– By James Powers –
I have never once watched the Oscars. Which I guess is kind of surprising for a guy who likes to think of himself as a film nerd. But then again, I’m also a Pacific Northwest native who’s never once been skiing or snowboarding, so you know – people are full of surprises. I don’t have anything against the Oscars per se. They’ve just…never interested me much. So I find myself in a state of detached bemusement this year as I hear story after facepalm-inducing story of the Academy screwing up its 2019 awards ceremony. The Oscars’ gradual slide into irrelevance has been going on for awhile, but this year it seems to have accelerated into a painful nosedive. It all leaves the Academy looking a bit like, I dunno, the one-time high school queen bee who sees herself slipping out of the spotlight and tries desperately to regain it. And as I look at the whole situation a little closer, I’m surprised to find that I am in fact the exact sort of person the Academy is trying to impress (and chances are good that you are as well, dear reader). Ironically, now that they’ve screwed up so badly in that objective… I find myself more inclined to pay attention. Pride goeth before a fall, but sometimes the same fall can lead to a sort of awkward redemption. Which makes me actually very curious to see what happens on Sunday.
Chances are good that you’ve heard a thing or two about the multiple Oscar-related gaffes over the past few months, but so we’re on the same page, here’s a recap of the lowlights. First, back in August, the Academy made the announcement of a new awards category that they would be rolling out in years to come: “best popular film,” aimed at recognizing the achievements of major studio blockbusters that are typically overshadowed at the Oscars by, you know…the sorts of movies that usually get Oscars. Perhaps well-intentioned, but rather than a goodwill gesture to give blockbusters their due, this move came off more as a backdoor attempt to exclude them from eligibility for Best Picture – basically relegating popular films to a second, lowbrow tier of cinema. Needless to say, the huge swath of Hollywood that works on such films wasn’t impressed, and the Academy promptly backpedaled.
Then there’s the whole Kevin Hart thing. Let’s…just get this one over with quickly. The Oscars have a host every year who MC’s the whole three-plus-hour extravaganza. They had one lined up for this year. His name was Kevin Hart. Turned out he’s said some things on Twitter in the past that make him look pretty bad. These tweets were discovered, an uproar followed, and by early January the Academy had given him the boot. But now…bummer, they can’t find anyone who wants to replace him. So turns out they just won’t have a host this year. Cuz that worked out so well the last time it was tried.
The zinger though, the one that really makes the Academy look senile, played out last week. In an attempt to make the Oscar broadcast shorter, and therefore more watchable, the Academy announced that the presentation of four awards – cinematography, editing, hair/makeup and best live action short – would be omitted from it. The awards would still be presented in the actual ceremony, but this would happen during commercial breaks so audiences at home wouldn’t have to sit through it. Pretty much everyone got angry about this one, and a panoply of high-flying directors went to bat on Twitter for their would-be overlooked cinematographers and editors. As Alfonso Cuaron pointed out, for example, cinematography and editing are two aspects of filmmaking that are integral to film itself, as a medium. So for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to downplay them so dramatically is baffling at best, insulting at worst. Thankfully, they backpedaled on this one as well, and those four award categories are back in the broadcast.
But this still leaves the Academy with a major problem, one that won’t be solved by Sunday. Namely, the fact that people aren’t watching the Oscars anymore. Last year’s ratings were arguably the lowest ever, and got there by plummeting almost 20% from the previous year. Lots of potential explanations for this have been offered, and many of them are valid to some extent or other, but the simple fact is that people aren’t watching because they don’t want to watch. The Academy, and its awards, are losing the relevance to the broader viewing public that they once had, and they clearly have no idea what to do about it. Reminds me somewhat of the hand-wringing that goes on in the Church about our own rates of attrition, but that’s a different discussion. Or is it? Because in both cases, the problem is the younger generation. That botched Best Popular Film category is a great example of what I mean – it was an attempt to draw in a broader audience, a younger one, composed largely of the coveted 18-35 block, that is attending movies like Black Panther while largely ignoring ones like Green Book and Roma.
The Academy is right that that younger block is largely checked out. I mean heck, even I haven’t gotten around to watching Roma yet, and I really have no excuse – I’m a film student, Roma has been getting a ton of Oscar buzz, and it’s on Netflix. So I could literally just flop on the couch with my laptop and watch it any time FOR FREE. I really should do that, yet I haven’t. Because the simple fact is that kind of awards-bait doesn’t naturally appeal to me, no matter how accessible and heavily promoted it is. I’m more into genre films, animation, eccentric indie flicks, and the occasional brainless shoot-em-up. And I’m not typically a fan of superhero movies, but even I loved Black Panther. All of which means I’m exactly the sort of audience the Academy has been trying to draw in. Someone young, who interacts more with streaming platforms than traditional TV, who loves movies but not necessarily the Academy’s kind of movies – at least not enough to sit through four hours of speeches about them. They hope that, by broadening the range of films they recognize, by cutting out (supposedly) superfluous parts of the broadcast, by bringing on somewhat edgier hosts, they’ll win my engagement. But that all keeps backfiring – with me and with millions of others.
All hope is not lost for them, however – if they’re willing to lean into the embarrassment and learn from it. A funny thing happens to us as individuals when we find our own power or influence challenged. Instead of humbly trying to learn from the challenge, we tend to flex against it and try to project the illusion of keeping our composure. And more often than not, this just leads to us getting even more egg on our face until we finally stop struggling and accept the lesson. Such a dynamic definitely happens on an institutional level as well, and it’s been happening to the Academy. They’re a frazzled mess this year because they’ve spent so much energy trying to save face from the slow decline of previous years (for example, 2015 and #OscarsSoWhite wasn’t a proud moment). But if they stop trying to act like they’ve got it all together, and just roll with whatever happens on Sunday, we may find ourselves with a more humble, nimble and authentic Academy moving forward.
Heck, I may actually spend some time this coming Monday scrubbing through YouTube highlights of the ceremony, which would be a first. Though there’s still no way I’m devoting four hours of my Sunday to the Oscars. Not this year, anyway.
About the Author
James Powers is currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.
For all articles by James, click here.