How to Overhaul the Oscar Categories

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— by Renard N. Bansale

“Best Popular Film” & ‘The Lion King’ Remake Debate

On August 7, 2018, the Academy’s board of governors (led by Academy Pres. John Bailey) voted to introduce a new Oscar category called “Best Popular Film”. The reaction to this across entertainment journalism, social media, and the internet in general was a swift and resounding…

NO.

Yet while discussions tore apart this proposed new award and while many other debacles followed it (e.g., Kevin Hart and giving out some awards like cinematography during commercials), “Best Popular Film” somehow did not infuriate me. I mean, yes, “Best Popular Film” did infuriate me at first, but much to my surprise, something else soon took over: I started thinking about a solution, and a convoluted one at that.

My mind drifted back to the parallel debate concerning how to define the upcoming Lion King remake (directed by Jon Favreau): Animation or live action? (Cartoon Brew (here and here), internet host John Campea (here and here), and Impacting Culture’s own Tyler Carlos argued strongly in favor of animation.) The debate reminded me of my ever-cementing stance that the Best Animated Feature Oscar has always been a pity award. Best Animated Feature has helped perpetuate the insulting view of animation in the western hemisphere as simply “kiddie” diversion, unworthy of a “grown-up” award like Best Picture. This undoubtedly worsened when the Academy bafflingly began to allow any active and life Academy member to join Best Animated Feature’s nominating committee these past few years. (Thankfully, the newly revised rules have reinstated Short Films & Feature Animation branch members as automatic participants in nominating for Best Animated Feature—the category named after them.)

My mind simultaneously drifted to a discussion I strongly believe is worth having: Why don’t more people view the documentaries and foreign language categories as “consolation Oscars” as well? (Yes, I’m aware of the recent category name change to “Best International Feature Film”.) Don’t those categories diminish the chances of those two types of films getting nominated, much less winning, in Best Picture, just as much as animation? Or did we all just get used to seeing them as separate?

That’s where I am today: The possible reality of a “Best Popular Film” Oscar has led me to reconsider Best Picture, all those lesser “best movie” awards that prevent their corresponding film types from ever winning in Best Picture, and…really everything I want to change about the Oscar categories, all to uphold their prestige and promote a shorter telecast (which is what we all want anyway).

From 24 to 21 & Some New Rules

To start, here’s my proposed list of revised Academy Award categories (unless specified, assume five nominees for each; anything that stands out will be discussed later on):

  • Best Picture (Ten nominees; for works with runtimes of over 40 minutes, including all credits)
  • Best Short Film (Ten nominees; for works with runtimes of 40 minutes or less, including all credits)
  • Directing
  • Actor in a Leading Role
  • Actress in a Leading Role
  • Actor in a Supporting Role
  • Actress in a Supporting Role
  • Animated or Motion Capture Performance 
  • Original Screenplay
  • Adapted Screenplay
  • Cinematography
  • Production Design
  • Costume Design
  • Makeup & Hairstyling (with five nominees at last!)
  • Stunt Coordination
  • Film Editing
  • Visual Effects
  • Sound Mixing
  • Sound Editing
  • Original Score 
  • Original Song 

21 categories, down from the 24 we currently have (or the 25 we almost had). No more Best Foreign Language International Film, no more Animated Feature Film, no more Documentary—Feature, Live Action Short Film, Animated Short Film, and Documentary—Short Subject. In discussions similar to this two-part article, people tend to consider creating a whole tree of “Best Picture”-like categories, ranging from genres (e.g., drama, comedy, sci-fi, horror, musical, first/debut) to a “Best Effects-Driven Picture”. I appreciate these intentions, but let’s be practical: These would not only make sitting through an Oscars telecast unbearable—and no, shoving any categories into commercial breaks will never solve anything—but they completely miss the point and dilute the honor and prestige of a singular “best movie” award. Better the Academy becomes more exclusive than less, frankly.

Yet why do only English-language live action fiction films seem to have a shot at a Best Picture nomination? My go-to answer comes from this post-Oscars article written in early 2017 by Ms. Sasha Stone, over at her awards season commentary website AwardsDaily:

“Actors rule the Academy. They are the reason why no animated films can get in for Best Picture. They are the reason effects-driven films aren’t as beloved. Their careers are based on their faces. Their bodies are their instruments. They want to matter, so they will always pick films that are driven by actors. Always.”

Of the roughly 7,500 Academy members (see recent breakdown here), nearly 1,500 (about 1 in 5 or 20%) belong to the Actors branch—more than double the votes needed to get nominated for Best Picture. Their support matters, period.

As a compromise for having eliminated six related categories and to ensure the prudent recognition of animation, documentaries, and foreign language cinema (henceforth referred to as the “three types”), I’m establishing some new rules:

1.) Academy members based outside the United States and credited as key creative, scripted, single title card, or otherwise craft supervisory roles on at least three productions in the past five calendar years (as of the 31st of December of the qualifying year) that are:

Predominantly financed outside the USA,

Creatively handled by a majority of artists based outside the USA, and

Featuring a predominantly non-English language dialogue track (with accurate and readable English subtitles provided as an option)

…must nominate at least two foreign language features (not necessarily from their own country) for both Best Picture as well as whichever category that pertains to their respective branches (e.g., Best Cinematography for cinematographers, the two Sound categories for sound branch members, etc.).

2.) Short Films & Feature Animation branch members who work predominantly in animation (see here) must nominate at least two animated features on their Best Picture ballots.

3.) Documentary branch members must nominate at least two documentary features on their Best Picture ballots.

4.) Academy voters who must simultaneously follow new rules #1 and #2 or new rules #1 and #3 above must either combine via (2-3) of Best Picture nominees or have them take up four separate ballot slots. (e.g., Foreign language animated feature, foreign language documentary, or animated foreign language documentary)

Appropriate symbols will accompany the animated, documentary, and foreign language features in each yearly “Reminder List” (see list for 91st Oscars here) to assist in nominating. Also, any Academy member who fails to follow these rules will have their nominees discounted for that particular category. For example, a film editor based in Russia who nominated two foreign language features for Best Film Editing but only one in Best Picture will have their Best Picture choices tossed. Their Best Film Editing nominees, however, are safe.

And Then There Are Two: Best Picture

With the above new rules set, how shall nominating for one Best Picture award proceed for PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC, the accounting firm hired by the Academy to count votes since 1935) while still being fair to the three types (i.e., animation, documentary, and foreign language)? Also, if nominating for Best Picture still involves ranking five eligible features in order of preference and still keeps the (5-10) “sliding scale” (process explained in greater detail here and here), how exactly will PWC produce ten nominees in my revamped Best Picture category?

Consider the following my “Connecticut Compromise” for the Academy: The (5-10) “sliding scale” will still happen…at first. PWC will count for ten features outright, setting aside those (1-5) features that fell short of the necessary vote threshold as “backup features”. Now, if ten features outright make or surpass the threshold anyway and none of the three types are included, then nothing happens—after all, ten is the limit.

However, if there are (1-5) open Best Picture slots, then my compromise is this: The three types get first pick on the remaining Best Picture slots.

How? During the initial sorting (according to #1 votes), PWC will also make a copy of every nomination ballot that has at least one feature of the three types on it and set aside this separate pile for now. Given what my new rules above mandate (see above in “Some New Rules”), this group of ballot copies should count well north of 500. If the “Longshot Backups” and “Sliding Scale” steps produce only (5-9) Best Picture nominees, PWC will take that set-aside pile and count only the nominees of the three types, “curving” them up accordingly. If a feature of the three types can reach at least 3% of the total ballots (226 votes—combined #1 plus reallocated—among the estimated 7,500 total ballots), then it joins the Best Picture category, according to the highest number of votes. Any remaining open slots shall be filled by those (1-5) “backup features” set aside earlier, again according to the highest number of votes.

Now, the Academy would start with this compromise in play and it will remain so until at least one feature from all three types gets nominated. Once that is achieved, then PWC will revert to tabulating for ten features regardless of type. At the same time, two timers get set and reset every time the following quotas are met:

1.) The Academy will have four years to nominate at least one feature from any of the three types, and

2.) Twelve years to nominate at least one feature from all three types.

Should the Academy fail to satisfy either quota, then the three types return to getting first pick on any remaining Best Picture slots. Also yes, the Academy can satisfy the two quotas in one fell swoop with a (rare) animated foreign language documentary. Finally, should the Academy wish to completely shut out the three types and avoid giving them first pick, even after failing to make the two deadlines, they would always have one valid way of doing so—nominate ten English-language live action fiction features out of the gate each year.

Why these timespans, though? Well, four years discourages the Academy from procrastinating and performing the bare minimum at the last minute. Twelve years, meanwhile, stems from a practical belief of mine: Our world releases enough worthwhile cinema each year that one could insert at least one animated, one documentary, and at least a few foreign language features across a recent decade’s batch of Best Picture categories, and no one would bat an eye. Would anyone nowadays bat an eye at my theoretical 1994 Best Picture category of Forrest Gump, Hoop Dreams, The Lion King, Pulp Fiction, and The Shawshank Redemption? (By the way, just imagine if that was the slate that year!)

And Then There Are Two: Best Short Film

As for my singular Best Short Film category, the Short Films & Feature Animation and Documentary branches, along with anyone either subject to new rule #1 or from the Directors branch who opts in, will generate three shortlists of fifteen short films for animation, documentary, and live action—a total of forty-five short films. From these, they’ll rank their top five according to preference. PWC will sort, count, and eliminate according to #1 votes and distribute to the highest-ranked short films still in contention, all until ten short films remain as the final nominees.

So, we’ve eliminated six “consolation” categories and retooled them into singular Best Picture and Best Short Film categories. What else is there to add?

Minus Six, Plus Two: Best Stunt Coordination

The Academy tried to add a “Best Popular Film” Oscar to try regaining lost telecast audiences. Instead, they drew everyone’s ire. Besides the heavy use of visual effects (which has its own award already), what’s another common feature among the blockbuster features that would’ve been prime contenders for that heinous category? Stunts. (Read frustrating history here.) Wouldn’t a stunt award basically serve that purpose of recognizing popular blockbusters, along with Best Visual Effects? Seriously, what gives, Academy? Why the excuses that starting a stunt category would encourage more dangerous and perhaps lethal stunts, while at the same time honor actors for fattening up or slimming down to arguably dangerous extremes? Working closely with a nutritionist the whole time doesn’t totally eliminate the dangers, you know. Actors, are you that paranoid of your viewership increasingly realizing that you’re not the ones performing this or that daring stunt?

If for nothing else, Academy, please do this in lieu of some pitiful “Best Popular Film” award: Establish a Stunts branch for once, invite more members, and set up a Best Stunt Coordination category. And sorry, lay Stunt Oscar supporters, but this category won’t honor individual stunt people. Only those in charge will receive the statuettes, just like in all other below-the-line Oscar categories. Voila, two Oscar categories mainstream audiences will likely watch to see who wins due to the major presence of blockbusters among the nominees.

Best Stunt Coordination:

  • Submitted features must contain stunt work in no less than 10% of the total runtime (including all credits) for the credited “stunt coordinator” to become eligible.
  • For those in charge of fight choreography/coordination to also become eligible, the submitted feature must contain combat action in no less than 10% of the total runtime (including all credits).
  • For those in charge of dance choreography to also become eligible, the submitted feature must contain choreographed dancing in no less than 10% of the total runtime (including all credits).
  • The producer(s) will provide written proof as well as visual material describing the direct involvement of no more than four would-be recipients. Any dispute among would-be recipients must be resolved by the 31st of December of the qualifying year.
  • Members from the (theoretical) Stunts branch will be invited to participate in the nominating committee, which will evaluate submitted features for eligibility and release a list of eligible features. From these, the entire Stunts branch will rank up to five features in order of preference and produce five nominees for final voting by the entire Academy.
Minus Six, Plus Two: Best Animated or Motion Capture Performance

While Best Stunt Coordination continues to languish in Oscar “development hell”, Best Animated or Motion Capture Performance is a category of my own concoction. In discussions similar to this article, many tend to consider creating “Best Voice Acting” and/or “Best Motion Capture (Mo-Cap) Performance” Oscars, emphasizing the actor only. Such suggestions have increased alongside actor Andy Serkis’ acclaimed turns in The Lord of the Rings (as Gollum) and the Planet of the Apes reboot franchise (as Caesar), with both fans and even critics groups going so far as to recognize Serkis in standard Best Male Acting categories for those roles.

Riding off those successes, however, Serkis has also misrepresented the work of the animators tied to his roles as “digital costume and makeup” (see here, here, and here). These scandalous moments pitting the exalted Serkis versus the faceless and unexceptional visual effects and animation industry (a.k.a. “Hollywood’s Greatest Trick”) made me realize something: It should never, ever be just about the voice/mo-cap actor when it comes to animated and mo-cap performances. Visual effects and animation artists play as fundamental a role as, if not more than, actors in crafting, polishing, and especially finalizing these roles. (See also “Life After Pi” for more about the sad reality for visual effects and animation artists.)

So, given this most underrated truth, how would my Best Animated or Motion Capture Performance Oscar proceed? The nominating committee would have much to consider when evaluating the submitted names behind an animated or mo-cap role, especially the acting talent: Did the voice actor deliver enough lines (or a separate singing voice sing enough material) to make one identify that actor with that role? For example, it’s reasonable to match young Simba in The Lion King with voice actor Jonathan Taylor Thomas and adult Simba with voice actor Matthew Broderick. One would struggle to say likewise for the singing voice actors—young Simba with Jason Weaver and adult Simba with Joseph Williams, neither of whom I’d submit as would-be recipients. One, however, can and should reasonably match both Chris Sarandon (voice actor) and Danny Elfman (singing voice actor) with Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Lastly, regarding motion capture, can the final feature and an edit-matching workprint without mo-cap effects, shown side by side, demonstrate that the mo-cap actor model provided a predominant amount of physical and facial reference for the visual effects animators? For the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thanos is Josh Brolin, but Rocket Raccoon would be Bradley Cooper (voice actor) and Sean Gunn (mo-cap actor model).

For my proposed category, it’s pro-acting to mandate an actor’s presence for a submitted role to become eligible, effectively giving them a fifth acting category, and it’s also pro-animation/visual effects to recognize those less visible artists behind the character’s design and execution. Furthermore, because this Oscar honors a group of artists rather than just one artist, there’s no need to discriminate between the two genders. Given the common practice in animated television shows of having women expertly voice pre-teen males and females for years without worrying about puberty, I’m thankful I don’t have to.

Best Animated or Motion Capture Performance:

  • Submitted performances must feature in no less than 10% of the total runtime (including all credits), meaning either lead or standout supporting roles.
  • Up to four would-be recipients—the voice actor/mo-cap actor model/singing voice actor (can all be the same person), those most responsible for how the character appears on screen (“lead character designer”, though not necessarily credited as such), and those most responsible for how the character relates with the frame (“lead character animator”, though not necessarily credited as such). Any dispute among would-be recipients must be resolved by the 31st of December of the qualifying year.
  • A voice actor, mo-cap actor model, or singing voice actor’s involvement is mandatory.
  • Only (singing) voice actors in the feature’s original language will be considered.
  • A character shown at different ages and thus requiring different actors or even whole separate actor-and-animation teams will be treated as separate performances (e.g., young and adult Simba in The Lion King).
  • Members of the Actors, Short Films & Feature Animation, and Visual Effects branches will be invited to participate in the nominating committee, which will evaluate and release a list of eligible performances and names. From these, the entirety of all three branches will rank up to five performances in order of preference and produce five nominees for final voting by the entire Academy.
  • Submitted performances will not compete simultaneously here and in the four categories of Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress.
On Best Acting & Best Original Score

Having set up those two new categories, I’d like to slightly adjust two other established categories: First, the rule that two or more performances by a single actor in a single year cannot get nominated in the same acting category needs to go. Joaquin Phoenix in 2018’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot and You Were Never Really Here convinced me so. No such rule exists for any other craftsperson, so why should one exist for actors? Awards-worthy performances are awards-worthy performances, no matter how many an actor can pack into one year.

And second, I strongly agree with, and continue to revisit, this article by Thomas Willett (The Oscar Buzz) about how the Music branch needs to apply the “original” in Best Original Score more firmly and fairly. I can understand this past decade’s disqualifications for Birdman (perhaps one too many legacy pieces amid drum score by Antonio Sánchez), The Revenant (questionable crediting between three composers), and Arrival (bookending and previously-released piece by Max Richter more memorable than actual score by Jóhann Jóhannsson). Then there’s Jonny Greenwood’s confusing disqualification for There Will Be Blood and—perhaps most infamously—Nino Rota’s disqualification for The Godfather, which was ludicrously followed two years later by the Academy awarding Rota for The Godfather Part II. The Music branch needs to start heavily vetting each year’s submitted scores for derivative features (looking at you, Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe—“Portals” from Avengers: Endgame) and scores with a cue highly inspired by a legacy recording (looking at you, “I Got 5 on It”—original and tethered—and “Pas de Deux” from Us).

Furthermore, the Music branch should add a field to the submission paperwork for studios—informed by the composer(s), director(s), and music supervisor(s)—to list any and all temp music used in composing the score. The nominating committee will then judge the final score against the temp music for eligibility and merit. (Every Frame a Painting’s video essay “The Marvel Symphonic Universe”, specifically here, explains temp music’s role in the “dumbing down” of modern blockbuster music.) Lastly, is the Academy not aware of how fun it is for Oscar followers to vet the Song and Score longlists on their own? Immediate shortlists (see lists for 91st Oscars here) aren’t fun—longtime Oscar followers can guess the final category by then. Keep doing the shortlists if you want, but at least save them for after revealing the full longlists of eligible submissions.

Universal Preferential Voting

The preferential vote may be complex, but it yields a more fair and honest result compared to a “weighted ballot” (i.e., people voting for just one nominee and the nominee with the most votes wins). The latter has two perennial flaws: First, a nominee doesn’t have to win with a simple majority (i.e., “50% plus one”). For example, say the results for five nominees and fifty voters are 11-10-10-10-9 (a logjam). The nominee with eleven votes technically wins, but that also technically means that 39 other voters didn’t want it to win. Does that sound fair? And second, it’s not fair to pressure supporters of any perceived longshot winner to choose one of the (2-3) likeliest victors, comforting them with the knowledge that their vote counted. Such an odd phenomenon, how voting for a likely winner one doesn’t like that much somehow feels better than throwing away their vote for their longshot favorite.

The preferential vote cuts through most of those conflicts. The Academy uses it for the entire nominating phase, but only for Best Picture when it comes to final voting. Why not at least make it available for all final voting? Voting for one nominee is one thing, but by ranking all (or at least most of) the nominees—your genuine favorite first and your least favorite last—your vote never gets wasted until every nominee you rank gets eliminated. In addition, everyone will know that the victor truly achieved at least a simple majority, on top of its own initial share of #1 votes. We must think of the method less as generating the least disliked winner, but more as “I hope my #1 wins, but if not, then I hope my #2 wins, and if not, then I hope my #3 wins, et cetera.”

Why I Still Look Forward to the Oscars Every Year

This article is not meant to theoretically overburden the Academy and PWC with my proposed changes. However extensive my proposal is, it all stems from my deep fascination with the Academy Awards. The Oscars, like them or not, have set the standard for the entertainment industry recognizing what it considers as the best of each previous year. Critics groups have their go-to biases and festival juries only have to judge a few dozen festival entrees, but these are all viewed in contrast with the cinema the Academy and other industry awards have historically tended to honor. All these groups have cultivated and continue to cultivate the understanding and hope that this entertainment medium can have meaning and power worth impacting the culture. I’m incapable of forgetting that, hence my honest effort above to improve the Oscars. Fix the categories first, and then the telecast will naturally follow.

To the noisy and angry Oscar prediction industry/blogosphere, please stop imposing premature, overhyped, and often politicized expectations on yet unseen films, setting many of them up for failure upon arrival. Admit defeat when faced with having dished out poor predictions.

Academy branches, please populate your corresponding categories with efforts that could each win and be regarded upon their victory as worthy and in hindsight as still worthy—my definition of a “perfect category”.

Academy voters, please evaluate films for yourselves, and never, ever assume that any nomination or win is secured.

Finally, the telecast: It’s perfectly fine, Academy, to accept that a host is optional. Celebrate the cinema of the past year by balancing wit, dignity, and decorum within a glorious 170 minutes (and ten minutes to spare). Help us think fondly of what has come, and help us build anticipation for what will soon arrive.

“And the Oscar goes to…”

 

R.N.B.


About the Author

Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.

For more movie reviews by Renard, click here 

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