The Oscars rejiggered AGAIN? The more this show changes, the more it loses its identity

oscar-best-picture-noms

Image Credit: Oscar: A.M.P.M.S.

In that doomy-peppy Talking Heads song “Life During Wartime,” there’s a great line where David Byrne sings: “I’ve changed my hairstyle,/So many times now,/I don’t know what I look like!” That’s how I’m starting to feel about the Academy Awards. As someone who has griped about the expansion of the Best Picture category from five nominees to ten, I should in theory be cheering the news that this coming year, the nominee list is going to shrink down to…well, not quite five, but six. Or seven. Or maybe eight. Or it could be ten again. It all depends on which movies — and exactly how many of them — appear as the first choice on at least five percent of the ballots. (Are you in a deep coma yet?) I don’t think I ever knew as much about Academy voting procedures as I do today, and frankly, I was happier when I knew nothing. This is one example of inside baseball that isn’t fun even for insiders.

But more than that, the new and improved version of what was already supposed to be the new and improved Oscars, with its “excitingly” expanded playing field (hey, why not 12 films? how about 17?), feels not so much like a refinement as it does like a hedge of a hedge. It’s not just that the people in control can’t seem to make up their minds. This coming year, not making up their minds will become an intrinsic part of the system.

After all, it’s not as if the slate of ten nominees, unwieldy as it was, was really so bad. No, the real problem with this constant changing and tweaking and re-thinking, all based on “creative” considerations (how can we honor the prestige popcorn movies that always get left out? The acclaimed animated films? The straggling indie gems?) that are really, deep down, commercial calculations (how can we get more damn people to watch this show? And pull in the younger folks who advertisers love?), is that it’s beginning to nibble away at the Oscar brand by fuzzing out the solid, predictable, slightly square, this-is-how-we-do-it traditionalism that has always been the oak-carved cornerstone of this particular awards show’s identity. I’m not saying that awards shows can’t change. The Grammys got a lot better when, in the early ’80s, they began to award artists that people under 45 actually listened to. And anyone who suffered through the latest edition of the Every Hipster Is For Sale Movie Promo Reel (I mean, The MTV Movie Awards) knows that that faux extravaganza, intentional Cheez Doodle that it is, is in dire need of some new blood.

Yes, the Oscars can, and should, evolve. But right now, when movies, rather than dominating the culture front and center as they once did, look more and more like just one additional entertainment choice amid a brain-frazzlingly eclectic multi-media cosmos, I think it’s a big mistake for the Academy Awards ceremony to be in a perpetual neurotic state of reinventing itself, giving its Best Picture rules a new perm every other year. It looks arbitrary and vacillating, it reduces the Oscars more and more to being just One More Awards Show (rather than the awards show), and besides, it’s sort of like fussing with Christmas. You can’t really make it better; you can just make it less.

After all, who really tunes into the Academy Awards to see something hip, relevant, new-fangled, and responsive to “the kids?” (That’s called The James Franco–Anne Hathaway Beatnik Hour, and it didn’t work.) The real anxiety that the Oscars, with their cool/confusing new spread-the-wealth math games, are trying to stave off — and they’re not about to do it with five nominees, or ten, or seven or eight or nine — is that, with rare exceptions, the disjunction between the movies that people experience as art and the pop blockbusters that people pay to see in droves has rarely been as wide as it is right now. It’s a veritable grand canyon. In theory, it’s certainly honorable (and commercial too) to want to put together an awards show that tips its hat to everything from the most spectacular mass-audience crowd-pleaser to the most celebrated and independent creative vision. But it may be a lot easier said than done. There’s a big difference between changing with the times and changing, over and over again, to try to preserve a center that may not be holding.

So what do you think of the Academy’s new Best Picture guidelines? Is it interesting, or annoying, that the Oscar rules now seem to be in a state of constant flux? And can you think of yet another way to bridge the mass/indie divide that the show’s producers — for all of these changes — have yet to come up with?

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

Comments (65 total) Add your comment
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  • Sean

    I have always been against the Best Picture noms expanding. I loved it when it was shorter, since whatever was nominated had to the best of the best. Now, there are just too many nominees for it to be a special award. And, frankly, this new rule change is ridiculous!

    • AK

      Perhaps. 2009 certainly tested the necessity of an expanded field. But last year was an extremely strong Best Picture crop. I may not have loved every film that was nominated, but I thought they were all high-quality, interesting and deserving of recognition.

      • Michael

        By having 10, strong films like 127 Hours, The Kids Ar Alright, Toy Story 3, and Winter’s Bone were able to make the cut. The same people that complain about 10 nominations would be the same ones that would have complained when Inception or Black Swan didn’t make the cut of 5.

      • Chriss

        Agreed. In 2009, there were maybe 2 or 3 that had a shot in hell at winning. Last year, though, pretty much all of them had an equal claim to the Best Picture crown.

      • wrtrdg

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    • Mark

      I don’t like the change, but I’m coming from the opposite end: I don’t think there was anything wrong with ten nominees. I’ve been calling for that change for years. If you, Owen, can have top ten why can’t Oscar? Why does it arbitrarily have to go down to five when you don’t do that yourself? The problem with the Oscars is the Academy is always run by the people from the previous generation of filmmakers. The reason The King’s Speech won is because it was the type of movie that won back in the 80’s which is when the current regim of Academy leadership were busy making movies. They don’t vote for the best movies of the year. They vote for the best movies according to their own personal tastes and if you want to know the Academy’s taste always look back 20 years and see what kinds of movies the current leaders made back then.

  • Gina

    The Best Picture guidelines are not the problem. The main problem the Oscars have had for decades is this: It is produced primarily as a live stage show for those in attendance, and NOT as the television spectacle it has become. The pacing is slow; the emphasis is on weak live banter and performances instead of being on the nominated films and the history/love of cinema. Worst example of this? A few years ago, somebody had to come out and introduce a selection of clips “you could only enjoy on the big screen.” Which were then showed to a billion people watching on small screens, who either proved them wrong by enjoying it — or who didn’t enjoy it and then had no reason to seek out the epic films featured. How clueless do you have to be? They need to write and produce the Oscars as a fast-paced TV extravaganza. If it’s less fun to sit in the live audience and watch … well, those people are actors. They can fake it.

  • tracy bluth

    Nice Talking Heads reference.
    I agree that this new change is dumb. But should they really look to the Grammys for inspiration? Yes, the Grammys have their moments (Raising Sand winning-despite coming out more than a year before- and Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs winning this year) but nothing should ever try to follow an awards show that nominated Justin Bieber.

    • Squishmar

      Yes, but he didn’t win.

  • Mary

    I don’t mind the new change. I think that in time we’ll see if it really works, but I feel like the academy is simply tweaking the change they made a few years ago by expanding the list of nominees. More quality films will be celebrated (the 5 percent guarantees that), yet ones that probably shouldn’t have made the cut when it was ten nominees will be shut out. Ten years from now if this system hasn’t changed (and honestly if they “tweak” the rules again, i’d be inclined to agree with this article) it will become the new standard and no one will bat an eye. Change comes with transition, and the Oscars are in a transition period. We just need to be patient.

    • Kat

      Agreed. I like the new rule at this point, but if they change it again, then yeah…that would be getting to be too much. But as it is now, I think it makes perfect sense to have a flexible number of nominees, since each year offers a different number of really award-worthy movies; I think the fairest solution is this 5% rule.

    • nick

      EW: stop fabricating melodrama. who cares or watches because of whether best picture has 5 nominees or 8 or 10? no one. and by no one i don’t include the 4 nerds that are going to challenge my statement.

      • Sam J

        Shut up nick. Is that you little brother? I told you, me watching the Oscars is less dorky than you playing role playing games. No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker are cool flicks. Not all Oscar crap sucks. D & D blows!!!

  • Joanne

    Here’s what the Oscars needs to do to stay current. !. Get rid of the technical awards. Put them on some other night. It’s why the Golden Globes are more fun. Speaking of the Globes, the second thing the Oscars need to do is open up the acting categories. Enough with expanding the Best Picture number. Three, why do the Oscars have the worst musical numbers. Four, get the people who do the Apple commercials to do the montages.

    • AK

      No. Just no. The technical awards getting some modicum of respect is what currently differentiates the Oscars (an awards show for film lovers) from the Golden Globes and everything else (awards shows for celeb sightings). Unfortunately, the Academy Awards is already starting to veer more into that “pop culture” direction, and any more would be extremely disappointing.

    • thin

      The Tonys did that very thing this year, and the show was much better for it. There were only a handful of major awards done “live,” and they showed short clips of the other winners going to and coming back from commercials. I would absolutely be in favor of reducing the number of awards shown during the continuity of the show.

    • Jenz

      So you’re saying the Oscars should just be Golden Globes part 2? How would they open up the acting categories? Best Actor Only in the Movie for Five Minutes? Best Action Hero? The Oscars are about people who make movies–yes even those pesky cinematographers–awarding each other for a job well done. It takes more than good acting to make a movie great.

    • AMEN, SISTER

      I have been saying this for YEARS – that the Oscars should dump everything from the on-air show but the major categories (Picture, acting, writing, directing – and animated feature, since those films are usually among the top grossers of the year). It’ll make the show more fun to watch and less of an ordeal – who really cares about sound effects editing, anyway? For those who say these people deserve their moment in the spotlight, have a “pre-show” for those award categories on a cable channel or PBS. (Most people I know channel-surf through Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Documentary Short anyway).

      • Mark

        Are you on crack? “Since those films are usually among the top grossers of the year?” When was the last time the picture, acting writing and directing films were always amongst the top grossers of the year? It’s the TECHNICAL awards that allows the top grossers to shine and get their due.

    • chistosa

      I disagree about the technical awards. Many films would not be what they are without the genious of those who design, edit, compose etc. Those contributions are equal to those of the performers. Movie magic is born from the technical and it needs to be recognized.

  • Mike

    Why just best picture? I’d like to see ALL catagories with the same 5 percent guidelines.

  • Waynob

    Who cares. I can make my Oscar predictions now. BORING DRAMAS…i said it once and I will say it again, bring back the oscars from the good old days that gave Marisa Tomei her well deserved Oscar….Crying, dying, etc…is easy….Comedy is an art and needs to start being rewarding again…………………just saying

    • dee123

      Comedies, Horror & Sci-fi i’m sure won’t be awarded any of the major awards in a long time.

  • It’s symptomatic of cultural decline

    I mean, isn’t it? The award show is reflecting how dysfunctional movies have become as art. The audience needs to change itself from within. They need to be more present and more thoughtful moviegoers who open their hearts and stop fueling their egos. That will fix the Oscars more than any cosmetic tinkering will do.

  • Ben

    I’m throwing it out there now. Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law should co-host the next awards show. Did you see them on stage together last time? I have no doubt they could carry the entire show.

  • Chris G

    I still think they should just nominate 6 movies for best picture. That way it’s always the same number and that one movie that’s always on the bubble (ie The Dark Knight, Dreamgirls, Walk the Line, etc) will get a nomination.

  • Jenz

    Hey Owen, where were you earlier this year? I thought three of the most recognized award movies(The King’s Speech, The Social Network, and Black Swan) did well at the box office. Not summer blockbuster but definitely not small indie fare either.

  • travis

    if the oscars are worried most about ratings and getting people to watch, then get a good host. Justing Timberlake or Neil Patrick Harris should be the two two candidates for this job.

    • sp

      Travis , a good host can makeup for the bad writing, bad production, and very predictable winners.

      • sp

        Also, Travis hosting the Tony’s is different from the Oscars. Tony host has to be a performer. Oscar host has to be a charming standup- comedian- that is not Neil Patrick Harris nor Justin Timberlake.

  • Zoe

    The Oscars folks should look to the Tonys for inspiration. That is a show that is unabashedly for people who love theatre, and they make no apologies for it. So why shouldn’t the Oscars truly be for people who love movies? Don’t worry about the ratings–have an entertaining show and the people who want to watch will. Show clips from the great flicks. Get as many movie stars to come as you can. And (sorry) cut the awards that no one cares about, like short action film. The commenter who said that the Tonys also did this right (short clips of lesser-known awards used as the commercial bumpers) was right on. With fewer awards, you can have more fun stuff in your show–like how the Tonys had an entertaining musical number in EVERY segment. Finally, have a GREAT, PROVEN host, like NPH. These fixes are not hard, Academy!

  • Leroy Grey

    The Best Picture guidelines works for me. Sometimes, there are ten great movies; sometimes, there are five or six. I don’t want the Oscars to mimic the year’s box office charts, I want to recognize (and discover, probably) the best performances and stories of the year. Now, will this year’s rules make things easier or tougher for my bookie? That’s what I want to know, Owen…

  • Luke

    The problem with the Oscars is all the award shows leading up to it. Even without trying, I sort of knew who were going to win the Oscars before they were announced. And I got sick of seeing Natalie Portman and Colin Firth making the same boring speech everytime they won.

    • Squishmar

      Luke, you’re spot on. And there’s absolutely nothing to be done about it.

    • Chelsea

      Exactly, this is the biggest problem with the show. It’s so utterly predictable. They could at least hold it the day or week after the Globes. It seems like voters see who wins at these other shows and just vote the same way without thinking twice.

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