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The Academy’s Oscars Tinkering Risks Losing Its Die-Hard Audience

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is desperately trying to reverse a downward ratings trend for its annual Oscars telecast. That means going for big-name hosts like The Rock (who reportedly couldn’t take the gig) and Kevin Hart (who accepted and then bowed out amid controversy). It means implementing a half-baked “popular film” Oscar that was laughed out of the building by the group’s own membership. And it means promising a swiftly-paced three-hour telecast, whatever the consequences.

Those consequences, it was revealed in August, included the nixing of certain Oscar presentations from the live show, relegating them to slimmed-down moments to be aired later in the program. Only no one knew which categories those would be, leading to widespread anxiety (judging by a number of artisans Variety spoke to at the annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon last week) and a general sense of waiting for the shoe to drop.

Monday, it finally dropped. Academy president John Bailey revealed to the membership that four categories will get the live-air ax: cinematography, film editing, makeup/hairstyling and live action short. Unsurprisingly, the announcement was met with industry derision.

“TV show whose sole purpose is to package for public consumption the celebration of cinema craft announces that celebration of cinema craft is too boring for public consumption,” snarked “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” cinematographer Steve Yedlin. “‘So excited to watch the Oscars this year because it’s a few minutes shorter!’ – millennial who still wont watch the Oscars,” tweeted “A Quiet Place” screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods.

While these presentations will be streamed online for the global audience to experience them in tandem with the audience inside the Dolby Theatre, the idea for the live ABC broadcast is to edit out the winners’ walks from their seats to the stage and to air their speeches in full at separate moments throughout the show.

It all feels a bit sloppily handled as the Academy finds itself at the whims of a broadcast agreement with ABC for the next decade. But it seems to me there are a handful of changes to implement that would give producers back the time they need (if indeed a three-hour show is so important — I’m not convinced it is).

For starters, why not finally make the evening a celebration of feature filmmaking? This is meant as no disrespect to short filmmakers. They are the feature filmmakers of tomorrow. But why not give them the time and attention they deserve at a satellite ceremony akin to the Governors Awards, then air a package from that event on the Oscars telecast?

It took folks a while to come around to the idea of moving the lifetime achievement portion of the show off the air, but it’s ultimately worked out quite well. In fact, it’s provided an opportunity for the Academy to honor even more legends every November than they could when the honorary Oscars were presented on the show. (The organization should also live-stream the Governors Awards, while we’re on the topic. Large portions of the evening are already uploaded to YouTube within hours as it is.) While governors of the short films and feature animation branch (yes, those two things are combined) might disagree, handing the shorts in this fashion would be dignified.

Another idea: Combine the sound categories. Other than the actors and writers, the sound branch is the only branch that dictates two awards. Yes, sound editing and sound mixing are two distinctive trades, but then so are production design and set decoration (which are honored together in the production design category). So are makeup and hairstyling. So are the myriad disciplines of visual effects artists. And the kicker: Over the years, I’ve even heard from members of the sound branch that combining into one category, much like the BAFTA Awards, would be preferable. Many of them feel the distinction between the two trades is lost on the Academy at large anyway.

Those are just two thoughts, but they cut four categories out of the show instantly. And they even leave room to add, say, a stunt category, which that community has long lobbied for and which could allow for more popular films to pop up in the nominations list each year.

My only other thought is this: Give Dwayne Johnson the world. He has said he couldn’t host this year because of his commitments to the next “Jumanji” film, but if you could somehow make the Oscars synonymous with The Rock, line him up for the gig for a few years of consistency, you’d have one of today’s biggest global superstars as the face of your annual movies showcase. (I doubt this idea would take much convincing over at the Academy’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters. Wrangling Johnson’s jam-packed schedule is another matter altogether, though.)

So good luck to the Academy with these growing — er, shrinking — pains. Obviously no one wants the Oscars to fail, but the organization is at risk of losing its die-hard constituency if it continues with this arbitrary tinkering. The Academy Awards remains the highest-rated show of the year short of the Super Bowl, and as we saw just a week ago, the gridiron is losing viewers, too. But I somehow doubt the NFL is going to be so drastically rethinking its own showcase in the off-season.

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