Watching the debate rage over the Best Popular Film category for the past month has been almost as frustrating as watching the 2016 election from the Democratic side. Just as I could never understand why the Bernie Sanders movement didn’t understand what happens when you divide the Democratic Party, it’s hard for me to fathom how people in Hollywood, and the bloggers and critics who cover the Oscars don’t understand why fewer and fewer moviegoers outside the bubble care about “Oscar movies” anymore. And thus, the Oscars themselves.
Sure, in 2018 a three hour telecast of people getting on stage and making speeches, winning awards for movies you never saw, is a hard sell anyway. Perhaps we’ve come too far now to try to undo the path the Oscars have chosen. I guess what surprises me most is how many people – almost all of them – who cover this race do not see it as it is, but still see it preserved in amber as it once was. Times have changed. The Oscars have changed. The way the Oscars are covered has changed. The way people see movies has changed. Whole generations have risen in the meantime – generations that are much more tuned into Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Netflix and Youtube than they ever will be with the old model of movies being released, critics reviewing them and Oscar voters voting on them. Whatever the Oscars used to represent to most people, they no longer do. They are a shimmering relic of a bygone era. They are trying to change but they can’t change what they fundamentally are.
The biggest tragedy was never going to be the popular film category, but of course you could never tell the angriest that. No, the real tragedy was the shunting of awards off the main program. The thinking is, they aren’t even interested in the movies being awarded, why would they be interested in shorts, or documentaries or foreign language films? These awards are the best things the Oscars do. They will be sacrificed in hopes that people will watch a two hour show – a quick and dirty telecast to give out statues and make some money for the Academy foundation in the meantime. It’s a fix that might help them survive a little longer.
“You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”
Here are there primary reasons why things are the way they are:
1) The date change. When the Academy chose to move their show up one month earlier, it pushed every other measure of movie excellence into an impossibly tight time frame. All of the guild awards had to rush to judgment, and even the earliest bellwether’s like the NBR and New York Film Critics pushed their own announcements to the end of November — a month before many movies even had their theatrical premieres.
2) Hollywood started making tentpoles and relying on them for their bottom lines. For all the flak taken by the new deep-pocket creators, Netflix and Amazon became the last refuge, along with independent productions, for the kinds of movies Oscar voters have traditionally liked.
3) For the past two decades Bloggers and publicists play an ever more important role in hand-picking the selections for the Academy to choose from, like they’re wheeling a dessert tray in front of finicky diners — Do they want cake or ice cream? Cake, because they had ice cream last year. It is all decided by a few people in private screening rooms, where Oscar movies are screened in every sense of the word. They start the pile. People like me fortify the pile. And before long, there is only the pile – and that pile is built on screeners and screenings by people who saw them for free. Not by the public, not by the people ostensibly movies are FOR in the first place. Screened and sifted. Some flexibility and surprises manage to survive this process there, but very little and never enough.
4) Good ol’ fashioned human evolution. Life is change. Coming on the 90th year of the Oscars, we’re almost at 100. There is no question they will continue, but have they held their place in American culture? No. Why, because they don’t connect to it in any way anymore. This has been great in some ways. Never before in Oscar history have they been so aligned with Sight & Sound. I can’t complain about the films they choose, for the most part, give or take here or there because they align with my specific tastes. I know because I help build the pile so why wouldn’t they? The question is, can this oasis survive? Should it survive? What is its purpose if we already have film critics awards?
5) Television as such is an old model. The new model is programming on demand, not waiting to watch something live. Well, football is doing just fine. Trump TV has never been more popular but if the Oscars are a live contest you have to care about that contest. You have to be invested in who wins. I attend the Oscars every year and I can tell you that even the people who attend aren’t invested in who wins. I usually stand at the monitor in the bar and watch to see who wins Sound Editing. No one else even bothers to look up. Much of TV is reality programming crap like The Bachelor. Everyone watches that show eager to see how it turns out. Who is Frat Boy John going to pick this time? What phony version of love are they going to sell us today? Did she “let down her walls” fast enough? Did he say “I love you” fast enough? American culture is invested in The Bachelor like that is the most important dramatic event in their lifetimes. How do the Oscars – all buttoned up in Top Hat, White Tie and Tails, compete with that? How can the Oscars be tawdry again? They are so far from tawdry now. They are respectable, dignified, inclusive, and living inside that bubble of liberal purity the films themselves must adhere to that code. Well, on The Bachelor sloppy drunks rule the day. So maybe, just maybe, the Oscars are boring now? Not to me. Never to me but…
It used to be that a movie like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho could get roasted by the critics who missed the point, but rescued by a savvy public who got it – they knew what they wanted to see. Hitch took a risk that paid off. Because of its success, and only its success, Hitch got one of his rare Best Director nominations even if his masterpiece didn’t make the Best Picture cut. Jaws was the same way. Were it not for the massive public support of that film — if its acclaim had been wholly dependent upon critics alone? It never would have gotten in. If movies and the film industry and the Oscar industry is to survive there has to be a connection between the industry and the public.
What this moment should teach the Academy, and those who cover and care the Oscars, is that they really need to do some serious soul searching about who they are and what they’re meant to be. If the movies they honor are now completely in the hands of film critics — which they never used to be — heck, put the telecast on Filmstruck and be done with it. They can be a niche event like the Spirit Awards, no financial constraints in sight, doesn’t matter who has seen the movies.
What’s the solution? Well it isn’t to do nothing. The awards race has been refined into a well-oiled machine. I know because I’m part of it. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, day in and day out. I could do it in my sleep. I know as well as anyone that the system desperately needs shaking up, and fast, before it reaches the point where the Oscars have stopped mattering. Kudos to the Academy when they were urged (to put it gently) to take a long hard look at themselves in 2015 when all 20 acting nominees were white. They took urgent and effective measures to rectify that embarrassing situation. But they still haven’t found a way to address to address the chasm that has widened between Oscar-friendly films and some of the equally artistic movies that don’t fit the old mold.
I for one loved the idea that we would have a chance to consider imaginative well-made movies like Creed 2 or Crazy Rich Asians or Black Panther for their own crowd-pleasing prize. I love the idea that maybe this would inspire studios would try to make better “popular” movies if they knew they would no longer be excluded.
I wish I had a solution. I don’t. All I know is that for the past four weeks I’ve loved that the Academy was willing to shake things up even a little. I thought it took guts (even if it was a bluff.) I’m sorry the world screamed “No!” at their effort, and made them pull the plug.
From its inception 90 years ago, the Oscars were always many things at once — an awards event to reward high achievements in film, a brilliant marketing tool that paid off in art and commerce, and later, when it became possible to broadcast the celebration to the masses, an annual ritual was born that so many of us have watched with excitement all our lives.
Why did people want to watch? Because they had seen the movies. They had cast their own votes at the ticket box, so they were quite literally invested in seeing their favorites be rewarded. They watched because they wanted to see glamour and movie stars – and yes, tawdry sloppy drunks. They knew the movies, they knew the stars, and even less initiated got to know the directors and other creative geniuses.
In return, Hollywood cared about the people who went to see those movies, and made sure to take their support into consideration. Moviemakers and moviegoers were involved together. But that mutual respect has faded. The rift that’s been torn seems to get deeper every year — and judging by the reaction of those who objected to the Academy’s proposal, not enough people who still care about the Oscars seem to care enough to seek ways to keep them relevant.
I predict the Oscars will jump a little in ratings and people like Kyle Buchanan and Mark Harris will pat themselves on the back and say “see, it was much ado about nothing.” But if you’re looking closely and paying attention you’ll know it wasn’t and isn’t.
Two academy board members told me that Laura Dern was among the most adamant about the “popular” Oscar rollback and that Mr. Blockbuster — Spielberg — also expressed discomfort. Those details added here + Dawn Hudson interview https://t.co/dHTI6fBuvL
— Brooks Barnes (@brooksbarnesNYT) September 6, 2018
And Kyle Buchanan, god bless him, tries really hard to make this a have your cake and eat it too moment. Sure, they’re not going to let this one go — just to prove a point that they didn’t just help screw Ryan Coogler out of an Oscar — and perhaps the pressure will finally squeeze Black Panther through. If so, that would be great for the movie. There are going to be a lot of movies in the race, however, and Academy voters will only have five slots to name the best of the year.
— Brooks Barnes (@brooksbarnesNYT) September 6, 2018