Hollywood is a city built on glamour and prestige. Though movies are made for the masses, the heart of the community itself is in presenting this golden gleam of high class and glamour. It’s the place where you either have to be somebody important or at least can pretend to be somebody important. Much of it is a facade, but there’s no doubt that when you do visit Hollywood, there is an air of luxury and decadence all around you. It’s the kind of Hollywood that you see outside of the tourist haven of Hollywood Boulevard; the one that exists where the stars and power players live and play. The real Hollywood actually exists across the hills behind the famous sign in the less glamorous San Fernando Valley (where I actually live), because that’s the home of the biggest studios. But the Hollywood that we seem to picture in our minds is the one found in places like Beverly Hills and Malibu. There is a stark class difference in these kinds of places, because of the way the communities cater to their famous residents, and it’s the kind of luxury way of life that definitely gives this aura of desirability to the lifestyle of the movie star. But, there is a downside to this kind of high quality way of life, in that it also causes the people living in these communities to live in a bubble; one that unfortunately may cloud their perception over what is really valued within their industry. One of the biggest complaints leveled at Hollywood over the last few years is that it’s becoming more and more out of touch with the audiences of film goers and show watchers that they are reliant on for keeping them in the business. This can be seen in the way that some within the industry are resistant to changes in the market (like the expanding influence of streaming platforms), and also sometimes alienating themselves from a fan-base by demanding too much from their loyalty. But if there was ever a place where the disconnect between people in the industry and the audiences across the country appears most prominently, it’s with what should be the biggest night in entertainment every year; The Academy Awards.
The Oscars, as they are more commonly known by, has for nearly a century been the pinnacle of achievement within the movie industry. Not only that, it’s a driving force as well. Countless movies have been made with one purpose in mind, and that’s to secure that golden statue at the end of the year. We may not have seen some of the most memorable films and performances on the big screen had it not been for the allure of the Oscar. But, when something is that highly valued, you can almost always count on dishonest ways of securing it to always occur behind the scenes. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences have changed their rules countless times in order to make sure that their system remains pure and without corrupt influence. Even still, it’s a highly competitive race, and much like in the world of politics, it gets uglier every year. Now when a movie gets nominated, you’ll almost always read opinion papers and news reports about how problematic it’s content is and how this star’s off the set behavior is reflecting badly on the movie itself, and why voting for this film or performance would be morally wrong. It’s all studio driven smear campaigns meant to influence the very easily persuadable voting block that is the Academy, and these campaigns in themselves can cost millions of dollars on their own. And why all this effort? Because, in years past, an Oscar win meant a boost in box office ticket sales for any given movie. For the movie studios, Oscar campaigns are worth the cost in the end, because the box office would justify it in the end. But, with streaming taking out the factor of box office grosses, this is changing the game a little bit more, and now the studios are starting to find that the influence of Oscar gold is not as important as it used to be.
The rise of streamers like Netflix and Amazon has put the Academy in an awkward position, because now the effect it has now on box office is somewhat lessened. Before, it became a big deal to have a movie proclaim itself as Best Picture of the year. These days, a Best Picture win is almost forgotten about and barely even mentioned a year after the fact. Can anyone, other than serious Oscar history buffs (like myself) name the Best Picture winners of the last five years. I’d be surprised if anyone can remember who one it last year; Green Book for those interested (and good for you for already forgetting it existed). The Oscars have always struggled to keep up with the changing times, but it’s status as an institution in our culture had never been challenged until recently. Now, the Oscars are starting to hit a crucial point where they are teetering on the brink of irrelevance, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy way for them to get back to the top. The awards have been in a gradual decline ever since it’s peak in the late 90’s, when the movie Titanic (1997) swept through with record breaking viewership of the broadcast, but the fall has been precipitous in the last couple years. Despite the expansion that the Oscars has made to the Best Picture category since 2010 (up to 10 nominees each year), it seems like the winners increasingly end up pleasing nobody in the end. And with so much doubt cast over what should be the biggest award of the night, along with less influence it has on the box office itself, the Oscars are in desperate need of a reinvention. But how do they do that, when tradition is so ingrained in it’s DNA, and the Academy itself is so resistant to changing it’s ways.
For one thing, there has to be a fundamentally different way it needs to present itself to the public itself. The Oscars have always been a stuffy, affluent affair, and in many ways that’s been a part of it’s appeal. But, in the last few years, the Oscars broadcast has tried way too hard to appeal to all audiences, and in doing so has lost their identity. Gone are the musical numbers and the montages, and instead we are treated to just an endless roll out of the awards with little pomp and circumstance to surround it. The show has even dispensed with the host of the ceremonies, who usually would end up being the only one to give the show some much needed levity. This has been an unfortunate result of the Academy trying way to hard to comply with the demands of the medium on which they are presented. The Academy Awards have been broadcast on television since 1953, and has been a fixture ever since. But, as stricter FCC rules have come down hard on live shows like the Academy Awards, the opportunities for spontaneity to occur has also dwindled. The Oscars producers have tried more and more to stamp down any moment that might get them in trouble at these shows, like a political rant or a publicity stunt gone awry. But unfortunately for them, these are the moments that have made the Oscars the fascinating institution that they are, and trying to suppress these moments only makes the show feel more boring and unremarkable. Not only that, the show has to limit itself in order to hit those necessary commercial breaks that the network demands. That’s why the orchestra always plays music in the middle of a winner’s speech, because it’s the show producer’s way to tell the person to wrap it up. Even with that, the Oscars always receive the complaint that they are too long. And in response to the network’s complaints about the shows’ lengths, the Academy made the fundamentally ill-planned decision to pull some of the categories out of the broadcast all together; a decision that was thankfully reversed after the backlash it received from rightfully indignant members of the industry.
Though it may be a controversial proposition, I would suggest that maybe broadcast television may not be the best place for the Oscars to be at this point anymore. Much like how the industry is already moving in this direction already, perhaps the Academy should embrace streaming as an alternative form of presentation. This way, they can avoid the pitfalls of having to comply with broadcast standards and commercial breaks, and instead present the ceremony in all it’s glitz and glamour like it used to. There is the issue of how they deal with the cost of the ceremony, which the commercial breaks from the live broadcast would have taken care of, but there could be an alternative to this as well. The studios could use the ceremony itself to premiere exclusive first looks at their upcoming movies, paying the Academy itself for the privilege. Yes, it makes the show more commercial in itself, but honestly, isn’t it that way already. The Oscars can’t pretend that their ceremony isn’t all about building hype and earning money for the movies winning the awards. There is the argument that it’s about honoring the art, which is valid, but Hollywood is still a business, and I would rather see the Academy take the ceremony back into their own hands than to have them comply to the standards of another branch of the entertainment business. Other awards shows are already starting to embrace the streaming model, like the Game Awards, so this might be a possible avenue in the Academy’s future. If anything, it will free them up to be the kind of show that it honestly should be, which is un-apologetically showbiz at it’s most spectacular. Hosts should be free of constraints, winners should be able to say whatever they want after they win, musical numbers should dazzle and amaze. Yes it could all be messy, but it will still make it memorable.
There is also the issue with how the Academy votes for their winners. The downside of the industry living within a bubble can be especially felt here. More and more we are seeing a disconnect between what the audiences value and what the Academy values. At a time when audiences, critics, and industry elites can’t agree on what deserves the year end accolades, it becomes increasingly unclear whether the Academy is still the supreme authority over this in the end. This is especially clear when it comes to movies that are deemed “popular.” A couple years ago, the Academy got into hot water again when it was putting forward the idea of making a Popular Film category for the Oscars. This caused a huge backlash, and was again quickly reversed, but it was also telling of just how insulated the Academy voters are as an audience themselves. To them, they thought that throwing a bone like that to blockbuster favorites was a positive step forward, but what it actually did was expose the elitism that the Academy seems to be unaware they have. When a big budget blockbuster crosses over into becoming highly influential for the culture at large, like the movie Black Panther (2018) did in breaking down so many barriers for African-American filmmakers, it stands that a movie like it should get the due recognition from the Academy. But to ghettoize it by pushing it into the “Popular Film” category just undermines it’s impact, and is kind of an insult to the people who made it and the fandom that embraced it. This has increasingly become an issue with the Academy, who seem to be making more and more “safe” choices at the ceremony, like what happened with the Green Book debacle last year. In one of the Academy’s least popular choices for Best Picture in many years, the Oscars looked like it was beginning to lose touch with the audience, because it was ever so clear this time that the Academy just went for the least offensive pick in a field of otherwise challenging films.
There’s also the unfortunate factor of what appears to be a far less engaged pool of voters within the Academy. The demographics of the Academy that we’ve come to find out has shown that they are disproportionately white, male, and above the age of 50. There has been more efforts to boost the diversity of the Academy voting block, especially in the last decade, but even still, the movies that end up winning Best Picture seem to be the ones that appeal only to that narrow demographic that I stated above. Not only that, they are a demographic that has their own biases when it comes to what qualifies as a movie deserving of the award. As we’ve learned over the years, many Academy voters tend to not watch movies in a theater, instead choosing to base their votes on the screeners that they can watch from the comforts of their own home. And those that do watch in the theaters are passionate about that standard of presentation, and are skeptical of new models like streaming. There are even those who don’t watch the movies at all and just vote based on their gut feeling. This apathy shown to the experience of watching the movies themselves really raises the question if the votes the Academy makes are valid at all. Sure, no one should pressure the Academy to vote one way or another, but at the same time, you really wish they would go in informed before they cast their votes. My feeling is that a vote should be cast only after the voter has viewed all the nominees eligible for the award. Preferably they should see it in a theater, as many movies are best viewed that way, but I do know that it’s not possible for some of the oldest voters in the Academy. They just need to show those of us outside of their closed, elite organization that they are ensuring that every movie is given it’s fair exposure to the voting block as a whole, and that those ingrained biases that the voters might hold will not go unchallenged. Like any important institution, there needs to be a trust between the industry and the consumer; otherwise, it’ll appear that the Academy is purely just catering to a select group of elites and nobody else.
Are the Academy Awards destined to become an irrelevant relic of the past. Hardly. It still holds an importance every year in Hollywood that will likely never go away. At the same time, with shifting demographics, newer platforms for presentation, and changing attitudes both within the industry and in the public at large, the Academy really needs to wake up and try experimenting a little in order to not look like it’s stuck in the past. For one thing, it should embrace it’s glory days of the past, and not be so eager to conform to a strict standard that robs it of any spontaneity. It should also reconsider what it considers worthy of Oscar gold, because as we’ve seen in recent years, some of the best films are the ones that don’t even get a passing glance from the Academy, because they are too unconventional. The Academy is not compromising it’s integrity if it suddenly embraces a movie that’s deemed “popular.” Popular movies can be works of art too. Also, there should be more effort to broaden the spectrum of voices within the Academy itself. Part of why the demographics of the Academy have shifted so far one way is because that’s what the industry valued many decades prior, but now the industry has taken on a much more diverse character and the Academy itself should reflect that more closely. Otherwise, that divide between what the Academy values and what the movie-going public values is only going to widen further, leading to even further irrelevance in the future. It would also stand for the Oscars to maybe embrace new forms of presentation to allow greater access for viewers to see the ceremony in the same way that the attendees do. Instead of the broadcast model, allow for an uncut live feed to be available online; that way you don’t have to cut out categories and allow the ceremony to move along at it’s own pace. At the same time, I understand that I’m making these suggestions as an outsider who will probably never move the Academy to change it’s ways. But, I do speak as someone who has been a fan of the Academy Awards and what it represents. I want to see the Oscars gain back some of it’s glory, and that requires a bit of change to make it happen. Hopefully, the Academy learns to embrace some of the changes made to their organization over the years and hopefully welcomes in a wider swath of deserving movies into it’s pantheon of winners. We want the Oscars to mean something, and that requires them to make the most informed choices in who they honor. Like the statues they give out, all they need is a little polish in order to make it shine once again.