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What Are ABC and the Academy Doing to the Oscars? Trying to Cut Cinema Itself Down to Size

Here’s a prediction, or maybe just a hope, but I’ll put it in crystal-ball terms: By the time that Oscar night arrives on Feb. 24, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will have reversed its decision not to live-broadcast the presentation of this year’s award for cinematography. The outcry against it has been too vocal, too passionate, too unified to ignore. If I’m right, and the cinematography award is reinstated to the telecast (I predict that will happen with the editing award too), it will be the latest in a series of boneheaded ideas for how to revamp the Oscars that were floated and then shot down.

The reason I think that’s going to happen is that there’s now a powerful collective industry counterweight to the Academy’s frantic moves to make the Oscars over into something more palatable to a mainstream audience, every one of those moves having been made under pressure from the executives at ABC. At this point, after the “popular” Oscar category (can we all agree? worst idea ever), the Kevin Hart debacle, and now the outcry over these absolutely crucial artisan awards, you might even call the counterweight a resistance. And for the most part, it’s been working.

Talk about trying to fix something that ain’t broke! Everyone, of course, likes to gripe about the Oscars, and we’ve all got a theory as to how the telecast could be improved, or maybe even made more popular. The truth, though, is that in an age of fragmented viewership and niche audiences, when everything from the Super Bowl on down is struggling to hold onto market share, the Oscars, despite their ratings slippage, have actually hung in there. It’s not as if the show’s audience has ever gone away — you could argue, quite convincingly, that it’s actually fortunate the show still wins the global viewership it does. Last-ditch, what-were-they-thinking? ideas like refusing to live-broadcast the cinematography and editing awards (or other categories, which I don’t mean to slight; I’m just using those two as headline-making examples) bespeak a raw desperation that may not be warranted.

This year, reinstating the cinematography and editing categories, if my prediction holds true, will add back all of six minutes to the show. And after all the brouhaha, cinematography, in particular, could now emerge as one of the sexiest awards of the night. In an age defined by technology and an overall inside-baseball logistical knowledge of things, it’s highly likely that many more people watching the Oscars today actually know what cinematography is, and care about it, than did 30 or 40 years ago. With our phones, we are now all cinematographer (I took a traveling shot of my daughters in the playground the other day that I thought rivaled something out of “Children of Men.” I was kidding myself, but you get the idea.) As countless film-industry luminaries have pointed out, with furious eloquence, in recent days, cinematography and editing are the two essential building blocks of cinema: the brick and mortar, the visual and spatial-temporal DNA. Relegating them to second-tier status isn’t just clueless. It insults the very essence of what movies are.

But isn’t that, in a way, what’s been going on throughout the comedy of errors that has marked the Academy and ABC’s handling of the Oscars this year? I keep referencing the network not to let AMPAS off the hook (the blame is surely shared), but because it was widely reported that after the 2018 Academy Awards telecast, AMPAS was called on the carpet by ABC executives who were up in arms about the show’s ratings slippage. The short-lived decision to create a special category for “popular” films emerged out of that discussion. And while we can all be glad that that idea was allowed to die, it’s worth looking at what it symbolized: the notion that the Academy Awards had a problem, and that the problem is that they’d fallen out of touch with the mainstream audience.

If you put that another way, here’s what the powers at ABC, at that moment, were really saying. They were saying that the problem wasn’t the show — it was the movies themselves. The movies were now too small to draw a vast audience (or, at least, as big an audience as ABC wanted), and that’s because those movies were now too, you know, artistic. And though the popular category died on the vine, the consciousness behind it did not. The Oscar telecast is now being guided by forces that have become hostile to what movies are.

That consciousness is evident in every last one of these decisions. It’s as if the Oscars, that famously vulgar and self-absorbed spectacle, were now, ironically, like a serious filmmaker trying to made a movie on his or her own terms, and the combined forces of ABC and the Academy are like a studio head, fixated on box-office returns at the expense of everything else, who goes to war with the director and does everything he can to crush his or her vision. Because vision, in this case, equals inferior profits.

And so we get this: Add a popular category, because it will represent the kind of movies that “the people” want to see on Oscar night, as opposed to those egghead/arty movies that appeal only to out-of-touch elites. Add Kevin Hart as host, because despite his homophobic tweets he’s an actor who stars in the kind of movies that “the people” want to see on Oscar night (and he won’t go near those egghead/arty movies that appeal only to out-of-touch elites). Ditch the cinematography and editing categories, because that stuff — unlike, say, famous actresses in designer gowns — is all about the art of making movies, and that’s not what “the people” want to see on Oscar night.

And that’s not even to mention the show’s running time, which must be capped at three hours, because that’s the network’s dog-whistle code for dealing with the following issue: the speeches made by the winners. Here’s why that last decision is sheer madness — but, in its way, part of the pandering-to-the-people, anti-egghead/art corporate demagoguery that’s going on. In a Variety story from Feb. 12, Brent Lang demonstrated that there is no definitive correlation — not even a mild one — between the length of the Oscar telecast and how well the show does in the ratings. Squeezing the entire telecast into a compact three hours, and basically telling the people who run it that their show is going to turn into a pumpkin if it doesn’t cut off on the dot of 11:30 p.m. EST, will in no way guarantee a larger audience. And why would it? If you’re drawn to watching the Oscars in the first place, and you’re still there at 11:30 p.m., you’re all in; you’re not going to give up before the big-gun awards are announced. The yearly stats bear this out.

But if you are going to cut the show down to three hours, something’s gotta give, and it’s not just a handful of below-the-line awards. It’s the acceptance speeches. They can add to the show by accretion, adding up in imperceptible but significant ways. And so the boxed-in running time is really a warning to everyone in the Academy: Keep it short — or else. This is supposed to save us from those boring Oscar speeches that drone on with more thank yous to more agents and relatives you’ve never heard of than you can count. And maybe it will. But in doing so, it cuts off the possibility of one of those speeches — like Frances McDormand’s last year, or Matthew McConaughey’s in 2014, or countless others that we can all name — where the winner takes his or her time, settling into the groove of what he or she wants to say, and then makes a statement that shimmers and lights up the room, and lights up 10 million living rooms, and is remembered, years or decades later.

These aren’t just moments of celebrity and triumph. They are moments that let us peek at the other side of celebrity, moments in which actors, or writers, or directors, or cinematographers reveal what drives them to be who they are as popular artists. And in that way, they reveal a crucial element of the art of motion pictures. Those moments, I would argue, are the key reason that people tune in to the Academy Awards — apart, of course, from the sheer drama of finding out who wins. If you cut those moments, those artists, off at the knees, you’re not adding to the show’s fortunes; you’re slowly killing the goose. And you’re doing it by making a statement: that what those people have to say doesn’t really matter all that much. Because the movies they’re being honored for don’t matter. All that matters is making the Oscars into a mass-audience-pleasing clockwork awards machine. The Oscars now need to be saved, all right — from the very forces that are threatening to turn their slow fade into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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