By mid-February, the awards season conversation, at least for those who care enough to participate, tends to focus on the nominees for the Academy Awards: who has a lock on her category, whose campaign is waning, who might pull off an upset. Not so in the case of the 2019 Oscars. This year, changes to the ceremony itself have spectators so heated that the awards are beginning to feel like an afterthought.
In an effort to boost ratings, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began experimenting last summer with changes aimed at shortening the ceremony to three hours and appealing to a broader audience. But many of those changes have been received as insults—either to tradition, to the night’s honorees or to movie fans—and several have been recalled after public outcry. As the Feb. 24 air date approaches, the Academy has given viewers little faith that they’ll get it together for a smooth and entertaining night. (And that’s before we even get into the controversial nominees themselves.)
Here’s a primer on why the 2019 Oscars are shaping up to be such a mess and where the Academy might go from here.
Why the Academy has made so many changes to the Oscars
Ratings for last year’s nearly four-hour Academy Awards broadcast were at their lowest in modern history, with 26.5 million viewers watching the ceremony. Compare that number to just four years earlier, when 43.74 million viewers tuned in to watch 12 Years a Slave win Best Picture in 2014. It’s not hard to see why ABC put pressure on the Academy to address falling ratings, and the Academy, in turn, began getting creative with ideas to broaden the night’s appeal and deal with its protracted running time.
But they’ve made a staggering number of missteps along the way, and a week out from Oscar Sunday, the show looks to be a bigger mess than if they had left it well enough alone.
The popular film Oscar is a thing—and then it isn’t
In August 2018, the Academy announced the addition of a new category for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. Academy President John Bailey later described the award as an attempt to boost ratings by appealing to fans of mainstream box-office hits—an idea which actually harkens back to Oscar’s origins, when top honors were split between “Outstanding Picture” and “Unique and Artistic Picture.” The thinking was that more people might be inclined to watch if the movies they had actually seen—blockbusters that often get recognized only in below-the-line categories, if at all—took home some hardware in the night’s top categories too.
But the backlash was swift and strong. Many viewed the new category as an insinuation that a film like Black Panther couldn’t also simply be good on its merits as a work of art, and that a hard line should be drawn between art and entertainment. In September, the Academy announced that it would not present the new category and would table the discussion for future years. In January, Black Panther became the first superhero movie nominated for Best Picture.
The Oscars finds itself without a host
It wasn’t until Dec. 5 that the Academy announced Kevin Hart as the host of the 91st Academy Awards. The decision came late in the game, suggesting that it hadn’t been easy to find someone for a gig that’s notoriously difficult to nail. But two days after the announcement, Hart stepped down from the job after homophobic jokes and tweets he had made in the past resurfaced. Though the Academy gave him a chance to keep the job if he apologized, Hart declined, saying, “The reason why I passed is because I’ve addressed this several times.”
Thus began a game of will-he-or-won’t-he, with Ellen DeGeneres telling Hart she was pulling for him to host, during an appearance on The Ellen Show. This in turn generated criticism for DeGeneres, who some said didn’t have a place to forgive Hart for the harm he had done to the queer black community.
In the end, Hart did not pursue reinstatement as host, and the Oscars will go without (despite suggestions that Maya Rudolph, the Muppets or Paddington host instead). Though the show’s producers are presumably attempting to arrange as many star-studded bits as possible—presenters will include Rudolph, Amy Poehler, Jennifer Lopez and Daniel Craig, among others—it will be difficult to replace the binding factor a host brings to a long program. Still, it’s difficult to argue that even a comedian as popular as Hart would have been the solution to the Academy’s problems at a time when viewership of live TV just isn’t what it used to be.
Attempts to shorten the broadcast result in alienation
The Academy has reportedly considered several moves to reduce the running time of the broadcast, and all of them have been met with derision. First came reports that not all five nominees for Best Original Song would be invited to perform, as is tradition. People got mad; now all five will perform. Then came rumors that last year’s acting winners might not be invited to present those categories to this year’s winners, as is tradition. (Allison Janney suggested as much in a now-deleted Instagram post.) But the Academy soon confirmed that all four would present.
Then, in a move that has prompted the loudest response out of all these missteps, came the now-reversed Feb. 12 announcement that four categories—cinematography, film editing, live-action short and makeup and hairstyling—would be presented during commercial breaks. They would then be edited to remove the winner’s walk to and from the stage and broadcast later in the evening.
In response, Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese and others wrote an open letter to the Academy. “Relegating these essential cinematic crafts to lesser status in this 91st Academy Awards ceremony is nothing less than an insult to those of us who have devoted our lives and passions to our chosen profession,” it read. Others pointed out what a logistical nightmare it would be for speeches to happen during attendees’ only opportunity to get up and go to the bathroom. In the biggest moment of their professional lives, the winners would be giving speeches to a half-empty, half-distracted room.
President Bailey responded to the criticism, reinforcing the fact that the speeches would still air during the broadcast and explaining that the categories presented during commercial breaks would rotate each year. But the damage had been done: to members of these branches of the Academy, and to film lovers in general, the move created a feeling of palpable disrespect on a night meant to be a celebration of all facets of movie-making.
Three days later, with pressure mounting, Academy leaders reversed course and took back the controversial decision, saying, “The Academy has heard the feedback from its membership…All Academy Awards will be presented without edits, in our traditional format.” The decision means that the ceremony will not be completed in three hours flat—a duration the broadcast already ran the risk of blowing past if speeches go long.
Misplaced efforts with little time to correct course
The Academy has mistakenly looked to shortening the Oscars ceremony as a way to attract more viewers. Attempts to save time assume that an extra 15 minutes stand between a person deciding to tune in or turn on Netflix, when in fact the most-watched Oscars ever, according to Variety, which took place in 1998, was only six minutes shorter than last year’s dismal outing. People aren’t tuning out because the Oscars are long; they’re tuning out because live TV isn’t the draw it once was (see: this year’s Super Bowl ratings). They can keep track of winners on Twitter while doing something else and watch the buzzy speeches on YouTube the next morning.
They’re also tuning out because they’re not invested in the nominated movies. In a TIME and Survey Monkey survey of 1,875 people last year, 65% of respondents said they watch between zero and two of the eight to 10 Best Picture nominees in an average year. Fifty-nine percent said they would probably not or definitely not watch last year’s ceremony, and 59% of those who planned not to watch cited lack of interest as their reason. (Given these results, it’s not surprising that the Academy introduced the Popular Film Oscar, and it wouldn’t be a shock if it’s brought back on the table for 2020 and beyond.)
Once the Academy gets through this year’s Oscars, its leadership will need to ask itself some tough questions about how to evolve and grow the show’s audience without alienating its core devotees. But for now, they’ve got a show to put on. And if it’s anything like the Grammys—which was widely expected to flop thanks to the absence of the biggest names in music but which ended up pulling off a number of highly watchable performances—perhaps all this chatter will end up building to an organized, if tame, evening of charming presenters and wistful montages. Which would be a fine outcome—but unless people are tuning in to rubberneck after the messy run-up to the evening, it might not be enough to draw the numbers ABC and the Academy are aiming for.
It would be a shame if the Oscars are a mess. But at least a mess isn’t boring.
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