You know that Oscar season is upon us when Hollywood Reporter film critic Scott Feinberg starts making his nominations forecast for all 23 categories. He made them yesterday and it’s an informed list, though Oscar voters always throw a few curves that the best pundits cannot see coming. One thing that no prognosticator got quite right this cycle was how long and damaging the pandemic would be to Hollywood’s box office, awards, and calendar. Indeed, it’s infected all the norms of Tinsel Town in all kinds of terrible ways. Few productions, closed theaters, lost revenues, etc. Even the Oscars were moved back two months to accommodate all the mess.
Determined to have a typical ceremony resembling years’ past, the Academy gambled on June 15 of last year when they announced that they would have a Dolby Theater ceremony with stars in full attendance scheduled for April 25. Their thinking was that pushing the show back from February to April would mean the nation would surely be past the pandemic by then. Everything would be open and back to business. It was wishful thinking to the point of naivete. The pandemic still dominates the news daily and President Biden’s mask mandate for 100 days will surely usurp any semblance of norms at the Oscars late this spring.
The Academy should’ve just stuck with the regular calendar and taken a page from the Emmy playbook. In September, the Television Academy handed out awards to winners sequestered in their homes. The intimacy of it, seeing winners announced with their whole families surrounding them, made for lots of warm and fuzzy feels and the entire shebang came off without a hitch. The Emmys even got good reviews for making such tasty lemonade out of the definitive lemons of the lockdown.
The Academy now must figure out a way to do their “pandemic show” as well as fight the inevitable awards fatigue that always sets in around this time after dozens of critics awards and more. The Golden Globes and SAG Awards haven’t even aired yet, and they moved their shows back too, contributing to the elongation of this already long season. The Oscars are going to have to work extra hard to keep the public’s interest, and they’re already taking unprecedented measures to stay buzz-worthy. This past week, they announced the shortlist of nominees in nine different categories, something they’ve never done as broadly before.
With a few months left, there are other things that the Oscars can do that will help their show this year too, as well as set up some new guide rails to keep it on track in future years, pandemic or not. Here are ten ideas, five that the Academy can institute on April 25, and five that they can use to correct bigger issues long-term.
HIRE PRESENTERS FROM ONLY THIS YEAR’S FILMS
What better way to honor 2020 films than to have the presenters culled from only what was out this past season? That means no old-school legends who can’t open envelopes or read teleprompters. Instead, the Academy should truly be in the moment, capitalizing on the stars from 2020. Thus, they should have Sacha Baron Cohen and Maria Bakalova from BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM present an award together. (And let them write the material too. That would be hilarious!) Additionally, other duos could include Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield from JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH, Emerald Fennell and Carey Mulligan representing PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, etc. Imagine the cast of THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO SEVEN or ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI presenting together too. If that’s too many people in this pandemic, then the use of single presenters should still only represent this past year's best of class. Sorry, Warren Beatty, you may be Hollywood royalty, but you won’t be on stage this year.
STOP PLAYING OFF PEOPLE
Tell the nominees to keep it brief if they win and they will. No one is going to go over a couple of minutes, and the whole reason you watch the Oscars is to enjoy the winners basking in the sun. Forcing them to be brief is absurd, and the orchestra’s maestro doesn’t raise his pesky baton for the bigger category winners anyway, so stop the hypocrisy and the whole dumb practice altogether.
SCRAP THE FILM MONTAGES
The Oscars should be a salute to the year in film, not the century of it. Thus, there should be no historical montages. Arguably, even a montage of the highlights of the 2020 year in film doesn’t give any bit the proper time to register or be meaningful. Such bits are filler, wasteful, and way too self-congratulatory...even for an awards show.
CUT THE LIVE SONG PERFORMANCES
Instead, show the song played in the context of the film it’s from, or at least over a short montage from the movie, but get rid of the live performances. It’s such a dreadful category anyway, more on that in a moment, that the Academy should strive to wholly minimalize it.
SHOWCASE THE SPECIAL OSCAR WINNERS AND LET THEM SPEAK
In recent years past, honorary Oscars went to the likes of Lauren Bacall, David Lynch, and Spike Lee. We never got to hear what they said at their special ceremony, nor did the Academy even have the good faith to hire them to present an onstage award. That should end this year. Let the recipients have their time in the sun too and let us bask in them talking about their storied careers for a few minutes.
And here are five long-term ideas to help the Oscars be smarter, swifter, and better all-around.
GO BACK TO FIVE BEST PICTURE NOMINEES
The category now includes up to ten nominees and it's ridiculous for many reasons. First, it's almost never a full ten, due to the weighted ballot requirements. So the very number of the top prize is flexible. Dumb. Plus, that many films just takes too much time and eyes off the prize. Anyone who watches the Oscars knows that almost without exception, a Best Picture nominee without its director nominated as well is an also-ran. So, why compound the problem with all these extra nominees that really aren't contenders?
GET RID OF THE BEST SONG CATEGORY
Few songs in the category are even in the film. Instead, they play over the end credits. That's a cheat. The whole category has become a lazy way to award a pop star an easy trophy. Kill it.
REPLACE THE BEST SONG CATEGORY WITH BEST STUNTS
You won’t have trouble getting 20 worthy nominees in this category, let alone five. With all the action films being made every year, it would wield arguably the most worthy nominees in any category. Hell, Marvel Studios alone could fill up the five nominations every year! If SAG can have a stunt category, why can't the Academy? They should.
BRING BACK HOSTS
A host galvanizes the whole proceedings, but it should come with a caveat. The host needs to be someone who is a big part of the film industry, not TV or just a stand-up. With those in the biz, there is proper reverence mixed in with the comedy. Hosts such as Billy Crystal, Hugh Jackman, and Steve Martin towed that balance exceedingly well. Chris Rock, David Letterman, Seth MacFarlane? They all appeared to be laughing more at the show when they hosted than laughing with it. The Academy should be able to poke fun at itself, true, but an insider will know how to do so without any of those cringe-worthy moments.
PLAN ON A 3.5 HOUR SHOW
Four hours is indulgent, and two hours isn’t nearly enough. Not with 23 categories, it isn’t. If variety shows like SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE or awards shows such as the Tony's can time their presentation to the second, shouldn't the Academy be able to? And while they’re at it, the Oscars should hire the writers and directors who do the Tonys so well each year. That one is still the best awards show year and year out, and it almost always comes in on time. Plus, the reverence in the writing for Broadway is apparent from the first second to last. The Oscars never seem to get that sense of commitment and respect. The show is always rushed at the back end, it turns breathless and panicky, and way too much goodwill is exhausted on silly banter and lifeless salutes. Portray your business in the best possible, Academy. Plan and work with those who truly love the industry and know how to express it. No snark, no saluting the past because you can’t embrace the future, no bullshit.
If the Oscars want to remain relevant and not embarrass themselves, they don’t need a pandemic to get in their way. The Academy does a great job of that without any outside interference. This year, the Oscars have an opportunity to truly learn to adapt and act smarter and more passionate about the whole shebang. Do that this year, and then do it every other year too. Make that the "new normal."