Can the Oscars ever change? Industry pushback reveals the peril of rethinking the show

Renee Zellweger accepts her lead actress Oscar at the 92nd Academy Awards in 2020
Renee Zellweger accepts her lead actress Oscar as Rami Malek looks on at the 92nd Academy Awards in Feb. 2020.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

The motion picture academy’s announcement Tuesday that it will shift the presentation of eight awards out of the upcoming Oscars telecast has sparked a chorus of criticism, revealing frictions within the organization as it struggles to save Hollywood’s biggest night from the existential threat of declining ratings.

According to the academy’s plan, which was revealed in an email to its roughly 10,000 members, five below-the-line awards and the three short film awards will be handed out in the Dolby Theatre in the hour before the March 27 Oscars telecast begins. While the starriest of the 23 categories will have their envelope-opening moments shown live on the air, the presentation of the affected categories — film editing, makeup and hairstyling, original score, production design, sound, documentary short subject, animated short and live-action short — will be edited into the broadcast in a truncated form.

A similar plan to shift four award presentations off the live show was proposed in 2018, only to be revoked shortly before the 2019 Oscars in the wake of industry pushback largely spearheaded by cinematographers (a category which is notably set to be presented on this year’s live show). Tuesday’s announcement was met with predictably sharp criticism both from within the organization’s own ranks and outspoken film lovers on social media. The critics dub the decision an act of disrespect, made in the pursuit of ratings, toward the very art that the Oscars are meant to celebrate.


In a statement Wednesday, the board of directors of the American Cinema Editors said it was “deeply disappointed” in the decision, writing, “It sends a message that some creative disciplines are more vital than others. Nothing could be further from the truth and all who make movies know this. … Our contributions to that collaboration may sometimes appear invisible but they are undeniable. We hope that film editors and other artists affected by this change will be honored and celebrated with the passion, dignity and inclusion they deserve.”

Under pressure to stem a ratings slide, the academy decides that not all Oscars will be presented live on this year’s telecast.

Feb. 22, 2022

The president of the Motion Picture Editors Guild, Alan Heim, shared a similar sentiment. “We understand the Academy’s desire to make a more arresting show, but this move renders the ‘invisible art’ of editing even less visible,” Heim wrote. “The Oscars should be a night to celebrate all of the labor and artistry that combine to bring stories to life on the screen, and we think deserving craftspeople have more than earned their time in the spotlight.”

In its own statement, the board of the Cinema Audio Society said Thursday that the academy’s decision “communicates a sobering insensitivity to the affected creative arts and the indispensable contributions these artists afford the films being celebrated. It is our sincere desire that The Academy will reverse its decision and choose not to diminish the prestige of its esteemed honor to the filmmaking community.”

Though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences noted that its decision was endorsed by its 54-member board, whose governors represent the 17 branches of the organization, and the group’s Awards Committee, many members say they felt blindsided by the announcement. Some argue that their own vital contributions to the film world are being unjustly sacrificed in what they deem a dubious strategy to try to draw more viewers to the Oscars telecast, which hit record-low ratings with the pandemic-dampened 2021 show.

“Does the academy not get how much this pisses off their members and filmmakers?” one longtime academy member, who declined to speak on the record due to the sensitivity of the matter, told The Times. “My documentary branch friends were all angry [after the announcement]. The academy probably won’t walk back this dumb decision but it won’t get them any new viewers either. A lot of the younger generation are not tuning in to the Oscars under any circumstances.”

From ‘Don’t Look Up’ to ‘Drive My Car,’ here’s how Times film critic Justin Chang would vote if he had one of the academy’s preferential ballots. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t.)

Feb. 8, 2022

Some members argue that, if the goal is to streamline the often-bloated show, there are other ways that could be accomplished — say, by cutting back on musical performances — without disrespecting nominees and their work. For many, the change has an added sting given the academy’s recent announcement that for the first time, fans will be able to vote for their favorite movie of 2021 via Twitter, with the winner to be announced on the show.


Editor John Ottman, who won an Oscar in 2019 for his work on the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” blasted the academy’s move in a Facebook post on Tuesday. “Dear Motion Picture Academy: Your inane plans not only intensely disrespect the crafts of your own members, but the art of film-making itself,” Ottman wrote. “More dance numbers and bad jokes aren’t going to change your ratings. But a show truly honoring the crucial and intriguing facets of film making just might. As if the entertainment industry weren’t seen as vapid enough. Bravo.”

As one set of observers gripe about the Oscars’ failure to include any blockbuster nominees or find ways to connect with more casual movie fans, others fight to preserve Oscar traditions. Now the academy has seemingly alienated both sides. “The holy grail of the Oscars has become this imaginary ABC viewer who is eagerly waiting for there to be fewer awards, no old people, no artsy movies, a super-fast pace, and Spider-Man,” film journalist and author Mark Harris wrote Tuesday on Twitter. “And I guess the Academy is going to chase that mirage right over the edge of a cliff.”

What to know about ‘Dune,’ ‘Don’t Look Up,’ ‘Power of the Dog,’ ‘Drive My Car’ and other best picture nominees.

Feb. 10, 2022

In his email Tuesday to members explaining the decision, academy President David Rubin anticipated the pushback. “We realize these kinds of changes can prompt concern about equity, and we ask you to understand our goal has been to find a balance in which nominees, winners, members, and viewing audience all have a rewarding show experience,” he wrote.

Rubin seemed to indicate that, in the face of steadily ebbing ratings and pressures from ABC, the academy’s leadership felt that change was unavoidable in order to safeguard the Oscars telecast, from which the organization draws the lion’s share of its revenue. “We must prioritize the television audience to increase viewer engagement and keep the show vital, kinetic, and relevant,” said Rubin. “This has been an important focus of discussion for quite some time.”

The latest dust-up comes on the heels of a series of unprecedented pressures, including the opening of a costly new museum, which some members believe have left the group’s leadership looking fumbling and indecisive, and announcing new gambits to revive the Oscars, such as a proposal for a “best popular film” award, only to reverse them.

Lady Gaga is out and Kristen Stewart is in for the 2022 Oscars. Here are other major inclusions and omissions.

Feb. 8, 2022

Film producer and longtime academy member Michael Shamberg has been one of the most vocal critics of the organization’s leadership. Shamberg is currently seeking a court order forcing the group’s board to vote on a plan he submitted to overhaul the organization’s approach to social media and institute a new annual member survey. Arguing that the Oscars need radical changes to adapt to the 21st century, he believes the group’s leaders needs to solicit ideas from their own members rather than impose changes from the top down.


“They’re not asking for help from really smart people who happen to be their members,” Shamberg told The Times last year. “If they simply had a suggestion box and 5% of the members gave them a good idea, that’s over 400 good ideas. What kind of family or institution gets in trouble and doesn’t ask for help?”

In the face of criticism from its own ranks, it remains to be seen whether the academy will stick to its plan for this year’s show — and what other changes may lie ahead as the Oscars struggle to maintain relevance in a rapidly shifting entertainment landscape.

“Moving forward we will assess this change and will continue to look for additional ways to make our show more entertaining and more thrilling for all involved, inside the Dolby Theatre and watching from home,” Rubin wrote in his email Tuesday. “Every Academy branch and award category is indispensable to the success of a film and vital to this industry. Both our challenge and our goal is to create an exciting, streamlined Oscars show without sacrificing the long-held fundamentals of our organization.”