MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

48 Weeks To Oscar: Academy In Crisis(?)

The grass always seems greener on the other side. But it is not always the case. In the case of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, it is a sad story of insecurity, fear, oversized yet easily bruised ego, and a lack of perspective on itself.

With due respect to a very bright and talented person, it started with the hiring of Dawn Hudson, whose top achievement was The Independent Spirit Awards, which has bounced around time slots, live shows, taped shows, locations, etc for years with an ever-declining significance, mostly because it become a faint echo of The Oscars a day before The Oscars. When it really was just a great cocktail and social event on the beach for the indie world – and it is still that, in part – the organization and Dawn were fast risers on the scene. By the time Ms. Hudson left, the show had reached an uncomfortable, awkward middle age, losing much of the luster she had worked so hard to build.

So who does The Academy, whose #1 priority is that TV show that pays all the bills, hire? The person with a show on the down-slope with a rather narrow view of the movie world.

And what Dawn has brought to The Academy, skilled as she is at many things, is that anxiety of the climber. Since her arrival, The Academy, perhaps the most stable and boring of all Hollywood institutions for decades under a politburo lead by Bruce Davis, Leslie Unger, and others, has become a constant work-in-progress… that just keeps losing footing in its desperation to climb.

Dear Academy… you are the golden gods… you are the kings of all award shows… you are the pinnacle of careers. Perhaps it is time to start acting like the home run hitter rather than the kid who is scared of being picked last for the kickball game even though you own the ball and the field.

And I have news for you. You can throw yourself, publicity-istically, on the pyre of Political Correctness all you like, but even adding 100 annual new members who would not normally qualify to become Academy members, the Academy is going to be white in the vast majority for many years to come and statistically dominated by men for not quite as long, but for a while. And if The Academy is going to remain above the rest of the groups, the average age will be “Old” forever. If more than 10% of The Academy is under 40 at any time, The Academy starts to become a joke. This organization has built its reputation – deserved or not… I will leave that to others to endlessly whine about – on the veteran status of its members. Yes, there is some under-40 talent out there that deserves a place at the table. Almost all of those are actors.

But here is the note… Jay Duplass is already 42. Mark Duplass turns 40 next year. I think they make a pretty fair tipping point. Not The Puffy Chair at 30. But multiple movies a year as producers, writers, and actors? They have come of age. Maybe next year. Maybe the year after. But they have accomplished enough to be taken seriously as potential Academy members. Make sense?

The annual drama around each telecast is, to say the least, idiotic. The ratings go up a little. The ratings go down a little. You remain on top of the heap. The Grammys made their run at The Oscars. But they have fallen back. And they have a huge built-in advantage. They have turned their award show into a 3-hour concert starring the top musical performers in the world. Music performance is a mega-business and people will tune in for one-of-a-kind moments like that. But sorry, Oscar… you can’t emulate that because film is not a live performance medium. So get over it already.

There are two issues that are very controversial within The Industry, though most civilians could not care less… or don’t know that they care because its all subtext. The Voting Process and The Date of The Show.

Even within The Industry and within the sliver of industry watchers called Oscar Writers, there is plenty of debate on both of these issues. And to be completely fair, the significance of both is utterly subjective. Personally, my position on both issues is about consumer/civilian benefit. I believe in Oscar – although it has become a media obscenity on many levels – and I want the show and the honor to not only survive, but thrive. And I believe that transparency – even fake transparency – on these issues allows the conversation for civilians to become about the show and the movies and not constant debate over minutiae.

The are two outstanding issues about voting. Should there be 10 nominees or 5 and should there be a simpler voting system that doesn’t require endless explaining every season that still doesn’t stick for 99% of people you ask (including Oscar writers)?

My position, regardless of the number of nominees, there should simply be weighted voting of each voter’s Top 3 choices for Best Picture. Very, very simple. This balances out the (irrational) fear of 10%+1 or even 20%+1 winning over films that are more widely popular. If someone chooses not to vote for 3 then their vote for picture is eliminated. Period. No shenanigans. I am not a supporter of any system designed to get to a 50%+1 winner because it has a legitimate chance of devaluing passion. But I agree that just picking a #1, especially with a wider field, can be problematic.

As for the question of 10 nominees or 5, I should say that I do not support, like, find interesting, or condone the current middle ground in which the number floats depending on the math between 5 and 10 nominees. This is not something fans can rely on. It is a distraction with no upside. If you are good with more than 5, just settle on 10 and let it be.

And I have become a fan of the 10 nominee system over time. Initially, I was against it, fearful that it would, in fact, be manipulated into embarrassing choices as nominees. But that is, factually, not what has happened. The first year of the expanded list was, by far, the most commercial of the six years to date. A big part of that was Avatar‘s massive gross sitting atop the chart. The 10 films that year averaged $151m before nomination and $170m per in final domestic gross. This year, it was $26m per film before nomination and $83m in the end. I believe that is the low for pre-nomination gross in the modern history of Oscar, with 5 nominees or 10 or in between. Of course, the post-award totals were skewed mightily by the massive success of American Sniper and were not a record low at all.

How do you interpret these stats? Again, all opinion on every side. Some would say that the low average gross at the time of nomination was bad for The Academy and left the Oscar show with a pool of films that didn’t draw an audience. Others (like myself) would say that this shows that discrimination about gross has finally been left behind by Academy members and they are picking their favorites in a more honest way and that this benefits the power and legitimacy of The Oscars in the short and long run.

How about this? When Crash won in 2005, it was the lowest grossing winner since 1987’s The Last Emperor. But it still was in the unintentional tradition of one of the top two grossers of each Best Picture field winning. In the 20 years prior to Crash, only twice had the Best Picture winner not been amongst the top two domestic grossers in the BP field by the time the dust settled (Last Emperor and American Beauty, which couldn’t catch up to The Sixth Sense or The Green Mile). The Departed, No Country For Old Men, and Slumdog Millionaire, the three films with just 5 nominees after Crash, also followed in the two two tradition.

And then came the first year of ten nominees and The Hurt Locker, which was #8 domestic grosser amongst the 10 nominees. Eighth of ten, Like The Last Emperor was fourth of five, so not a singularity. But a very rare event. Was it a fluke?

Well, the next season, The King’s Speech took us back to the old “top two” stat, essentially, by being the #4 domestic grosser amongst 10 nominees. But then The Artist was #7 of 9 nominees. Argo returned to “top four,” though in a field of nine, so a little less successful, statistically, than the old “top two.” 12 Years A Slave, which was attacked pre-release by The New York Times for having potential awards problems because of anticipated low grosses, was #5 of 9. And this last season, Birdman was #5 of 8 Best Picture nominees.

So in four of the six seasons with more than 5 Best Picture nominees, a film won from the lower half of the list of domestic grossers, when this had happened only once in the 24 seasons of 5 BP nominees before (American Beauty was #3, putting it dead center).

For me, this statistical reality, combined with the many strong movies that have gotten the opportunity to be nominated for Best Picture, make me a strong proponent of the 10 Best Picture nominee system.

Next… The date of the show.

This one is a no-brainer to me. Earlier. The only reason to give out awards for the last year’s movies a full two months (or more) after the end of the year is the claim that the show couldn’t be put together quickly enough to manage the transition. But I say, “BS to that.” Just do it.

Maybe ABC wants the show in a sweeps month (February), so okay. But aside from that, get ‘er done.

And by pushing the Oscar back into late January, early February, the industry will be forced to abandon strategies that rely so heavily on late entries. Also, the films that want to open in October and November will be spared the insane expense of holdingholdingholding for months just to have a chance to be in the game. How much earlier will other awards go? Who cares? Let them destroy their brands at their own risk. Academy is king/queen.

The Show – Big barrel of monkeys.

Let me keep this brief.

1. Hire a TV producer for no less than 5 years.
2. Hire a host who will commit to no less than 3 years.
3. Try to build the show to honor the movies… those nominated and perhaps those popular ones that are not. This is not a concert. This is not a hipster event to try to grab the imagination of the under 25s. These are the fucking Academy Awards. Buckle your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. (Note to all of you who just rolled their eyes in a “TV is so much better now” posture… my movie award show eats your TV award show’s rating alive. Roll that!)
4. Get the Special Honorees on the show. The brand of Oscar is being and making movie history. Embrace it.
5. Get your nominees on stage giving out awards. Month after month is spent building up these people. Audiences want to see them, not the young stars on April’s big action movie. They will get their slot on the MTV Movie Awards.
6. Try to build a second show that so clearly honors and explains the work of some of the below-the-line categories that those branches are happy to be a part of that show and can remove some of the time stress from the big show. Just kicking them to the curb is not, as The Academy has learned repeatedly, going to happen. Ever.
7. If you want to honor the hit movies of the year, don’t pussyfoot around. Just do it. The tuxedos will enjoy it too. Over do it. Go big. Then go back to honoring the movies that are nominated.
8. Did I mention that this is not a concert… not a stand-up venue… not about pandering to people who will never watch a stuffy old awards. It is about making a great show for the 40 million or so people who will not miss a stuffy old award show under pain of death.

Be The Academy.

Engage the limitations of your role in the world with honesty and kindness, not fear and excuses.

This is an exercise in branding. 95%. And what is The Academy’s brand. Established stars in tuxedos celebrating the hell out of themselves.

A.B.C. Always Be Cocky. You are The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences. Step to it.

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5 Responses to “48 Weeks To Oscar: Academy In Crisis(?)”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    agree entirely about the date.

    and agree entirely about the number of nominees.

  2. Daniella Isaacs says:

    Especially agree that we need some stability in terms of host and producers. Well, really pretty much agree with all of it, actually.

  3. Nicolas Valle says:

    Very well said. The show has lost its way and any sense of class. Badly produced, written and boring boring boring. It’s time to class it up academy. stop debasing yourselves and going for the lowest common denominator. Emphasis on “common”.

  4. Pete says:

    The Duplass Brothers were invited to join the Academy last June.

    I fully agree that the Academy should stop inviting people to join at the start of their careers and without a track record in the industry. Why on earth was Beyonce invited into membership? This was a sad act of desperation.

  5. Karen says:

    Couldn’t agree more. The Oscars are about class, and that usually comes with age. I’m thinking another reason for the Oscars attempting to attract a youthful audience is that there are more of them attending films in theaters. But the more mature demographic will turn out for the right type of film. Anyway, very well said David!

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon