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Do the Academy Awards Still Matter?

Since 1929, the Academy Awards have long been the defining term for success in Hollywood. Whether someone is nominated or wins, they will forever be known by it. This title helps to sell movies and guarantee some level of success. While the golden statuette might hold some power, does it still mean what it used to? Declining viewership and growing criticism over the lack of diversity within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and among the nominees has led many to question the value of this award ceremony. There have been quick fixes and hope that the long-term ones will pay off in the end, but it’s hard to think about the ceremony without the issues that plague it. To continue with a more modern era, these awards will have to adapt to a changing social landscape. 

For the past ten years, the Oscars have struggled to stay relevant. While they are recognized by everyone, there is the issue of viewership and if the award still means what it used to. While the awards are still televised, it has struggled with a steep decline in viewership. They recently made the switch to cap the ceremony at three hours and to have an earlier air date. While the Academy hoped that this would boost their chances for better ratings, they were wrong. For the past couple of years, live viewership has been in the mid-20 million range. While this year was different due to the pandemic, viewership plummeted to 9.85 million viewers. Other award shows are struggling as well but this doesn’t seem like a good sign.

While the awards might continue to be telecast, a large percentage of people will continue to watch highlights the next day or just check the updates on their phones. Attempts were made to entice viewers to watch it live, but most fall flat and there are usually more criticisms than praise reported the day after. While the ceremony itself is seemingly losing its golden edge, the value of the award itself is having similar issues. 

While a lot of value is given to the award itself, can this still win over modern audiences? The unexpected win of Parasite last year helped to usher in the possibility of seeing more than just the same directors and types of movies win each year. Movies such as this have done well across the world at film festivals such as Cannes and Berlinale. Due to this, should the Oscars evolve to follow their format? It’s no secret that there has been an ongoing debate about how the Oscars and Cannes rarely award the same award to films. Rather than ignoring that, is this hinting at a possible need for change? It’s no secret that Cannes and Berlinale receive a large number of submissions from many country’s which in turn has led to smaller films getting the limelight. These same films wouldn’t have the chance for that opportunity at the Oscars. This issue extends past the problem with relevance and connects with the multitude of issues concerning diversity that continuously plague these awards.

Diversity is not a stranger to award shows and this issue can be found in every one of them. With the Oscars, they have had many opportunities to try and do something about it. Six-hundred-and-five of the nominations in the past decade have gone to white people as well as 91 wins. Due to high numbers like these, social media has tried to call them out with hashtags such as #OscarsSoWhite in 2015. Ironically the year before this hashtag was more diverse in its nominations. While this prompted a lot of controversies, it has seemingly only led to a series of guidelines that movies will need to follow in order to qualify for a nomination. 

These rules will not go into place until the Oscars in 2024, but they are sure to keep coming up as they are not the easiest to follow. An article from Variety attempts to explain them by using 1917 as an example. It explains how the film must fall into two of the four categories in order to qualify. 1917 easily does that which brings the guidelines into question. If it’s not difficult to follow them, will studios do the bare minimum to qualify or actually put in the effort to make sure that there is diversity within cast, crew, and story? A recent analysis of box office performance showed that films with more than 40% minority in their casts make much more money than those with a white-washed cast. Studies like these only prove that studios can financially benefit from making an effort at least with their casting choices. Only time will tell when it comes to seeing if these guidelines actually make an impact. 

Another avenue to consider when it comes to diversity is the Academy itself. While they have made efforts to bring on more diverse members, should it be restructured? Out of 7,000 members, only around 35% are women and under 20% are non-white. This will automatically cause some sort of influence when it comes to the winners. This year saw a rise in more wins going to minorities but will this continue?

There were more female directors than ever before but did they have to work harder to get there? The average cost of female-directed films came to somewhere under $17 million. While the male-directed films were given tens of millions. Regardless, Nomadland still won for best picture, director, and actress. Yet, a New York Times article ponders on whether this will hold true for the Oscars next year. Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story will debut next year and probably in time for the Oscars as well. If (and when) it gets nominated, will trends fall back into a place of celebrating the same creators or will more films fight to stay in the small spotlight? This hypocrisy among the Academy and the Awards might continue but for their sake, more effort should be made in order for viewers to still view it with some credibility. 

With all of this being said, this years awards definitely had its ups and downs. On the plus-side, there were many firsts when it came to the winners of some of the awards including Chloe Zhao for Best Director and Yuh-Jung Youn for Best Supporting Actress. The Academy included content that didn’t have a theatrical release which helped to expand the nomination pool. Due to this, films such as One Night in Miami… and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom were nominated and brought home awards. These pros, if continued, will help the Oscars to evolve and appear more inclusive. There was also many attempts by the different presenters to encourage viewers to go back to movie theatres once they open again. While their minds were in the right place, some of it felt a little too staged. This starts off a list of negatives from this years show. 

Many of the cons for this year can be attributed to the new format that was created because of the pandemic. Production-wise, there was a lot of silence and awkwards angles. Things were shaky and having the presenters move around felt a little forced. It was interesting to hear the little quips they gave to each nominee but it wasn’t always the most smooth. Another awkward moment was when they did the “In Memoriam” piece. It was rushed and they omitted a few names including Naya Rivera and Jessica Walter. With a year filled with so much death, it would’ve felt more appropiate if it was slowed down a bit more. Lastly, the choice to rearrange the last three awards was definitely a bold one. While there were good intentions, the Best Actor award should never have been assumed. If Chadwick Boseman had won, it would have been just as touching even if the award wasn’t last. It just brought more criticism to the show. 

Overall, the Academy Awards this year were different in many ways. It will be interesting to see how they proceed over the next couple of years. If they are able to figure out how to run the actual ceremony a little better, I think it would help to bring up viewership. It will also be interesting to see how they run with the addition of films that chose to postpose their theatrical release. Will this drown out the indies that made this year so unique or will they continue to have a place on this infamous stage?

One of the biggest questions we can ask ourselves is: will the Academy Awards continue to have the same impact? As members of the film industry, these awards have sometimes felt like the end-all and be-all of our careers. While there are many other honors that are just as important, Hollywood has mainly embraced the tradition of these awards. Another one is: as students graduating into the industry, should we continue this tradition? Is it so engrained that we all just accept it and continue to uphold it or should we be furthering something else? In seven years, it will be the 100th year for the ceremony. Will it still be around for another hundred years? The Oscars definitely has its flaws but they can be fixed. If these awards try to change, and are given the encouragement and support, this tradition should be able to continue and should reflect the time that it’s in now.

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Set Up for Failure: Pandemic Frustrations Directed at Oscar Equity Change

As the first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic passes and calls for racial and social justice are at the forefront of daily conversation following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, we’ve all had to readjust our understanding of the world we live in. One such entity is the film industry. Yet this reassessment of equity has predated the cataclysmic events of the past year. Hollywood has been having this conversation with itself since 2015 after the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, coined by April Reign, went viral. 

The award show ran by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The Oscars, is self-accredited as being the voice of film excellence for Hollywood and the global film industry. In a March 23rd article published by The Hollywood Reporter, “Will the 93rd Oscars be More Than Just a Footnote?,” writer Gregg Kilday quotes Hollywood publicist Stan Rosenfield, “With Oscar winners, they never say what year, or what the weather was like that night, who might have also been nominated, or who was the host — just the words ‘Oscar winner’ will be uttered and printed for the rest of their life.” While I use this quote outside of its original context, it supports my point that perceived success in Hollywood and the Oscars are intrinsically linked. To win that golden statue is viewed as being the ultimate achievement, but the controversial nature in which films and their respected filmmakers are nominated cast doubt on its legitimacy. The conversation of representational equity hit its fever pitch when South Korean filmmaker, Bong Joon Ho spoke on this in his Best Picture acceptance speech during the 92nd Oscars for his 2019 masterpiece of a film, Parasite. “The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local.” Though technically false [Best Foreign-Language Film as a category was introduced in 1956 but has been criticized as tokenism]  Ho, a non-white, non-American, Korean speaking filmmaker, used the platform of his historic award sweep to point out the long-existing discontinuities between what the Oscars say they are and what they actually are: a global exporter of cultural Americentrism that has since fallen out of vogue.

While Parasite (2019) made history as the first non-English film to win Best Picture and Ho did as well as he tied the record for wins in one night Walt Disney has held since 1954. The 92nd Oscars were still criticized for underrepresenting large swaths of groups in the film industry: women as directors specifically. The Academy could no longer hit snooze on their wake-up calls for equitable change. Thus a set of story and production criteria targeted at closing the gap in representation was put in place. From 2024 and on, films must meet two of the available four “standards” to be considered eligible for a Best Picture nomination (there are no such criteria for any of the other contested categories).

Though the direct influence of these new standards over the industry was placed on the backburner, the Academy still made strides by inducting a more diverse member base as well as conducting implicit bias training as a means to supplement their goal during the transitional phase. Sadly, it came at a time when filmmaking as a medium has been irreparably affected like so many other things. The COVID-19 pandemic has stunted the industry’s productivity and diluted any energy to make new content with these standards in mind and fall back on what makes money. As Hollywood historian Carla Valderrama said as a guest speaker to a class of Emerson Los Angeles students, “As it is now, if you didn’t write a superhero story, don’t expect a call back” (March 29th). The near-totalitarian power superhero movies hold over Hollywood is without a doubt a limiting factor other films must face in pursuit of being greenlit, though the Academy rarely acknowledges superhero stories outside of achievements in technology. So its pervasiveness as a genre is rendered moot in the larger conversation of representation in the top categories of the Oscars but is ongoing in Hollywood.

In the entertainment business, the show must always go on and with the help of further changes to distribution eligibility, this year’s Oscars has the most diverse nomination pool in the award show’s history. Yet, some industry insiders are still anxious about the overall success of the show. Due to new social distancing policies brought on by the pandemic, this year’s show is going to be vastly different than those before it. Most prominently and in a similar fashion to the Golden Globes, The Oscars’ broadcast on the 25th of April will be synchronized between two locations in Los Angeles and a varying amount of international locations as well.  While the Academy has the benefit of learning from mistakes made by the Golden Globes, in regards to production and broadcast, they still face the likely probability of an unknown number of technical issues arising during the show. Traditionally, Oscar mess-ups hold but an inconsequential impact on the world outside the film industry: late-night talk show hosts end the Ellen selfies and La-La Land mess-up skits; Twitter’s trending list refreshes; the Kardashians are caught doing anything. The world’s eye drifts away from Hollywood once again only to return the next year, but this is no normal year.

For the most part, the industry has celebrated the change. Stephanie Allain, one of the producers of the 92nd Oscars was quoted as saying, “…The last time two Black women were nominated in the best actress category was in 1972, when Cicely Tyson for Sounder and Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues both got the nod. So we must celebrate every moment of acknowledgment.” Diverse nominees can be found in almost every category this year.  A positive example of the Academy making their new stance on representational equity so public, as they should have a long time ago. Not all of Hollywood would agree with Allain and some may say it limits an artist’s ability to express a story the way they want to (though one can be eligible with a female editor and diverse cast of extras with no change to the larger story).

Gina Carano, the current martyr of conservatism and avid user of hate speech on Twitter, made similar charges against Hollywood following her swift and total termination from Disney. Obtuse as Carano is, this assertion was tactfully made to fan the flames of the sycophantic base she exists in now and further the false existence of a liberal cabal actively censoring conservative ideas in Hollywood. Ironic when one acknowledges conventional conservativism, before the election of 2016, originated in Hollywood where GOP superstar Ronald Reagan was a well-known actor and the head of the Screen Actors Guild before his career in politics.  The concept of correlation not being the same as causation is lost on a lot of people still today, and the negative sentiment normally reserved for production issues compounded by pandemic fatigue could be misconstrued as another example of progressive overreach into the film industry and another battle of the “culture war” being waged in American minds.

Given that deliberate misinformation permeates six times faster than genuine news on social media, as stated in the 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma, a disregard of Owen Egan’s idea “that Information Cascades break after new, conflicting, information is introduced” (Oscar Buzz and the Influence of Word of Mouth on Movie Success, pg. 57), a collective group of aligned consumers could present enough of existential threat with a “reverse cancel” boycott of subsequent ceremonies. Possibly forcing the hand of the Academy to rescind their new goals of a better Hollywood in exchange for continued high viewership numbers. 

It’s impossible to say what will happen until the day of the event, but as America slowly addresses the vast systematic inequities within its culture and the push back against such addressing increase. One can only hope a tumultuous regression of acceptance and understanding people have fought so hard for in an industry I’ve come to love and appreciate remains just a possibility, cooked up, in an anxious mind.