Earlier this year, the Academy Board of Governors (whom I was shocked to learn consists of 51 members) decided to make some changes to their presentations in response to declining ratings and interest among television viewers. I've already given my thoughts on those changes, but suffice it to say they did not go over well with anyone.
All three ideas are pretty bad, but the nadir was the introduction of a new category: "Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film", generally known as "Best Popular Film". This category was announced with great pride by the Academy, yet they never defined what the criteria was for "Best Popular Film".
Was it box office? Was it number of screens? What exactly made a film 'popular'? We know what 'costume design' is. We know what 'animated short' is. We can even figure out the difference between 'sound editing' and 'sound mixing'. 'Popular' though?
Their statement that "eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming" is a shockingly nebulous declaration that I translate as 'we made up this category to get more viewers, but we'll work out the details later'.
My question is, 'Why not have the details, whatever they actually are, worked out before trumpeting your announcement?' The muddled launch of "Best Popular Film" was the beginning of this first fiasco.
"Best Popular Film" was seen, correctly I think, as pandering to viewers who would have seen something like Night School over The Shape of Water or Birdman. It made it look, again correctly I think, as trying to gin up interest for people who would rather watch Transformers than The Theory of Everything.
It was telling those of us who actually care about Best Production Design that the Academy was not going to recognize films based on 'merit' or what the voting members thought was the best work out of the three-to-five nominated but on some opaque notion of 'popularity'.
As a digression, some thought the 'Best Popular Film' category was a response to having Black Panther potentially be nominated/not nominated for Best Picture. Some saw it as pandering to audiences who flocked to the Marvel behemoth, some saw it as 'insurance' in case a 'real' film won over Black Panther. The merits of Black Panther being in the same league as Lawrence of Arabia or The Godfather is a discussion for another time (I personally don't think it is worthy of 'Best Picture') but I also think it was an actual coincidence and not some conspiracy.
On paper, it looks like an excellent decision. Hart is 39, a relatively young age for a host. Jimmy Kimmel was by comparison 49 when he first hosted two years ago. Hart is also wildly popular with audiences and is the rare African-American entertainer who cuts across racial lines. While his predominant audience is African-American, Hart's films such as Ride Along and Night School were hits with people of various racial/ethnic backgrounds.
In less than two days though, Hart was out as host. Tweets from eight and nine years past 'resurfaced' (i.e. were dug up) that were read as homophobic. The Academy gave Hart an ultimatum to apologize or leave. Hart balked and bolted or was forced to resign. Now the Academy has as of this writing no host, with rumors that they will forgo a host altogether.
Let's put things on the record. Were the tweets right? No. The tweets though were from almost a decade ago, and as was pointed out to me, his latest film Night School had a positive portrayal of a lesbian character even if her lesbianism played virtually no role in the film.
I imagine that there is not one person who has said or done something in his/her life that he/she does not regret or at the very least is not reflective of who they are now versus who they were then. Hart's tweets then were wrong, but I for one am not going to hold them against him today.
Like Hart, Gunn's tweets were from a decade ago. Like Hart, Gunn's tweets are offensive. However, I am at a loss to understand why so many who rushed to Gunn's defense also called for Hart to go even though both essentially did the same thing. Moreover, why would rehiring Gunn but not rehiring Hart be right given their similar circumstance.
In short, you have two similar situations: a famous person's old tweets 'resurfaced' (and I figure Gunn and Hart probably forgot about them to begin with), people call for said person to be fired (which he was) and yet...
And yet, with Gunn you had many, including the Guardians of the Galaxy cast and fans, demand he be reinstated, saying 'those are old tweets that don't apply to who he is now' but you don't have the same people apply those same standards to Hart.
The Academy, like Disney, is free to hire and fire anyone it wants. I, however, simply do not understand the mindset of those who 'resurface' decades-old comments as proof of evil. It would be different if Hart or Gunn said what they did today or maybe last year. However, should there be some statute of limitations on things like these?
The Academy faces more problems beyond not having a host or dumping a dumb category. There is the lack of interest in both the films awarded and the awards themselves, most of whom audiences already know the winners thanks to a cacophony of prior awards. There may be an uptick if films like Black Panther and perhaps A Quiet Place get Best Picture nominations, but by and large the Academy needs to reform yet again.
No institution can remain unchanged, especially one close to being one hundred. My suggestions are the following:
Cut the number of Board Governors
President John Bailey should if not resign at least not run for reelection
Cut or curtail the acceptance speeches
Expand knowledge of 'obscure' categories by actually showing the smaller films to a wider market (for example a requirement that a Best Picture hopeful feature a short-subject film or documentary)
The Academy has faced crises before and survived. It can survive this new one too. However, it will take more than 'Best Popular Film' to save it from itself.