Saturday, September 1, 2018

Best Popular Film. Worst Possible Idea. Thoughts on the Academy Award Changes

Image result for best popular film oscar
Much has been written and said about the changes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has made with regards to its Awards of Merit, also known as 'The Academy Awards' or 'The Oscars'.  One of the three changes has received the lion's share of attention, but I think all three not only deserve some analysis, but are also incredibly idiotic.

I know I am late to the party, but the unofficial Summer Under the Stars Blogathon got in the way.  Now, at last, I can share my views on the new rules for the upcoming Academy Awards.

The change that has received in my view the least attention is the third one, which announces a date change for the Oscar ceremony in 2020.  It moves the date up from the previously announced February 23 to February 9.  I think this was done to try and cut back on 'award fatigue' to where the major award winners are essentially known months ahead.

I do not think it will work.

I have written about what I think ails the Academy, and one of my points was that by the time the Oscars roll around, we know who is going to win.  In the time I have focused on the ceremony on a more professional level, I can remember only very few genuine shocks.  There was the time Marcia Gay Harden beat out the heavily-favored Kate Hudson for Best Supporting Actress and Christoph Waltz beat out Tommy Lee Jones for Supporting Actor, though I'd argue the latter was not a major shock versus Harden's win, which I think no one saw.

Apart from that though, the Academy Awards no longer have a genuine sense of either suspense or exclusivity.  There are a host of award shows critical, commercial and industry that trumpet the eventual winners.

Image result for allison janney oscar
Let's look at Allison Janney, the most recent Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for I, Tonya.  This is not to say Janney didn't deserve to win, but a look at the awards she was presented for her performance in I, Tonya pretty much says it all (partial list courtesy of Wikipedia):

Golden Globe.
BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts).
Screen Actors Guild.
AAFTA (Australian Academy of Film and Television Arts).
Awards Circuit Community Awards (?).
Hollywood Film.
Independent Spirit.
Film critics associations in Austin, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Florida.
National Board of Review.

On and on and on.  I count at least twenty-five, and that's not counting the ones where she was either nominated or declared 'runner-up'.  The sheer breathe and scope of times Janney won soon leads to a numbing effect to where if she ended up not winning it would be almost anticlimactic.

This applies to Sam Rockwell, Frances McDormand and Gary Oldman. They were not front-runners by the time the Academy announced the nominees. They were the de facto winners with the actual Oscars a mere formality.

Again, this isn't to say that Janney, Rockwell, McDormand or Oldman shouldn't have won (well, in my view Rockwell shouldn't, but why fight that battle again).  This is to say that all these other awards lead to both a herd mentality and a lack of interest when the Oscars essentially rubber-stamp the announced winners.  Why bother watching if we know who the winners are going to be?

In the past, the Golden Globes were the only other major awards that could suggest who the eventual Academy Award winner was going to be.  However, the time frame between the Golden Globe presentations and the Oscar nominations was sometimes a mere day if memory serves correct, so there could be a push for certain films but not necessarily a declaration for one or another.

Now, we have all these awards heralding the eventual winners' arrival, making for a more predictable and boring evening.

Seriously, before this glut of awards dulled the power of the Academy Awards, who genuinely cared about the Screen Actors Guild or the BAFTA Awards?

Worse, the eventual winner tends to beat the same group of people over and over again.  How many times did Janney beat out Laurie Metcalf for the same prize? It's gotten to a point to where we know not just who is going to be the winner but who the nominees are going to be long beforehand.

Rarely do we get a surprise, like when Leslie Manville got a surprise Supporting Actress nomination for Phantom Thread, but Phantom Thread was not, shall we say, a big commercial hit, so there's not much vested interest whether Manville pulled a real upset.

Moving up the date is a way for the Academy to try and stop the bleeding, but unless the other award shows keep to their schedule it is not going to help.

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The second change is in the presentation of the awards. In their own words, they will work to keep to a three-hour show by presenting certain categories during the commercial breaks and then editing them into some kind of montage.

There will be twenty-five categories next year up from this year's twenty-four, so if they want to keep to a three-hour show, they would have to present an award every eight minutes, that is if they opt to give each category equal time.

Somehow, I suspect the Best Live-Action Short Film winner(s) won't get the same time as the Best Director winner.

This idea, perhaps to my readers' surprise, is not in my view entirely a bad one, or at least the thinking behind it.  The presentations have grown very long, and some of the categories are extremely obscure: I imagine most people do not know the difference between Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing even if it is explained every year.

There should be reforms in acceptance speeches.  If there are multiple nominees for one film, such as three winners last year for Best Makeup, they should be asked to have one spokesman for them all.  All the winners should also observe time limits.

I have no problem cutting the microphone off if they go past their allotted time.

The winners should also exercise some common sense.  Nothing against Kazuhiro Tsuji, who won his first Oscar on his third nomination for Makeup for Darkest Hour, but why he felt compelled to thank his cats is simply beyond me.

However, the Academy makes a mockery of itself if it thinks people tune in to see 'stars' and not the actual awards.  Granted, more people are apt to know Gary Oldman over Kazuhiro Tsuji, but why the Academy thinks people want to hear three minutes of Oldman versus not hearing anything from Tsuji is again, beyond me.

Does the Academy genuinely hold to the idea that people would want to hear Leonardo DiCaprio wax rhapsodic on environmental and Native American issues over say, what film won Best Production Design?

If the actual presentation of the awards is essentially going to be an afterthought, why bother holding award presentations at all?

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I was not the only person who criticized this year's presentation for having endless and awful routines and skits that lengthened the presentation.  Now, the Academy Board has decided that the problem with the Oscars is not the presenters or host but those pesky awards.

Many of us said that this year's Jimmy Kimmel routine of crashing a Wrinkle in Time sneak preview  so as to have Armie Hammer launch hot dogs at befuddled audience members was not only dumb, but pointless, excruciating and made the telecast longer. It also came across as shockingly arrogant: here are these very wealthy people granting the hoi polloi a chance to gawk at them.  The idea behind and execution of this routine was horrendous, even when it mercifully ended.

The poor audience member pulled to introduce the next presenters genuinely had no idea who 'Tiffany Haddish' was, mangling her name.  Even the much-praised Haddish-Maya Rudolph bit was a fiasco: their "are the Oscars now 'too black'?" repartee seemingly endless.

I know the people I was watching the Oscars with a.) had no idea who Tiffany Haddish was and b.) were praying they'd finally shut up and actually present whatever award they were asked to present. One asked me if anyone thought Haddish was actually funny.

If the Academy really wanted to do itself a service, it would cut the 'repartee' between presenters, cut major parts of the host's opening monologue and do away with all these skits.

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I digress slightly to note that recent hosts tend to think of the Oscars as an extension of their own programs.  Kimmel thinks the Oscars are a primetime Jimmy Kimmel Live! special, with his constant references to a faux-feud with Matt Damon that no one outside Kimmel or Damon thinks is funny.  Last year, Kimmel bringing a group of tourists into the theater was praised, but I found it a bit tawdry to make this group the unwitting dupes to a comedy routine.

Again, we have this bizarre sense of noblesse oblige between 'Hollywood Royalty' and the peasants who probably didn't see Moonlight or who couldn't sing any song from La La Land if their lives depended on it. 

When Seth MacFarlane hosted, he thought it was a live-action Family Guy.  How else to explain his We Saw Your Boobs opening number and the Here's to the Losers closing number (which even the theater audience ignored as they started leaving while he and Kristin Chenoweth started looking foolish).

Those type of things I can imagine Peter Griffin doing.  I cannot imagine Bob Hope or Johnny Carson doing the same.

The Academy clearly thinks the awards are the problem, or at the very least the obscurity of some of the categories.  As such, they believe focusing on the 'big prizes' will bump up ratings.

What they forget is that they've already tried this.

Image result for maureen o'hara oscar
Before 2009, the Academy Awards would routinely present the Honorary or Humanitarian Academy Awards during the actual telecast.  The Academy Board of Governors, however, decided that salutes to obscure figures like Peter O'Toole, Jack Cardiff, Andrzej Wajda and Satyajit Ray was what was causing declining ratings and a longer show.

As such, they decided to cut these awards from the telecast and have a Governor's Award dinner where they could bestow Oscars to people they suspect most viewers had either never heard of or would be surprised were still alive.  After all, people don't need to hear from such has-beens as Lauren Bacall, Maureen O'Hara or Donald Sutherland when we can hear from Sam Rockwell.  What did those losers ever do for film?

The Governor's Awards dinner looks like it's actually fun because it is mostly within the industry and they are not constrained by time.  Sadly though, it does mean that we won't get to see people get their due.

I remember when I saw the presentations to Cardiff, Wajda and Ray and being mesmerized by the brilliance of their work.  They were spellbinding montages that made me love film more.  Now, as they got shunted off to a whole other presentation, we won't get newer audiences appreciate what made O'Hara or Hayao Miyazaki so extraordinary.

We will, however, hear Matthew McConaughey drawl about his late father watching from Heaven while in his underwear drinking a six pack.

I expect it won't be too long before they shunt the 'minor' awards to the Governor's Dinner too to focus on 'marquee' categories.  It's a terrible and slippery slope that they are gleefully sliding down to their own detriment.

Image result for best popular film oscar
The third change is the addition of a new category: "Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film" (details forthcoming). I've read all sorts of things about "Best Popular Film" both pro and con.

Here are my views.

This is a deliberately obscure and ill-defined category motivated by a bizarre notion the Board of Governors has that 'the people' will watch if a movie they heard about is up for some kind of award.

What exactly constitutes 'popular'?  I know what 'Picture' means.  I know what 'Actor/Actress' means.  I even know what 'Cinematography' and 'Costume Design' mean.  However, what is 'popular'?

Will the nominees be based on box office?  Will they be based on number of screens?  Will they be based on Gallup Poll results?

There have been all sorts of wild ideas about 'Best Popular Film', almost all revolving around Black Panther.  They take one of two routes depending on what kind of conspiracy theory you believe:

'Best Popular Film' was created to include Black Panther at the Academy Awards.
'Best Popular Film' was created to exclude Black Panther at the Academy Awards.

Either way, the 'Best Popular Film' Oscar revolves around the idea of Black Panther being the de factor Best Picture winner and 'something' had to be done to either stop it from winning or give it a consolation prize if/when it would lose.

I'm one of the few people who has never heard a case as to why Black Panther is a Best Picture winner.  I'm not even sure it is the best Marvel film, let alone on the same level as Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia or All Quiet on the Western Front.  I might concede that it is better than The Life of Emile Zola or Oliver!, but I have never believed Black Panther was destined to be Best Picture.

Nevertheless, the idea that Black Panther was destined to actually win Best Picture, the theory holds, is what motivated this new category, either to prevent it from winning Best Picture or ensuring it got recognized in some way should it either not get nominated or worse, not win.

This 'Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film' category is worse when you consider that the Academy, in its wisdom, has declared a film can be nominated in both categories.  What if a film wins both Best Picture and Best Popular Film?  Why is there even a divide?

The answer to the last question is simple, and rooted in again, the fact that the Academy has essentially done this already.

Image result for heath ledger oscar
After The Dark Knight, like Black Panther a comic book-based film, failed to receive a Best Picture nomination, the uproar among the public and critics was so great that in a panic, the Academy decided to 'open up' the Best Picture category to have up to ten nominees.

The idea behind this was to have, you guessed it, more 'popular' films in the running for Best Picture. Since 2009, this experiment has gotten some major hits in the mix: Avatar, American Sniper, Hidden Figures, Dunkirk, Get Out.

However, what ended up happening was that rather than have more popular films get Best Picture nominations, the Academy ended up nominating more obscure films instead.

One can argue the merits of American Sniper versus Birdman, but the trend towards more niche nominees was the unintended consequence of the Best Picture expansion, leading to films fewer people heard of let alone watched winning the top prize.  Personally, I think American Sniper is a better film than Birdman.  I also think more people in the future will watch American Sniper over Birdman, which the general public has probably never heard of and which fewer people in general will watch let alone care about.

In the years since the expanded field was first brought about, the actual Best Picture winners are films that, while perhaps good, I doubt will be remembered or seen repeatedly in the same way The Godfather or Schindler's List will be.

The King's Speech. The Artist. Argo. 12 Years a Slave. Birdman. Spotlight. Moonlight. The Shape of Water.

I think more people, decades from now, will be seeing Dunkirk than they will The Shape of Water, or as I lovingly call it, Fifty Fins of Grey. As much as I may think Mad Max: Fury Road is overrated, I think that and Hidden Figures will be the ones remembered, not Spotlight or Moonlight respectively whatever their merits.

Image result for luise rainer oscars
This year, the Best Picture nominees were among the most obscure to the film-going public: Call Me By Your Name, Phantom Thread, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  They all might have been good (though I thought Three Billboards was full of itself), but I think many people simply did not care about the slate of nominees.

With essentially two Best Picture categories, the Academy has done itself the worst possible service.  This is not going to work.  Expanding the Best Picture field was supposed to bring in more 'popular' films.  That was not what happened.  The opposite happened.

With that being the problem, the Academy decided the solution was to create another category altogether.

I predict that within ten years at most, the Outstanding Achievement in Popular Films will be retired. I also think it should be retired now, but that's not likely.

The Academy would be wise to learn from its own history.  Between 1932 and 1943, when it had more than five Best Picture nominees, it selected some truly great films for Best Picture: It Happened One Night, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca.

It also selected some absolute clunkers and forgotten films over others that are still remembered and revered: Cavalcade over 42nd Street, The Great Ziegfeld over Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, The Life of Emile Zola over The Awful Truth, Stage Door and the original A Star is Born, Mrs. Miniver over Pride of the Yankees and Yankee Doodle Dandy, and perhaps most notoriously, How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane.

I to be honest like some of the aforementioned Best Picture winners, but I also know that no one is clamoring to watch Cavalcade or The Great Ziegfeld.

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I also know that when the Academy did reward the 'most popular film' with Best Picture, it ended up giving the award to The Greatest Show on Earth over High Noon and The Quiet Man.  When was the last time you watched The Greatest Show on Earth?

Have you even heard of The Greatest Show on Earth?

At least in the Academy's defense, people actually saw High Noon and The Quiet Man.  I can't say the same for The Shape of Water or Birdman.

Each decision the Academy has taken: moving up the presentation in 2020, cutting awards to commercial breaks, and 'Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film' are motivated to bring up sagging ratings.

None of them, however, addresses what truly ails the Academy Awards.  Some aspects are beyond their control (the scope of pre-Oscar awards).  Others are, and they will find, I believe, that their solutions will end up causing more problems of their own creation.

In short, it's all to quote another Best Picture winner, "Madness".

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