes to …
The arguments against a new category are less about stuntwork and more about the Oscars, insiders and other experts told TheWrap. First of all, the Academy doesn’t want to make a long show run even longer. A new award also inevitably increases pressure for other categories, like, say, Best Casting.
There’s a concern in some circles that the existence of a Best Action category might prompt increasingly dangerous on-set stunt work as ambitious types push for the award. Streussnig said several filmmakers expressed this concern when he approached them about Vulture’s plans for awarding movie stunts.
Stunt experts pointed out that the Screen Actors Guild has awarded stunt performances in TV and films for 15 years without an uptick in on-set accidents.
There’s also a lack of clarity on who should get an award for a given stunt. “Do you nominate the individual doing the stunt, like the guy or woman that does the high fall?” Stahelski asked. “Is it about the gag, the sequence or the inventiveness?”
Kennedy thinks it’s most likely that the award would go to the head of the department, as with other awards. But the complex nature of stunt work still leaves questions. Unless a very specific sequence is up for consideration, would a trophy go to the head of the vehicle sequences, the head of the fight choreography or the person deemed in charge of a specific stunt or fight sequence? Streussnig and others, however, think that experienced professionals can figure this out.
A boost for Oscars ratings?
As with other linear broadcasts, the Academy Awards have seen a declining audience, dropping from over 40 million in 2010 to 18.8 million in 2023. The length of the Oscars is a perennial critique for why more don’t watch it. Stentz argued that a stunt category might increase audience interest: “No one is getting up to go to the bathroom when they are playing five of the best stunts of the year.”
There is constant discussion about whether nominating popular films boosts Oscar ratings. The 1998 telecast ran 249 minutes and netted 55.2 million viewers, the second-biggest audience ever for the show, with “Titanic” winning Best Picture. Stentz said a stunts category would let the show acknowledge big blockbuster movies “in a non-patronizing way.”
You don’t need a $200 million budget to have a jaw-dropping action sequence: “Everything Everywhere” could have added to its Oscars collection if an action category had existed. Or the Oscar might have gone to “Top Gun: Maverick” or “Avatar: The Way of Water.” All three of those were critically acclaimed blockbusters and ended up nominated for Best Picture partially on the strength of their action sequences.
Art or commerce?
Where the stunt advocates’ arguments get muddled is whether award recognition for their work is about artistry or business. In the end, like many parts of the movie business, it’s a bit of both.
“We get the most complicated problems to solve,” declared Kennedy, “figuring out how to make a scene emotional, exciting, shocking and safe while not revealing that the cast is being doubled.”
Still, working their way into the Oscars may be too complicated a problem to solve this year, given the one-person representation of the new production branch on the Academy’s board, unless advocates can make a persuasive argument that a stunt award will boost the all-important broadcast ratings.
In the meantime, stunt professionals will have to content themselves with the SAG Stunt Ensemble category, or less formal nods like Vulture’s awards.
Kennedy doesn’t believe that the Academy will change its tune “unless there’s a consequence to not doing it.” Until then, she said, stunt professionals “will still take their money and do our jobs and entertain the moviegoers.”
Drew Taylor contributed to this article.