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Will Smith Isn’t the Only Oscars Mess the Academy Needs to Clean Up

This year’s Oscar show left the Academy with a lot of other troubling issues that were put on hold by The Slap

AWARDS BEAT

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences passed judgment on Will Smith last Friday, offering a decision and a mea culpa in an attempt to put to rest the mess that dominated the 94th Academy Awards on March 27.

But make no mistake, the AMPAS Board of Governors has a lot more work to do and a lot more messes to clean up.

The 54-member Board of Governors was originally going to deal with Smith’s fate at its previously scheduled April 18 board meeting, an annual post-Oscars gathering at which the board typically reviews the last Oscar show and decides on rule changes for the upcoming year. But with the Academy under fire for not acting quickly enough on The Slap, it moved the meeting to April 8 and discarded everything else that would have been on the agenda.

All of that, the Academy says, will be dealt with at a later date. The original April 18 meeting, meanwhile, is canceled.

But if Smith had done nothing but sit quietly in his seat for the entire show, the last Oscars would still have raised issues that are in dire need of addressing by Academy leadership. Here are some of the questions the group needs to handle, before shorthand on a troubling show gets reduced to “the show that had Will Smith and got better ratings.”

1. Do Academy CEO Dawn Hudson and President David Rubin need to be held responsible?
Oscar show producer Will Packer may have told Smith that Chris Rock wanted him to stay, but that was neither Packer nor Rock’s call (and anyway, Rock’s camp says he didn’t say anything beyond his desire not to file a police report). Hudson and Rubin were in the Dolby Theatre and could have acted far more decisively than they did when they reportedly raised the issue of Smith leaving with the actor’s publicist rather than with the star directly. And then there was the matter of the conflicting stories that came out in the days after the incident, and the video meeting that Rubin and Hudson had with Smith the day before the initial governors board meeting.

The final Academy statement took responsibility for not acting quickly or decisively enough, but it also tried to soften that responsibility by saying the organization was “unprepared for the unprecedented.” (You could say the same about the Academy’s accountants when they messed up the Best Picture envelope five years ago, but they still had to take the fall.) As much as the board members want to put the slap in the rearview member, demanding some accountability could be a stronger ending.

The tricky thing is that Academy presidents only serve one-year terms that expire in August, so Rubin only has a couple of months left. In addition, term limits will force Rubin off the Board of Governors this summer (one of a record 10 incumbent governors who are falling prey to tightened term limits.) He’ll will be out of office soon and cannot run for re-election.

As for Hudson, she has announced that she will not seek another term after her contract expires in May 2023, but that leaves a full year in a tenure that has run through a stormy and divisive time for the Oscars.  

2. Will the experiment of handing out Oscars in eight categories before the live broadcast ever be repeated?
When Hollywood guilds, filmmakers and Oscar watchers slammed the plan before the show, the Academy and producer Will Packer responded by saying that we all needed to wait and see how seamless and respectable these pretaped awards would be.

But on Oscar night, it was clear the experiment was a failure. As everyone had feared, it clearly created a second-class group of categories – and despite the Academy sometimes saying that the speeches themselves would not be edited, they were, in a way that often felt jarring and disrespectful. (If you’re going to edit a winner’s speech by cluelessly removing the punchline to one of his jokes, it’s probably not a good idea to do it to the winner of Best Film Editing, unless you want him to call you out for your shoddy edit when he goes to the press room, as “Dune” editor Joe Walker did.)

And on a basic level, it simply didn’t work. The whole idea of the move was to trim the show so that it could come in at a clean three hours. Instead, the broadcast ran over by a full 40 minutes, more than 20 minutes longer than last year’s.   

3. And while we’re on the subject of length: Should the Academy keep chasing the idea of a three-hour telecast, or is it a silly pipe dream?
You can do an Oscar show in three hours if you present all the awards and keep the additional material – monologues, skits, songs, film clips – to a minimum. You really can’t do it in three hours if you want comedy and music and clips. The late Gil Cates, who produced the show 14 times, 11 of them drawing more than 40 million viewers, once bemoaned to me the fact that Oscar producers were always under pressure to make the show shorter and more entertaining – “but the things that make it entertaining are also the things that will make it long.”

This looks like a case of ABC exerting more and more influence over a show for which they pay the Academy more than 90% of its annual operating income, giving the network enormous clout — at least for the remaining six years on a deal that runs through 2028, though it has typically been renewed long before its expiration date gets very close. Is the Academy board OK with the network turning their show into the Grammys (a handful of awards presented on the air, the rest at a different ceremony), when one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Oscars is that it’s the one big show that doesn’t do some version of that?

And here’s a related question to consider: If it’s so important to ABC and to the Academy that the show ends before midnight on the East Coast, after which they say the ratings go down, then how about trimming that awful preshow from 90 minutes to 60 minutes and starting the big show at 8:30 instead of 9:00 ET?

4. Does the board need to pass a ban on Twitter polls?
The other big innovation, you may remember, were the polls, conducted on Twitter, that asked fans to pick their favorite movie of 2021 and their favorite “cheer moment” from any film ever. If moving the eight categories was a failure, this was an outright disaster. Perhaps envisioned as a way to suck up to the year’s one true blockbuster, “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the online contest turned into a war between Camila Cabelo fans (“Cinderella”) and tech-savvy malcontents who stood up for those they felt had been wronged: Zack Snyder (“Justice League” and “Army of the Dead”) and Johnny Depp (for the almost completely unseen “Minamata,” which somehow made the top 5 for 2021). In the end, Snyder stans carried both categories and the Academy looked completely foolish.

The Board of Governors shouldn’t have to weigh in and publicly say “Don’t do it again,” but maybe they could make their point privately.

5. Shouldn’t the Academy Awards show more respect for the movies it is designed to honor?
Individual branches have complained in the past about comedic Oscar-show bits that disrespect the nominees: The Sound Branch, for example, is notoriously protective of its nominees. But no Oscar show has gone quite as far as this year’s did in dismissing the movies that were nominated and playing up ones that weren’t.

It may be time, perhaps, for the board to send a message about dismissive remarks like Wanda Sykes saying she’d watched “The Power of the Dog” three times and was “halfway through it” (one presumes that was supposed to be a joke about it being a slow and difficult movie rather than a long one, since it was the third-shortest of the 10 Best Picture nominees); or three Disney princesses acting as if the animated-feature category was entirely the province of kids’ movies that parents had to endure, over and over (news, no doubt, to “Flee,” the animated documentary about a gay Afghan refugee); or Chris Rock – who, granted, had just been slapped across the face – announcing that the winners for “Summer of Soul” were “Questlove and four white guys” (there were three other guys, not four, and only two of them were white).  

I’m not saying the nominated films should be off-limits to jokes – but if the Oscars aren’t proud of the nominees the voters have chosen, why the hell should they expect viewers to be interested in them?

6. Will the Academy take a stand on theatrical vs. streaming?
Will Smith may have turned the Oscars into must-see TV (or, at least, must-talk-about TV), but there’s no question that some of the show’s ratings problems have been due to the fact that the Academy Awards just don’t seem to be as much of an event as they used to. And a big reason for that is that moviegoing isn’t as much of an event, either – particularly during the pandemic, when theatrical exhibition took a huge hit and studios rushed to put almost everything on streaming services.

The Academy, which had initially pushed back (or at least talked about pushing back) when the streamers invaded the movie business, relaxed its eligibility rules during the pandemic in 2020, when theatrical distribution had all but stopped. The group tightened them in 2021, but only slightly. It’s now time to decide whether to further tighten eligibility to stand up for theatrical and try to make moviegoing (and by extension the Oscars) a bigger deal again, or to surrender to the blurred lines that dominate today’s entertainment landscape.

At any rate, there’s plenty to discuss and plenty of messes for the Board of Governors to look into, whenever they get to meet about something other than Will Smith.

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