For many years now, the Oscars has been trying to tackle two main problems: broadcast time and ratings. Last year saw the Academy try to tackle their ratings issue with the controversial “Popular Film” category. Broadcast time has been (albeit less important to those outside the Oscars production team) their other big issue, with minor attempts to correct it over the years. The Academy’s 2019 solution of relegating four categories to commercial breaks is not even a bad decision. However the choice of category is what has many in Hollywood and beyond scratching their heads at best, and openly calling for an Academy boycott at worst.
In their attempt to trim air time, the Academy’s decision of moving the award presentations for cinematography, film editing, live-action shorts and makeup and hairstyling to commercial breaks proved to be an unpopular one. Within hours of the announcement from the Academy the outcry was fierce, with many humorous responses from social media covering the very real hurt and outrage many in the industry felt at being relegated to a commercial break.
Upon closer review, it even seems that the Academy’s plan may be less nefarious than initially presented. As detailed in Academy President John Baily’s letter to the membership, they are attempting to “…evolve to successfully continue promoting motion pictures to a worldwide audience”. The exact method he describes is as follows:
While still honoring the achievements of all 24 awards on the Oscars, four categories—Cinematography, Film Editing, Live Action Short, and Makeup and Hairstyling – will be presented during commercial breaks, with their winning speeches aired later in the broadcast.
And, with the help of our partners at ABC, we also will stream these four award presentations online for our global fans to enjoy, live, along with our audience. Fans will be able to watch on Oscar.com and on the Academy’s social channels. The live stream is a first for our show, and will help further awareness and promotion of these award categories.
The executive committees of six branches generously opted-in to have their awards presented in this slightly edited timeframe for this year’s show, and we selected four. In future years, four to six different categories may be selected for rotation, in collaboration with the show producers. (This year’s categories will be exempted in 2020.)
This presents us with numerous questions, especially given the response from American Society of Cinematographers President, Kees van Oostrum, had this to say in his own letter to the ASC membership:
Since the organization’s inception 91 years ago, the Academy Awards have honored cinematographers’ talent, craft and contributions to the filmmaking process, but we cannot quietly condone this decision without protest.
While the Hollywood Reporter goes on to describe how van Oostrum believes Bailey (whose Academy membership itself is a big part of the larger question, as I’ll get to in a just a moment) had his hands tied, the final word seems to be that this decision is harmful to the cinematography and film editing branches of the Academy and their respective members in and outside of the membership.
And let’s address the somewhat hidden elephant in the room: the Academy’s president is a cinematographer. John Bailey is not only a cinematographer and an Academy member under the branch of cinematography but a member of the ASC. His election to Academy president was hailed as a victory for below the line representation, the first cinematographer to hold the office in 60 years. His platform seemed to be the curating and preservation of cinematic history and taking a holistic approach to making sure the arts were recognized.
So it is baffling, that of all the 24 categories in the Oscars, the literal body (cinematography) and soul (editing) of cinema are being targeted for the sake of run time. Not to mention that, with no host this year, there should be considerable time gained from the lack of mediocre jokes we’ve now lost throughout the show. All of this under the leadership of a cinematographer no less, who, when we interviewed him at the 2018 SOC Awards, was excited to bring more visibility to below the line cinema arts. You can see that interview below.
John Bailey, ASC before receiving the Society of Camera Operators Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018. In this interview he talks about the significance of having a cinematographer serve as the President of the Motion Picture Academy.
So how could an organization devoted to the portrayal of stories bungle their own so clumsily? Because again, the idea of cutting several categories is not a bad one, but the way the idea was presented and the categories chosen most certainly are. The easiest decision, to me, would be to cut Best Best Animated Short Film, Best Documentary Short Subject, Best Live Action Short Film, and Best Sound Editing OR Best Sound Mixing. If you’re seeing a theme, then it’s because short films have become a staple of literally every film contest there is. They’re great for showcasing work for a reel, especially for directors and actors, and they do take a very special set of skills to pull off, let alone effectively. However, if your goal is to improve ratings and broadcast quality, then I have a hard time believing that short films hold the same weight as Best Cinematography (a frequent clue to the winner of Best Picture) and Film Editing. As for sound, while both categories actually hold a special place in my heart, those outside of that business rarely know the difference, and ONE of their moving would have little impact on the overall audience.
So why, with logic like that, would the four categories chosen be selected for their fate? It could simply be that the Academy is just that out of touch with its core audience. They just don’t understand the people they already have tuning in live for seeing these categories, live for seeing their winners walk up and hearing their past accomplishments and seeing who they interact with and their reactions. It could also be that the most crucial elements of below the line production just don’t have the respect of the Academy at all, that they’re seen as disposable and unimportant.
Or, as it has been pointed out by numerous people, it could all be a Disney/Marvel conspiracy that speaks to the corporatization of cinema we’ve seen grow exponentially since the rise of the “Comic Book Movie”, which already led to the suggestion of the ill-received “Popular Film” Oscar category. I’m referring to the fact that Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Live-Action Short and Best Makeup and Hairstyling are all categories in which Disney and its owned properties (specifically Marvel) have no nominations this year. The Oscars are also going to be broadcast on ABC, a network owned by Disney.
As we’ve seen many times in the past, Disney is no stranger to turning mafioso on people, companies and even entire cities (shoutout to Anaheim for weathering Disney’s years and years worth of threats and litigation) to get its way. And we’d be foolish to ignore the impact that Disney has had on the film industry even beyond its main fighting force that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Really, something of this magnitude should have been foreshadowed by the suggestion of the Popular Film award category that was essentially tailor-made for Marvel movies to be given a yearly award. This ALSO comes on the heels of Disney/Pixar’s Incredibles II Emmy loss to Sony’s hit “Into The Spider-Verse”, as well as the recent admission that last quarter was a lackluster one for Disney despite several high profile film releases.
At the end of the day, money talks. Disney’s family-friendly force grip on the industry is easily something that could influence the already troubled award show. On top of everything, it was announced a while back that the presenters would be stacked with Avenger: Infinity War cast members, and obvious play by Disney on their own network to get publicity for the hit film’s 2019 sequel, Avengers: End Game. And while this play may seem a bit clumsy, a rocky start to 2019, an already troubled history between Disney/Marvel at the Oscars and Disney’s penchant for forcing their way onto those around them like Emperor Palpatine himself could easily have led to the bungled mess this year’s Oscars have become.
But who knows for sure. This is still all just speculation and leaves us no more solid than we were before. So where do we go from here? Well, some are actively calling for a boycott of this year’s Oscars. Many are also simply claiming they will not watch. Bailey has attempted to smooth over the outcry by amending their original stance slightly, repeating that the excluded categories would change next year and mentioning that the Awards would run unedited online.
But several days after the initial outcry, it doesn’t seem to be dying down. So will they change course? Already there’s been much zigging and zagging with this year’s awards show, and with it roughly ten days away, things may be set in stone. One thing is for sure if this quizzical move was in the name of boosting ratings, it’s hard to believe this level of outcry and boycotts will bode well for this year’s celebration of cinema.
If you are against the exclusion of the Cinematography, Editing, Hair & Makeup as well as the other categories mentioned, you can sign the following petition and let your voice be heard. www.change.org
Other news outlets covering the event: