The reason it’s so easy to point a finger on Twitter and send an angry swarm out to destroy one person in the Oscar race is that most people in the business care about publicity. They care about what the public at large thinks about them. That makes the Oscar race suddenly land mine territory as we head into yet another season, where high profile tweeters-cum-columnists need a fresh piece of meat to chew on for a day and off we all go, outrage after outrage, as though any of it matters, as though any of it is going to change anything for anyone. It makes people feel powerful for about five minutes. But then? The world churns on, same as it always did. Donald Trump is still President. We’re still barreling towards an unprecedented greenhouse effect, with glaciers melting at a rate not seen for 800,000 years. It doesn’t matter how many sexual predators we get fired, or how many hashtags we retweet — crimes against women globally will continue, just as mass shootings will continue. Our daily reality in the Oscar race now, however, is not even managing expectations anymore; it’s managing potential shitstorms.
Will the shitstorms ever not matter? I don’t know. When Bill Mechanic resigned from the Academy, his letter was posted in Variety. He says a lot of things in it, but this is what caught my eye:
We have settled on numeric answers to the problem of inclusion, barely recognizing that this is the Industry’s problem far, far more than it is the Academy’s. Instead we react to pressure. One Governor even went as far as suggesting we don’t admit a single white male to the Academy, regardless of merit!
We have failed to move the Oscars into the modern age, despite decades of increased competition and declining ratings. Instead, we have kept to the same number of awards, which inherently means a long and boring show, and over the past decade we have nominated so many smaller independent films that the Oscars feel like they should be handed out in a tent. Big is not inherently bad and small is not inherently good. Moving into the modern age does not mean competing with the Emmys for non-theatrical features.
Yet more Mudbound bashing. Boy, that movie getting a couple of nominations appears to really have freaked people out. How about the only choices at movie theaters being mostly the equivalent of fast food offerings? Cheap, fast, expectations met. How do you even begin to start awarding the kind of crap trickling out of big box office’s ass? But yes, I agree in theory that when a movie does hit big and if it is good enough that success should be taken into the consideration. And it never is. In fact, the better a film does the more it is punished by the Academy. They still want what they had in the 1970s. But that is never coming back. You have two paths now. Pick one.
And what of the whole “long and boring show because we give out too many awards” thing. Yes, it’s the fault of the short films that the show is boring. The fact is that — and I’m sorry to have to be the one to say this, but — all awards shows are boring. The Emmys are boring. The Tonys are boring. Even the Grammys are boring but at least they have live performances that are worth tuning in for. Watching other people win trophies and give speeches doesn’t really fit so well into the ways we absorb entertainment anymore. I guess because in the last decade reality TV has overtaken the networks, which in turn has birthed a golden age of cable and streaming. That’s the beautiful thing about evolution: life forces us to take alternative paths and that ultimately leads to rebirth. What I don’t get is why Bill Mechanic and anyone arguing Netflix vs. theatrical — or low ratings for Oscar telecasts — care all that much about who makes the most money off the product. We’re still back at art vs. commerce and most of those in the Academy, I presume, are supposed to care more about art. I know I do. We’ve all become fake pros since the internet gave us all promotions so we care about box office, we care about Cinemascore, we care about Rotten Tomatoes, we care about whether it’s ‘problematic’ or not. After a while, you see that what art is, what it is meant to be, runs counter to what commerce is in a capitalist system.
They can be snobby against Netflix in France because they can afford to be. Their choices aren’t limited to same 12-year-old boy bullshit our theaters are almost always filled with. You get your “type” to choose from but if you like going to the movies you almost always will lay down money for utter crap because utter crap is all you have to choose from. That helps the bottom line because the risk is low. But I seek out great movies no matter where they are. If opening up the market to Amazon and Netflix means more great movies made? Who would not be for that.
It’s a pointless argument to have anyway. It’s sort of like being furious that the mom and pop video stores were overtaken by blockbuster which was then overtaken by streaming. When it’s over, it’s over. Movies aren’t all the way over but the market as it stands still requires SOME flexibility.
There is just too much pressure on filmmakers now made worse by the annual horse race I helped invent and keep alive year after year. First it’s buzz, then it’s reviews, then it’s Twitter, which dissects everything about the movie, everyone involved in it, investigating the past of everyone involved in it, making sure it is pure from top to bottom, that it “sends the right message,” that no one involved has ever done anything or said anything that might be offensive to anyone. No matter what, the Academy is the one that has to sustain the punishment if they DARE reward someone or something that goes against the swarm on Twitter. God help you if you do. You will be hauled out and stoned with hashtags and think pieces and think pieces about think pieces and hashtags about hashtags about think pieces about hashtags. And tribes will form. If you’re not on the right side of that tribe you too are dragged out and stoned with hashtags.
So before I get hauled out and stoned with hashtags YET AGAIN I will finish this piece by saying, we’ve lost our way a bit in terms of what the Oscar race is supposed to mean. It shouldn’t be about limiting the offerings, but broadly expanding them. You can’t find or make great art without disastrous mistakes along the way. You have to be willing to get dirty; if you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs.
There is nothing I can personally do about any of it. When it comes to making the show more exciting so people will tune in, well, it’s not exactly a HUGE surprise that they didn’t tune in last year, right? After two movie awards shows with people wearing all black and the subject being as hard to watch and absorb as they were, it didn’t have people excited about watching the Oscars. They were afraid of watching them because we’re living through a time of high anxiety. Awards shows are supposed to be about escaping that, disappearing into a world of glamour. With a few laughs. No one thought last year’s Oscars was going to be about that and everyone knows it. But they did what they had to do to purge the beast that was Harvey Weinstein. If they want higher ratings they have to make their show something people want to watch. How do you do that? I have no idea.
As to Mechanic’s gripes about the Academy “fixing” the diversity problem — of course they can’t fix it. What they can do is help open doors of opportunity to give people an equal shot at rising in Hollywood. The Oscars are theoretically about power, who has it, who doesn’t. At least they used to be. But that has to be balanced with rewarding the best films, which they can’t really do anymore because the best films are usually divisive and divisive movies — The Shape of Water notwithstanding — don’t generally win.
Final thoughts: The Academy is doing the right thing in paying attention to their own PR. Their heart is in the right place. They know the wheels have been turning too slowly for too long. Netflix is here to stay. Up and coming generations don’t give a single shit about theatrical vs. non-theatrical and they are going to be the bread and butter of the industry sooner rather than later. That is the writing on the wall. Netflix can help ease the pain of progress by releasing films in theaters — even if it’s their own theaters — to please people like Bill Mechanic and others who are uncomfortable mixing TV and theatrical. We’ll see how they all feel when it’s Martin Scorsese we’re talking about.
Welcome to our 20th year covering this race. Has it really been that long? Wow.