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Nomineering, Week 8: The Oscar boycotts have already changed everything

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Welcome to Nomineering, where we take a weekly look at the news and stories behind the most lavish, high-budget spectacle the film industry has to offer: Oscar season. No matter how you feel about them, awards are one of the key ways to gut check what Hollywood itself thinks is important, with winning films often opening doors and setting the agenda for which kind of movies will be made in the coming years — and which ones won’t. From the surprise nominations that foretell an upset, to the last minute surges that see the most unlikely of films, um, crash into a Best Picture win, Nomineering tells the story from the beginning of the year all the way until the ceremony itself. In this, our final column of Oscar season, we’re looking at the impact of those boycotting Sunday’s show.

During the press walk-through for the Academy Awards earlier this week, the topic turned to formal wear — even journalists that never step foot inside the Dolby Theater are asked to dress up for the black-tie event — and the representatives took a moment to clarify that women could wear tuxedos instead of dresses if they so desired, and vice versa for men. It was a fleeting moment, but a clear indicator of just how aware the Academy has become that it has a perception problem when it comes to issues of inclusion and diversity. With the Oscars coming up this Sunday, the Academy is about to face its first prime-time referendum on the matter.

Chris Rock reportedly rewrote the show from scratch

There have been plenty of signs that Chris Rock will be tackling the #OscarsSoWhite outrage in his role as host — according to Oscars producer Reginald Hudlin, Rock threw out what he’d written and started from scratch after the nomination controversy began — but while I’m incredibly curious to see what he has to say, it’s simultaneously hard to imagine Rock really going so far as to say anything that would actually make the powers that be angry. If anything, jokes and condemnations about the issue will serve both as a call to action and general catharsis, particularly given that the Academy has already taken some long-overdue steps to start shaking up its membership. The real wild card is how the issue of the Oscar boycotts will play out.

Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith were the first two to announce that they wouldn’t be attending this year’s awards as protest to the all-white acting nominations, while Will Smith followed suit a few days later. But aside from some early signs that the trickle could have become a flood — Best Supporting Actor nominee Mark Ruffalo told the BBC that he was considering skipping the ceremony, before he decided to stay the course — the boycott talk has largely quieted. There’s always the question of surprises, though the idea of Leonardo DiCaprio being a no-show when he’s almost certainly set to win his first Oscar is a little hard to believe, but that almost doesn’t need to happen anyway — because the threat of the Oscar boycotts have ended up having an incredible impact long before the ceremony was set to begin.

Would viewers even know if there were no-shows?

First off, let’s imagine what a boycott-heavy Oscars would actually look like to the people watching from home. The presentation is nothing if not a highly thought-out production with a particular focus on optics, so it’s not the kind of situation where viewers would suddenly find themselves looking at a sea of empty seats. (This is a show that has seat-fillers on call to jump in when Tom Hanks need to hit the restroom, which is why you almost never see an empty chair during the broadcast — it’s certainly not because the audience is so riveted by Samsung-sponsored selfie gags.) There could be no-shows when it comes to actual nominated actors, at which point viewers at home usually see some awkward publicity still instead of a live video feed, but that’s also rather familiar too.

The best shot at directly addressing the public would be to utilize the bully pulpit of the Oscar winner’s microphone via surrogate, and there’s some strong precedent there. Marlon Brando famously made a statement about the film industry’s treatment of Native Americans in 1973 when he asked Sacheen Littlefeather to take his place and actually refuse his award for The Godfather, but given that the issue of the last two years has been about nominations in the first place, that avenue is also somewhat limited. If you can’t speak out, you’re just another face in the crowd, inherently complicit with the Academy’s politics. That latter point is the same reason singer ANOHNI — only the second transgender Oscar nominee in the history of the awards — decided to not attend after the show cut the performances of both her song "Manta Ray" as well as composer David Lang’s "Simple Song #3" (meanwhile, Dave Grohl will be performing… just because.)

"The Oscars aren't mandatory," they were saying. "You can skip this."

Essentially, the Oscars is designed to look like a fantastical celebration of elite Hollywood royalty, and with every production trick at the ready anything other than a 25 percent no-show rate could likely be masked without breaking a sweat. I fully expect some winners and presenters will break ranks and take the opportunity to make their feelings about the topic known the moment they step on stage, much like Patricia Arquette did last year, but where the Academy has shown real vulnerability is how people have devalued the show outside of its hermetically-sealed borders. The way the media covered it, you’d think that Lee, Smith, (and then Smith) announcing their boycott was the entertainment equivalent of high treason, but it instantly marginalized the show. This isn’t mandatory, they were essentially saying. You can opt out of the Oscars and it won’t make a bit of difference. That might sound like a minor point, but we’re talking about a town where Oscar nominations (and wins) can equal tens of millions of dollars at the box office, and actors and filmmakers have awards-based financial bumps built into their contracts. People are encouraged on every side — financial, cultural, and professional — to support the Oscar system, so three big-name talents coming out so quickly against the show wasn’t just a minor complaint; it was a statement that turned #OscarsSoWhite into an ongoing, national story that forced the Academy into acknowledging and beginning to address the issue.

If that trio undermined the show from the establishment side, equally important are the actions of those filmmakers that represent the next wave of great filmmaking talent. Creed director Ryan Coogler and Selma director Ava DuVernay will be hosting a free event on Sunday night in Flint, Michigan as part of the artists’ collective Blackout for Human Rights, and while neither have publicly positioned the timing as a protest, the inferred meaning is actually much more devastating: The issues in Flint are actually just much more important than worrying about a silly show where people give each other gold statues. Sorry, but we’ve got our priorities.

Hollywood is squeezed between a generation that is tired of its rules, and one that refuses to play by them

Changing the Academy doesn’t just mean forcing the organization to change; it means picking apart the perceived sanctity of the institution itself, so that individuals feel free to take stands that align with their own moral standards. In that sense, the boycott discussion has already started to work, not just marginalizing the impact of this year’s show, but steadily squeezing Hollywood between a generation that is tired of its rules, and a new one that is refusing to play by them. The only path forward for the Oscars, and the business itself, is representation: stories that are more representative of the world we live in, made by filmmakers and actors that are more representative of our global citizenship, awarded by colleagues that are representative of the community they’re applauding.

No matter what happens this Sunday — no matter what jokes Chris Rock makes, what earnest plea Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs voices, or what any filmmaker or actor says about the situation — this year’s Oscar broadcast isn’t the end to this story. It’s just one more step.

Catch up with awards season news from the week:

Anohni: Why I am not attending the Academy Awards
"I will not be lulled into submission with a few more well manufactured, feel-good ballads and a bit of good old fashioned T. and A." (Pitchfork)

Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay to attend Flint event on Oscar night
"Coogler said February 28th was chosen because it fell on the final weekend of Black History Month, and that the date overlap was a coincidence." (BuzzFeed)

Hollywood’s diversity problem potentially costs industry billions
"Shows with casts that roughly reflect the nation’s racial and ethnic diversity posted the highest box office and ratings numbers on average." (Variety)

Oscars: Examining gender bias in the documentary categories
"Unlike the narrative world, public discussion of gender inequality in the nonfiction community is not often spotlighted." (Variety)

Costume Designers Guild Awards: Mad Max, Danish Girl, and Beasts of No Nation take film nods
"The guild’s film winners only have struck Oscar gold in eight of the CDG Awards’ 16 years." (Deadline)

#OscarsSoWhite's April Reign: Boycott the Oscars by live-tweeting The Wood
"This follows a similar plan she helped initiate last year where folks were encouraged to live-tweet Coming to America, a film she says 'regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, gender, [everyone] knows.'" (The L.A. Times)