Thursday, August 9, 2018

Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film

So, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced interesting decisions yesterday regarding the annual Oscar ceremony.

First, the Academy made a "commitment to an entertaining show in three hours," "a more accessible Oscars for our viewers worldwide."  To achieve this, the Academy has elected to present certain categories live during commercial breaks to be edited and aired later in the broadcast.  Meaning categories like costume design may be filmed in the Dolby theater during a commercial break and edited down for broadcast later.  This will make certain categories very similar to the Science and Technical Awards, already pre-recorded and edited for broadcast.  The only difference is that the Science and Technical Awards are awarded and filmed at an earlier date, whereas these select categories will be presented within the continuing live event, just not aired.  I'm not sure which could be seen as a bigger sleight, not being invited to the main event in the first place, or being invited but informed that your portion isn't interesting enough to show live?

Second, the Academy has announced a new category to be awarded for outstanding achievement in popular film.  The Most-Popular Category for the Oscars?  A popcorn Oscar, if you will?  This raises so many questions.  What qualifies as an outstanding achievement in popularity?  Is it largest box-office gross?  Number of tickets sold?  Will it be a subjective determination of the "best" of the most popular films?  Is it highest critical rating (Rotten Tomatoes score, Cinescore, etc.)?  Biggest social media buzz?

Critics have already come out and panned the announcements.

I am of two minds.

I understand the desire to keep the televised broadcast to an entertaining three hours, I really do.  I understand I'm not the reason this decision has to be made.  I'm in that small club that wants the full, un-edited experience.  I'd love to see the full Technical Oscars awards.  I want every Best Song nominee performed.  I want a better, longer version of the Memoriam segment, preferably designed by TCM, to honor everyone lost the past year.  I want to see meaningful clips of every nominees work.  I want the lavish celebration of Hollywood with a Billy Crystal-hosting opening montage cherry on top.  But I know everyone is not me, and there often need to be changes to maintain the audience for the broadcast and sponsorship.

I do, however, feel that there are better ways to achieve this.  I have to agree with the Vulture article.  In this age of Youtube and social media videos, the Short Film categories could probably be done away with completely.  Short films used to be a vital part of the film experience for all theater patrons.  Theater billing was rounded out with newsreels, cartoon shorts, live action shorts, and the feature film.  Now, apart from certain animated features with an accompanying animated short, short films are relegated to student films, generally only seeing the light of day in festivals or as part of an Oscar offering at AMCs or other theaters.  Generally, the work in all other categories can be see by the overall film going population.  The three short film categories can no longer meet those criteria.  It's time for them to go away like Best Short Subject - Color, or to be relegated to an event like the Technical Awards.

I also understand the impetus to try and chase popular films.  The Oscars have long carried the stigma that they award a bunch of films no one watches or cares for.  And the Academy has already made efforts to try and change this perception.  The expansion of the Best Picture category from five to up to ten nominees.  The addition of the Best Animated Feature category.  Trying to name a "Best Popular Feature" film though seems to be only pandering.  The category would seem to be too nebulous to try and define for Academy voting.   And the other option would seem to turn the Oscars into the People's Choice Awards by opening the category to viewer voting.

I could see following the Golden Globes and splitting the Best Picture category in two, dividing Musical/Comedy and Drama.  This would expand the number of films eligible and would bring in a more diverse range of candidates particularly in the Musical/Comedy side.  Another suggestion would be to forgo the new award and simply restructure the rules regarding what qualifies for Best Picture consideration, requiring wide distribution and a minimum threshold of theaters for consideration.  This would remove the films no one has heard of or seen from consideration by removing those small indy films released only in a couple of theaters Los Angeles and New York to qualify.  You would be much more likely to have films like Rocky, Star Wars, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark nominated again under such restrictions.

My solution, though, would be to simply keep the category as a Special Award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film.  I would grant this award to the highest grossing film each year.  This would guarantee an award for a popular film that most of the viewing audience has seen.  It would also remove subjectivity from the field and keep the "Best" categories as truly a vote by the peers of that field.  It's not the most exciting or suspenseful award, but it would fit with the image and reputation of the ceremony.  It would truly be a recognition of an outstanding achievement in film that year, though separate from any comment on quality.

In a broader sense, I worry that the Academy and ABC are chasing an audience that they should simply let go of.  An audience that no longer wants anything to do with them.  That has bought into the idea that Hollywood represents all that is wrong with America.  Yes, they still turn out and see films, but they are uninterested in celebrating Hollywood.

Maybe it's time for the Academy just to embrace its niche.  To celebrate Hollywood, its history, and its finest, and let those who are truly interested in on the full spectacle.

And maybe, just maybe, they should keep the focus on awarding those little-seen, little-known, quality films.  If for no other reason to encourage new viewers to track them down and appreciate them. Jamie and I used to try and watch most of the Oscar nominated films before the ceremony.  (This was easier pre-children).  And it was an interesting process. Yes, we saw films that we never, ever want to watch again.  If I never see another Terrence Malick film again, it will be too soon.  We still have not made it past the first few minutes of Tree of Life.

We've also appreciated a lot of films that we would likely have never come across in our own theater going choices.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Max von Sydow!!).  The Descendants (a master class in emotion work).  Hacksaw Ridge.

We all need something to see things outside our normal boundaries.  To take in new information, new points of view beyond our typical box.

It's why we need good art - now more than ever.

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