Oscars: With the academy at a crossroads, critics should be more thoughtful in their complaints

Illo on saving the Oscars for 2/24/2019 Sunday Calendar issue. Illustration by Edel Rodriguez For t
Saving the Oscars takes a team effort these days.
(Edel Rodriguez / For the Times)
Film Critic

I come not to bury the academy, but not necessarily to praise it either. Rather I come, with a nod to Jonathan Swift, with a modest proposal for people to cut it a little slack.

I know, I know, mistakes, as the saying goes, have been made. But exactly what were they? What circumstances influenced the decisions? And more to the point, did the severity of the punishment fit the crime?

Or does the savageness of the anti-academy response, the waves of rabid protesters attacking the institution like it was a Taliban stronghold and they were tireless “World War Z” zombies, have more to do with the piling-on culture we live in than whatever infractions were actually committed.

By this time everyone who even remotely cares already knows, or at least thinks they know, what happened. First the academy announced that, in the service of brevity, the Oscars in four categories — cinematography, editing, live-action short and makeup and hairstyling — would be presented during commercial breaks, with acceptance speeches taped and broadcast later in the program.


Then, after the aforementioned outraged attacks were mounted by a slew of celebrity filmmakers (even Seth Rogen, the inciting of North Korea with “The Interview” under his belt, got into the act), the academy gave ground and went back to business as usual.

Given that the raison d’être of the awards ceremony is, not surprisingly, to present awards, why did the academy announce those measures in the first place? The answer, at the end of the day, is money.

It is generally conceded that that the show’s length, which regularly exceeds three hours, is gradually eroding ratings: an estimated 26.5 million watched last year compared to 43.7 million in 2015.


And, as the New York Times’ Brooks Barnes concisely pointed out, “the Oscars telecast is a big business, generating 83 percent of the academy’s $148 million in annual revenue. ABC controls broadcast rights until 2028 at a cost of roughly $75 million per year.”

Understandably concerned with its own fiscal stability, especially with big-ticket items like its new film museum on the horizon, the academy was also facing fierce pressure from ABC — an entity that doesn’t care about reputation, tradition or anything outside of financial returns.

So, likely taking into account as well the perennial generic gripes about the show’s length, the academy came up with a carefully worked out, nuanced plan, approved by its 50-plus-member Board of Governors.

Though you would never know it from the rabid tweets that resulted, the plan was never to banish those four categories, simply to postpone their presence on the show. Also, even that postponement was not permanent: the categories affected would rotate, with a different four (or more) selected every year in consultation with the various academy branches.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I didn’t feel that plan was the best one possible. (More about that later.) But a board of the academy’s size is inevitably prone to factions, and this must have been as good a plan as could be worked out under the circumstances.

However, there were several things the academy didn’t count on, starting with its own nature.

For though journalists tend to describe it in monolithic terms, the academy is nothing of the sort. It’s not Google, Apple or Amazon; it’s more like Germany’s medieval Hanseatic League, a group of separate entities joined to protect and promote their individual interests.

So when the cinematographers and editors came to very publicly feel that what was good for the academy as an institution was not good for them as individual crafts, the wheels started to fall off the carefully constructed deal.


A second thing the academy didn’t take into account was the scorched earth nature of the online world in general and Twitter specifically. An entity that does not do well with nuance and is happiest when people are unhappy, Twitter made mincemeat of the academy’s delicately worked out plan — so distorting its qualities that I had people come up to me on the street and ask why the Oscars were eliminating the cinematography and editing Oscars. Really.

Finally, unlikely as it seems, the academy may not have counted on the complexity of both the public and the membership’s love-hate attitudes toward it as an institution.

Movie fans as well as industry types are emotionally attached to the institution but enjoy grumbling about it.

Just as adult children can occasionally be heard blaming all their ills on their parents, movie fans as well as industry types are emotionally attached to the institution but enjoy grumbling about it, which leads to the academy being whipsawed into “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” situations.

Yes, people have been complaining for forever about the length of the Oscar program, but no one so much as paused to give the group credit for making an attempt — however flawed — when the since-discarded plan surfaced.

Similarly, when the academy took steps to address the diversity issue a few years ago, those upset with what happened — “they went too far”; “they didn’t go far enough” — all but drowned out any positive thoughts.

People, in sum, are more invested in giving the academy a hard time than in having it improve, more invested in getting angry at the organization above all else, no matter what it does.

So, taking all this into account, what should be done to shorten the show? There are some logical steps to take, but there are reasons the academy hasn’t gone there.


As proposed many times, most recently by Kristopher Tapley in Variety and seconded by the New York Times’ Kyle Buchanan, the trio of short film awards could be given their own program, an echo of the very popular Governors Awards, and Tapley adds, the two sound categories could be combined as well.

Though the world has changed mightily since shorts were a feature of every theatrical program, the shorts branch has retained its ability to negotiate effectively within the academy — two of the categories were nearly eliminated outright in 1992 until high-profile supporters including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg stepped in — and the idea of any changes has gone nowhere.

No matter what the academy does next, it has to make its peace with the fact that people are invested in slamming their actions out of all proportion to reality. As far as the eternal complainers, they should understand that, with institutions as well as individuals, it’s intelligent encouragement and not snark that creates the atmosphere for change.

Do the stakeholders actually want the best show possible? Or do they want to play politics and complain? We shall see.

FULL COVERAGE: Countdown to the 2019 Oscars »


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