The reason behind the decisions made by the Academy’s Board of Governors to shorten the Oscars ceremony and salute more commercial films is a simple one: They had to do something.
The Academy was facing a show that was drawing fewer viewers every year, setting a record low this past March. And it was under growing pressure from ABC, which has broadcast the ceremony for decades, to reverse the troubling trend even though few TV shows draw as many viewers as they used to.
AMPAS was also staring at a loss of revenue at a time when it needs all the money it can get, both to service a rapidly expanding and increasingly international membership and to complete its hugely expensive Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.
So it clearly felt as if it had to do something — even if today’s announcement raises more questions than it answers and has the potential to alienate a good number of Academy members as it grasps for viewers at the expense of what the Oscars once tried to be.
For instance: What will it take to qualify for the new award, which an Academy email describes as “outstanding achievement in popular film?” A gross of more than, say, $100 million?
And for that matter, what is the title of the category going to be? Best Popular Film? Wouldn’t that be an insult to other films that are also popular, just not to as big an audience?
And if you create a de facto Best Picture category only open to some films, you have to allow those films to also compete in the real Best Picture category, or you’ll weaken your marquee award.
But what if, say, the new category had been instituted last year, and the nominees had included “Wonder Woman” and “Beauty and the Beast” and “Logan” and “It” — but they had lost to “Dunkirk” or “Get Out,” both of which had real Best Picture nominations and $100 million-plus grosses? Would that have defeated the purpose of the new category?
If you look at recent years, the Best Picture category has always had at least one $100 million movie: “Dunkirk” and “Get Out” last year; “Hidden Figures,” “La La Land” and “Arrival” in 2016; “The Martian,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Revenant” in 2015; “American Sniper” in 2014; “Gravity,” “American Hustle,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Captain Phillips” in 2013.
Movies like that will definitely be eligible in both categories, an Academy spokesperson said in a statement on Wednesday:
“While the details for a popular film category are still being finalized, a single film is eligible for an Oscar in both categories– Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film and the Academy Award for Best Picture. The new category will be introduced this coming year, at the 91st Oscars. In creating this award, the Board of Governors supports broad-based consideration of excellence in all films.”
Of course, that raises another question: If there’s a separate category for mass-appeal films like “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman,” will it actually hurt their chances to get Best Picture nominations? Since the creation of the Best Animated Feature category, only two animated films have been nominated for Best Picture, and those two — “Up” and “Toy Story 3” — came in the two years with a guaranteed 10 best-pic nominees.
And while we’re at it, if you’re creating this new category to include big popular films, which was sort of the point of expanding the Best Picture category back in 2009, are you going to let the Best Picture category go back to five nominees? Or is “the more the merrier” the new AMPAS motto?
The scary thing is that for the first time, the Academy seems ready to make popularity a qualifying factor in a category’s nominations, after spending 90-plus years at least pretending that it’s all about the artistry.
That is a dangerous step onto a slippery slope, and one that puts one of the Academy’s most precious qualities — credibility — at stake. It feels like pandering, and it will be up to the Academy to change that perception as quickly as possible.
As for the other major change, moving some of the awards into commercial breaks, that reeks of desperation, too — and it has the potential to tick off an awful lot of Academy members and filmmakers.
It’s bad enough that the Broadcast Film Critics’ Association, an organization of writers, routinely gives out its screenplay honors at the Critics’ Choice Awards off the air. The Academy is an organization of actors, producers, directors, makeup artists, sound editors, visual effects artists, cinematographers, composers and designers, among others — and to give out awards off the air is to publicly acknowledge a hierarchy of awards that AMPAS has always tried to deny.
Unless the off-the-air categories are chosen at random (fat chance), this could lead to hurt feelings and worse — and the Board of Governors meeting at which the details are voted on could set new standards for contentiousness.
(Having seen countless Oscar rehearsals that included reps from the Sound Branch who showed up to make sure their categories weren’t being disrespected, I wouldn’t want to be the one to break it to that bunch that they’re getting their Oscars during a commercial.)
And if the goal is to shorten the Oscar ceremony by all possible means, what will that mean for the Best Original Song performances, which in past years have supplied some of the entertainment highlights of the show? It’s hard to imagine other branches being on board with the song category getting 15 minutes of airtime while they’re shuffled off to the commercial breaks.
But maybe everybody will swallow hard and get with the program. Maybe “Black Panther” and “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” will get big nominations and everybody will be happy. Maybe ratings will improve because of that.
Or maybe they’ll seem desperate and it won’t do a thing to improve the ratings.
At this point, the Academy’s actions have given us far more questions than answers — but they had to do something.