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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.