To say the buzz surrounding the 91st Annual Academy Awards ceremony is bad would an understatement. The show, set to air Feb. 24 on ABC, has been besieged by missteps and public relations fiascos for months; normally the belle of the awards season ball, this year's Oscars broadcast is shaping up about as well as Fyre Festival.
There's no real need to recap the errors, but doing so also provides a pretty delightful list of bad ideas worth remembering for the future. Last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced it would add an award for best popular film — an insult to not just 90 years of best picture winners but also this year's potential nominees, including Black Panther. (Are movies that have historically won best picture not "popular"? Is Black Panther not worthy of best picture consideration because it has made a lot of money?) The award was eventually scrapped, though Academy president John Bailey later teased that a version of the popular film Oscar award could find its way to future ceremonies. (Can't wait!)
Other changes to the show were planned, too. The winner announcements for best cinematography, best film editing, best makeup and hairstyling and best live-action short were originally set to take place during commercial breaks, with a video package of the winners' speeches folded into the broadcast later. But like the popular film Oscar that tweak was broadly condemned and — just a week before the show — dropped altogether.
Producers also tried to punt best original song. At first, only two of the category's nominees were scheduled to feature on the broadcast: Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper's "Shallow" and Kendrick Lamar and SZA's "All the Stars" (Lamar, however, remains unconfirmed to appear). As with the popular film award and the commercial break gambit, that decision was later reversed too, following harsh critique from fans and even, reportedly, the nominees. (Don't sleep on the power of Lady Gaga.)
Then there was Kevin Hart. After it was announced Hart was set to emcee the ceremony, a series of homophobic tweets from the comic's past resurfaced; amid the ensuing uproar, Hart refused to apologize... until he did, as he stepped down as host. The whole ordeal took place over 48 hours — but wasn't over. During an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres' talk show, DeGeneres pleaded with Hart to reconsider. After further criticism, Hart decided against hosting once and for all, leaving the Oscars without a host for the first time since 1989.
So, the show's a hot mess — or not? According to ABC President of Entertainment Karey Burke, who spoke to reporters at the Television Critics Association winter press tour earlier this month, "There wasn't messiness beyond the Kevin Hart situation." After that, she added, "it was pretty clear that we were going to stay the course."
Burke's optimism aside, even she acknowledged the ratings are still a concern. Despite Black Panther and other box office hits like A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody among the nominees, there is some expectation that ratings for the Oscars broadcast will drop. But even if the results are better, the institution still feels broken. What can the Academy Awards and ABC, home of the Oscars through 2028, do to stave off irrelevance and keep Oscar fans happy in the process? Here are our humble suggestions on how to fix the Oscars broadcast.
1. Expand the Show to Another Night
Here's a thing the Emmys do each year: push numerous awards to an entirely different ceremony. The Creative Arts Emmys take place the week before the Emmys television broadcast and feature below-the-line awards and some smaller acting honors, like best guest stars. The Oscars do this too, sort of. The scientific and technical awards are handed out well before the Academy Awards, and the results are given a quick segment during the televised ceremony. Do more of that! Many critics and Oscar fans alike blasted the idea of relegating below-the-line categories to commercial breaks — a move the Tony Awards have found some success with in the past — but what if those awards were simply displaced to an entirely different show, one broadcast via the Academy's YouTube channel or streamed on Disney+ once that's up and running? It's hard to imagine that wouldn't make for a better main event — and it would allow the below-the-line winners to get a moment in the sun all to themselves. Speaking of categories...
2. Create New Categories
Bless the current list of categories, but after all these years, what if we added some better ones? Instead of best original song, how about best use of music in a movie (FYC: Post Malone's "Sunflower" from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse)? What about allowing for a best casting Oscar, to honor the casting directors who put together the best ensembles (might this have been a place to award Crazy Rich Asians, which was snubbed across the board)? Shouldn't stuntpeople receive the same prestige as other below-the-line industry workers (anything to recognize the people behind Mission: Impossible - Fallout)? Plus, if the Oscars add another day of awards, all of these new categories could be honored without affecting the actual broadcast running time. It's a way to open the tent even further and allow for some new and interesting entry points into how films are judged and discussed.
3. Reconsider the Host's Job
Maybe Hart's flameout will wind up being a good thing for the Academy Awards. "There was an idea that we were just going to just have presenters host the Oscars, and we all got on board with that pretty quickly," Burke said. "The producers, I think, wisely decided to not have the host and just have presenters and let the movies be the stars." More of this kind of thinking, please! Gone are the days when Billy Crystal or Ellen DeGeneres could dominate the Oscars broadcast — especially when prevailing thought around hosting the Academy Awards is that it comes with tons of risk and little reward. By focusing on the movies and presenters, the Oscars might finally respect its biggest fans rather cater to casual viewers who don't care all that much about the ceremony in general. Oh, and about those fans...
4. Respect the Fans
The biggest flaw of the Oscars' ill-fated popular film award was that it truly missed the mark on who loves the Oscars: movie fans with a deep well of knowledge about film. That audience doesn't necessarily care about the most popular film — but does know why Roger Deakins winning an award for best cinematography is noteworthy. In 2019, when ratings for even the Super Bowl dropped, the idea of an "Oscars for Everyone" feels backward and stale. Rather than try to reach everyone, ABC and the Academy should lean into what makes the Oscars the Oscars and be happy with a smaller but more loyal audience. Unfortunately, neither ABC nor the Academy seems all that interested in respecting the Oscars' base. Just look at another controversy that didn't need to happen: the Oscars' move to change the way the four major acting awards are announced. In years' past, the previous winner anoints the next one. This year, reportedly in an effort to add more star power to the fledgling broadcast, that apparently won't happen — meaning Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, Frances McDormand and Gary Oldman will not get to reward the acting winners. "It breaks my heart," Janney wrote in a now-deleted Instagram comment about the change. Following the backlash, the Academy revealed all four stars will present at the Oscars — although they reportedly won't crown the acting winners. (And they said this year's show wasn't a mess!)
5. Most of All, Just Move the Damn Date!
By the time the Oscars air this month, it will have been 53 weeks since Black Panther premiered in theaters and two months since the ball dropped on 2018. In this age of information, when every day is stuffed with enough breaking news to fill a textbook, it's unlikely most viewers are still interested in 2018 movies by this point. But even if they are, the Oscars just feel awfully late to the party. When Glenn Close wins her long-awaited first Oscar for The Wife on Feb. 24 (Close is the heavy favorite in the lead actress category), she will have already given acceptance speeches at the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards, Critics' Choice Awards and the BAFTA Awards. Even for the biggest fans, what's the point in watching the Oscars if we've already seen a variation of the Oscars four times before? The Academy Awards has allowed itself to take a backseat for far too long. It's time for Hollywood's biggest night to take the advice of a past winner: act like the King of the World.
This post has been updated with new information on the Academy's broadcast plans.
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