Nearly two decades ago, DreamWorks was on a roll at the Oscars, winning two best picture trophies in a row — “American Beauty” and “Gladiator” — and believing it had another surefire nominee with the computer-animated hit “Shrek,” a film that studio co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg loved so much that he premiered it in competition at Cannes, the first animated film since 1953’s “Peter Pan” to do so.
“Shrek” didn’t win the Palme d’Or. And it didn’t earn a best picture nomination either, a shocking outcome for a movie that DreamWorks campaigned for relentlessly. (When asked why DreamWorks ran three “Shrek” ads in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times weekly for a month leading up to the nominations, studio marketing chief Terry Press said: “Because everyone else ran two.”)
The “Shrek” snub stung. But, in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. It coincided with the same year that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave animated feature films their own Oscar. Guaranteed a place in this separate, though less prestigious category, academy members could go ahead and ignore the green ogre and vote instead for movies like “A Beautiful Mind,” “Gosford Park” and “In the Bedroom.”
No animated movie has ever won the best picture Oscar. In fact, since the academy gave the form its own category, just “Up” and “Toy Story 3" have been nominated there, both coming in the only two years in the expanded best picture era in which academy members could vote for 10 movies on their ballots.
This is what happens when you add Oscar categories. Movies are marginalized, excluded from the category everyone cares most about — best picture — and shunted aside to the kids table. Filmmakers still earn an Oscar, yes. But the awards aren’t on an equal footing. Basically, it’s the equivalent of a participation trophy in youth sports, a pat on the head and a juice box.
I’m thinking about this in a year in which Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece, “Parasite,” could become the first foreign-language film to win the Academy Award for best picture. And it probably would win if there wasn’t a separate Oscar category for foreign-language movies, the newly rechristened “international feature film,” that “Parasite” will almost assuredly take.
“I really like ‘Parasite,’ but I love ‘The Irishman’ too,” one Oscar voter told me. “If there weren’t two categories, I guess I’d have a harder choice. But the way it stands now, I can vote for both and hopefully see Bong Joon Ho and Martin Scorsese on the stage.”
It makes you wonder how many people felt the same way last year when Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” won Oscars for foreign-language feature, cinematography and director, but lost to “Green Book” for best picture. Now, I know some voters who couldn’t get past the four-minute opening sequence of Yalitza Aparicio mopping the private courtyard. But given Cuarón’s two key victories, it’s not a leap to imagine that it might have won best picture had some voters decided that one feature film Oscar was reward enough.
Every year, there’s talk of adding more Oscar categories. In 2018, the film academy announced plans to create an Oscar for “outstanding achievement in popular film” that would stand apart from the traditional best picture award. The popular film Oscar proved so unpopular that the idea was soon shelved. And, lo and behold, voters nominated several commercial hits for best picture, including “Black Panther,” “A Star Is Born” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
This year, in the wake of the directors branch failing (again) to nominate women, the idea was floated that the Oscars should mirror the Directors Guild of America and create an award for best director of a first feature. The DGA’s 2020 first-timer class includes three women, two of them women of color and two foreign-born.
And while I understand the impulse to make Oscar voters expand their ideas about what constitutes an awards-worthy movie, I don’t think the solution is to create a separate, lesser award. Jordan Peele won the DGA’s first-feature prize two years ago for “Get Out.” He was also nominated in the main category. Which trophy do you think he really wanted to take home?
Animators didn’t want a separate Oscar in 2001. Katzenberg was livid when “Shrek” failed to earn a best picture nomination. Last year, the producers of Sony Pictures Animation’s hit “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” thought their movie was good enough to earn a best picture nomination. I told them I agreed — but that if the academy ignored Pixar’s daring, inventive “Inside Out,” what chance did Spidey have?
The answer to pushing the academy to make better choices isn’t more Oscar categories. It’s fewer. That way, maybe “Parasite’s” Bong could take the stage at the Dolby next week not in the middle of the ceremony, but at the very end, when everyone’s paying attention.