What’s wrong with the Oscars, and five ways to fix them

I'll be watching the Oscars on Monday – but will you? Chances are, the answer is no. You won't be watching the Oscars – at least not the whole thing, and not live – because fewer and fewer of us do that anymore.

And that's a worry for the Academy and, in the United States especially, it's a huge worry for the broadcaster, ABC, which is stuck with this fading giant until at least 2028.

So, what's wrong with the Oscars, and can it be fixed? And, more to the point, should it be?

Bob Hope, seen here with wife Dolores in 1955, hosted the first Oscars telecast in 1953. It ran for 92 minutes.Credit:AP

There are all sorts of explanations for this severe case of broadcast bloat, but at heart it boils down to a simple fact: the Oscars have two masters, and they have sometimes contradictory missions.

The event actually belongs to the Academy, which comprises more than 9200 members spread across a bunch of craft guilds – cinematographers, actors, directors, editors, and so on – and in their eyes the awards acknowledge excellence among peers.

But as broadcaster of the event, ABC wants to get maximum eyeballs – and with ads selling for a reported $US2-$US3 million per 30-second slot, they need them. But ratings last year were down by almost 40 per cent from 2014, to an all-time low of 26.5 million US viewers. Something's gotta change.

The solution: Make it shorter (duh)

ABC doesn't have much control over the shape of the ceremony, though it can make, ahem, "suggestions". Whether they came from the broadcaster or the Academy, proposed changes this year have included moving some technical awards to the commercial breaks and introducing a "most popular film" category (more on this later), both of which were dumped soon after being announced following member, and public, backlash.

It's tempting for a layperson to say "I don't care about editing/score/hair and make-up", and that's fair enough (kind of). But filmmaking is a collaborative medium, and what we see up there is the result of a whole bunch of inputs of which we might ordinarily be only vaguely aware; drawing attention to them in this way can actually enhance our appreciation and understanding of the medium. Besides, in a year when one of Australia's two contenders is in a "technical" category – production designer Fiona Crombie for The Favourite – you'd hardly want that to be shunted to the ad break.

Production designer Fiona Crombie is one of just two Australians nominated this year. Credit:Alamy

In short (so to speak), there are no easy cuts, but for my money the obvious move is to dump the short film awards, incorporating them instead in the separate science and technical awards ceremony held a couple of weeks before the telecast. Cruel and not entirely an easy fit, but it would have the virtue of making the focus of the main event clearly on feature films.

They can easily win back a good 10 or 15 minutes by not ordering pizza for everyone or running guided tours during the ceremony. These stunts are good for a minute or two of fun but quickly become dead weights. Better to just dump them altogether.

There's one other cut I'd suggest: drop the songs. Not entirely, perhaps, but by moving to a medley format, around 15 minutes could be trimmed from the broadcast.

You might call this cruel too, but if it saves us from more syrupy tunes from Disney animations, I'd consider it kind.

The problem: The speeches are boring

You know it, right?

The solution: No lists

I'm tempted to say all nominees should have to submit their speeches beforehand for editing – "too boring", "too many thank-yous", "God doesn't care" – but that would open the door to censorship.

I don't want that – none of us should want that – not just on the principle of the thing but also because it's the unhinged, controversial and overtly political moments that make the whole thing bearable.

Roberto Benigni’s exuberance upon winning the best foreign language film award in 1999 (for Life is Beautiful) is one of the great Oscar moments. More please.Credit:AP

I'd just make it a rule that you don't get to rattle off a list of names. That's what social media, email and letters are for. Tell a story, or a joke, or blubber if you must. Just don't bore us. You're entertainers, so entertain us.

As it is, winners get 45 seconds before the music starts. When a speech is good, that seems harsh. When it's not, it feels like an eternity. So here's the new rule: you get three names, then the orchestra kicks in, no matter who you are. Otherwise you have 45 seconds to make us care. It's your time, use it wisely.

The problem: I've never heard of half these films

Not such a problem this year, where the eight best picture nominees include a couple of genuine blockbusters and have collectively made twice the box office in North America that last year's batch did. But for every Black Panther there's a BlackKklansman, for every La La Land there's a Moonlight (OK, there's only one Moonlight for La La Land). But so long as these awards are about excellence rather than popularity, that's always the way it's going to be.

The solution: Get out more, or get over it

I write about movies for a living, and I see maybe 150 films a year, but that still leaves a lot I haven't seen. Joe Public sees a fraction of that number. Ipso facto, there will be movies among the nominees he or she has not seen. Deal with it.

Classi Oscar-bait: Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in Green Book.Credit:PATTI PERRET

The real issue with the nominees is that they have tended to come from a narrow band of what might be termed "Oscar-worthy" films. This year, Green Book is the egregious example. And that has largely been a result of the voters.

The Los Angeles Times famously analysed the membership of the Academy in 2012 and found it to be overwhelming white (94 per cent), male (77 per cent) and over 60 (54 per cent). Since then, membership has almost doubled – from around 5100 then to more than 9200 now – with a deliberate effort to increase diversity on all fronts. Inevitably, that will have an impact on the kinds of films that are nominated.

It's worth noting that the inclusion of Roma this year could have a major impact on the nominations of the future. It is a Netflix film, easily viewable by anyone at home, but it qualified because it had a cinema release (for a minimum of seven days in Los Angeles County) late last year. That's all it takes. Well, that and being rather good.

Win or lose, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma will have a major impact on the awards of the future.Credit:Netflix

The problem: I'm just tired of awards shows

Yep, I hear ya. The Oscars used to have the field pretty much to itself. There were the Emmys and the Grammys but, really, this was the big one.

Then along came MTV and Nickelodeon and people's choice awards and the Razzies and the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes and … well, you know, there's just too many awards shows with too many of the same people treading the same red carpet and being asked the same dumb questions – "who are you wearing", like they're Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs. Hell, they couldn't even get a host this year, so how can the rest of us be expected to care?

The solution: Just make it exceptional

The Academy thinks the issue is timing. That's why they've moved the ceremony earlier, to February 9 next year, in a bid to curtail "awards-season fatigue".

There's something in that, perhaps – the season really starts around late October or early November of the year before when the studios' "quality" product starts flooding into cinemas – but it's worth noting that the awards used to be held in April, so go figure.

But I think the Oscars needs to remember that it's about the best, and make that its point of difference. Stop apologising for rewarding excellence rather than popularity – just make sure you cast the net wide enough in seeking out that excellence. But don't get all po-faced about it. Build a broadcast that's fun and they will come. Maybe.

Problem: They're on when I'm at work, and by the time I get home I already know who's won

This is a problem for us, not the Americans, and short of a major realignment of the tectonic plates, it's pretty much insurmountable.

Solution: Slice and dice

It's not that long ago that we used to hold Oscar-night parties complete with sweepstakes, and that helped fuel the excitement of the event. Short of a mass voluntary information blackout, that's impossible now. And that renders the evening telecast on delay largely redundant, or at least flat.

So, here's the deal. Consume it however you choose during the day, then come home and watch the (as yet imaginary) hour-long highlights package on the telly. If you really want to see the whole thing, record it during the day and watch it when you get home. Or watch the bits that you're interested in online, in bite-size chunks on catch-up. Think of the whole telecast – no matter how long it is – as the limited-edition director's cut, purely for the die-hard fans.

There's no shame in making do with the abbreviated version. No matter how long this year's event ends up running, you can bet there'll be a couple of thousand people in the Dolby Theatre on Monday who'll be wishing they could do precisely the same.

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