A week ago, Oscar nominees from branches including editing, sound, and makeup and hair were invited by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to a virtual town hall. They assumed, according to one individual who attended the Tuesday event, that the meeting was being called to discuss COVID-19 protocols for Hollywood’s biggest night.
Instead, they were informed that their categories would not air live on the telecast, said the source (a current nominee who agreed to speak with Variety on the condition of anonymity). In total, eight different Oscar categories — original score, makeup and hairstyling, documentary short, film editing, production design, animated short, live action short and sound — will be awarded prior to the start of the upcoming March 27 show, edited for time, and broadcast sporadically throughout the evening. Other awards shows, such as the Tonys, have deployed a similar approach, but the move has sparked controversy among Academy members and the film community.
On the town hall Zoom before word of the decision leaked, some nominees were aghast. Additional sources told Variety that the town hall was convened to lend a personal touch to the news and show respect for their nominees. Present on the call was Shawn Finnie, executive vice president of membership and awards; Christine Simmons, AMPAS chief operating officer; Jennifer Todd, governor of the producers branch; and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson, who joined the call after it began. Several individuals on the call of about 40 people tried to offer workarounds to the decision or alternative ways to streamline the show, but were rebuffed, said the source. They were informed that the decision was final.
“To relegate us in this way, it’s so disrespectful,” the source told Variety, fearful to disclose their identity during their Oscar campaign.
Emails and text messages flew across the industry in the hours following the move. The shock and outrage were predictable. After all, the Academy previously tried and failed before to edit down the show. For its 2019 broadcast, organizers announced and then reversed a move to air four categories during commercial breaks.
”It sends a strong message about prioritizing of branches and specific filmmakers within the Academy,” one notable producer said, also speaking anonymously because of fear of professional consequences. “I think there would be other ways where the Academy could still present these awards live and quicken the pace of the show overall. This specific choice feels a bit lacking in creativity.”
Insiders familiar with the Academy said the group was empathetic but frustrated, especially as critics of the category decision are largely the same ones urging radical turnaround for the telecast, which has suffered declining ratings for years. Furthermore, the insiders said, some governors representing those categories were fully supportive of the decision, citing an overdue need for change.
For their part, most of the major industry guilds were diplomatic, even as some of their public statements hinted at bruised feelings.
“This cannot have been an easy conclusion for the Academy to draw,” Steve Urban, vice president of the Motion Picture Sound Editors, said. “Sound is crucial to keeping any title vital, kinetic and relevant. The Motion Picture Sound Editors applaud every Oscar nominee. We know how powerful that sound can be.”
Nelson Coates, president of the Art Directors Guild IATSE Local 800, said, “We support the Academy’s commitment to identify all nominees on-air and feature all winners’ acceptance speeches on the live broadcast.”
The American Cinema Editors, meanwhile, were the only guild to publicly decry the decision.
“We are deeply disappointed by the Academy’s decision to alter the way certain categories, including film editing, will be presented in the Oscars telecast,” the American Cinema Editors Board of Directors said in a statement. “It sends a message that some creative disciplines are more vital than others. Nothing could be further from the truth and all who make movies know this. As a group of artists wholly dedicated to advancing the art and prestige of film editing, we passionately believe that editing — and all other creative disciplines that are part of the collaborative art of filmmaking — should be treated equally. Our contributions to that collaboration may sometimes appear invisible but they are undeniable. We hope that film editors and other artists affected by this change will be honored and celebrated with the passion, dignity and inclusion they deserve.”
In its own memo to the entirety of its starry membership, the Academy called the decision “in the best interest of the future of our show and our organization.” Reading between the lines, film journalists and industry watchers took this as a sign that the length of the Oscar broadcast — notoriously a joyful slog of emotional acceptance speeches and skits — was at the heart of the matter.
“I don’t think someone will now tune in because some categories aren’t live,” the producer added. “I do think some film lovers will choose not to watch because they will claim the Academy is less concerned with honoring the craftspeople on the ground floor.”
Awards consultants, about as inside baseball as it comes in the byways of Hollywood, were mixed on the decision.
“I don’t like it,” says Ray Costa, an AMPAS member who consults on music awards. “Film music and other crafts deserve more respect. But, as long as these categories get seen and heard in the live show and different categories are rotated next year, it’s at least better than how the music categories were treated last year with the Oscar song performances relegated to a preshow and no film scores featured during the live telecast. If nominated songs and scores are heard during the live telecast, and the prerecorded presentations and acceptance speeches in the Dolby theatre are shown in their entirety with an audience, it’s not ideal, but I’m okay with it.”
Andrea Resnick, whose firm Impact24 works with creatives in all the categories getting chopped from the live show, said “below-the-line artisans always get the short end of the stick, even though they’re the unsung heroes of Hollywood. I believe there are other methods to make the Oscars broadcast more exciting without reducing the recognition all the nominees deserve.”
Another top trophy advisor said simply, “an Oscar is an Oscar. Just because it’s not in the live telecast doesn’t devalue the recognition.”
Jazz Tangcay, Marc Malkin and Clayton Davis contributed to this report.