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Oscars 2017: how to improve the Academy Awards

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A shorter ceremony? A smarter one? More politics? Less?

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Every year, tens of millions of people tune in to watch the Academy Awards, a star-studded evening of self-congratulations that’s so famously slow, the host is pretty much contractually obligated to make at least three jokes about how long the ceremony is running. And every year, the producers tinker with the format, questioning whether to have the Best Song nominees performed, adding or subtracting special performance segments, and in 2016, adding a “thank-you scroll” to encourage winners not to just spend their speech on a list of names. But every year, pundits still mull over ways to save the ceremony from itself, from the four-hour runtime, the stilted speeches, the sense of repetition, the long wait to get to the key awards, and the rush once we finally get there.

Like the world in general, The Verge’s culture writers have different stands on the Oscars — some of us tune in religiously, some of us are willing to channel-surf over to the ceremony between binge-watching episodes of something livelier on Netflix, and some of us would have to be wrapped in straitjackets and strapped to a couch before we could sit through the whole thing. But we’ve been thinking about what could rehabilitate the Academy Awards for us — not just the ceremony, but the whole shebang. Here are some thoughts from the staff.

Tasha Robinson: What I want from the Oscars is the exact same thing I want every year: fewer stilted, scripted speeches and fake banter from the presenters, and more time for the winners to speak. In theory, we’re there to honor the winning films. In practice, someone who’s spent two years making a movie gets 45 seconds to babble out a rushed statement before being swept offscreen. I hate watching the winners’ spontaneous, heartfelt speeches get as much time as the presenters’ lame setups. Cut the presenters back to the basics — ”the nominees are,” “the winner is” — and give the winners a couple of minutes for an actual relaxed speech. And for god’s sake, limit the number of people charging up on stage to accept the award for a given film. Having 12 producers onstage, each trying to thank their families and their cast and crew, never works out for anyone, especially the audience.

Bryan Bishop: I freely admit I was an Oscar-ceremony addict even before I had to write about it for work, but the thing that’s rankled me more and more as the years go by is that the Oscars are a TV variety show first, and a celebration of movies second. The whole movies thing may even be third or fourth on the list, somewhere below “bad opening-number showcase” and “place to debut high-profile commercials.” And before I start sounding too grumpy, that’s not necessarily a bad thing: if you’re going to have a 14-hour awards show broadcast, it better try to be entertaining. But the pretense that everyone loves movies and that the ceremony is some lasting celebration of cinema is absurd. As Tasha points out above, the Oscars have made a point of cutting off speeches for anyone not in the top five categories — and if a show was really worried about celebrating movies as an art form, making sure a cinematographer got the same opportunity to speak as a supporting actor would be at the top of the list.

But we all know that will never happen, because that wouldn’t be good TV. So maybe the best solution would be to just drop all pretense and go the other way, reframing the Oscars as a spectator viewing event, complete with fantasy leagues and as many interactive bells and whistles as the people following along at home can handle. It doesn’t matter anyway. This is the same awards show that named Crash Best Picture, after all.

Andrew Liptak: While science fiction and fantasy films tend to scoop up the technical awards, we’ve never had a science fiction film win a Best Picture statue. Speculative-fiction films have been nominated: E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, District 9, Avatar, and Gravity. But apart from Peter Jackson’s Return of the King, they’ve always lost out to other films. Avatar certainly wasn’t the best film of its year, but some of the other nominees, like Star Wars and 2001, left an enormous cinematic footprint, and in retrospect, their longevity makes the oversight hurt even more. So I’d like to see genre movies taken seriously at the Oscars. Ex Machina, Her, and Moon were excellent, and they deserve the wider recognition that the Oscars provide. With Arrival justly on the Best Picture list this year, I’m holding out hope that this long streak will be broken.

Kaitlyn Tiffany: First of all, these idiots better not give an Oscar to Casey Affleck. More broadly, I’d love it if the Academy would address its rampant gender problem. It’s patently ridiculous that only one woman has won Best Director in nine decades of Oscars, and I don’t understand why people aren’t mad about it every single year. White men truly are not so interesting that they are the only people capable of writing, directing, editing, or filming great movies — so why are they regularly the only people honored? This year, all five Best Director nominees are men, four of them are white, and one of them is Mel Gibson. All five nominees for Best Original Screenplay are men; all five nominees for Best Cinematography are men; all six nominees for Best Film Editing are men; one woman is nominated as a co-writer for Best Adapted Screenplay for Hidden Figures, alongside four male nominees. All nine nominees for Best Picture were directed by men, and, with the exception of Hidden Figures, written solely by men.

If Hollywood personalities want to continue dabbling in political overtures at award shows, they’ll have to do a little bit more to step it up within their own industry. How much better than Donald Trump are you really if the federal government has to investigate your entire town for systematically sexist hiring practices that make it near-impossible to accomplish anything as a woman? Last year’s backlash against the lack of diversity in the acting categories proved that the Academy is capable of responding to feedback and taking action to change things (albeit many, many years later than is appropriate). Why not work on this problem next? I would dig it. I wouldn’t care that the ceremony is four hours long if I got to watch Anna Rose Holmer or Andrea Arnold give a Best Director speech.

Chris Plante: The squad has shared such significant and astute answers, my irritant may seem insignificant by comparison. Only three animated films have been nominated for Best Picture (Beauty and the Beast, Up, Toy Story 3), and yet a grabbag of mediocre dramas get nods each year — and sometimes win. Animated films are deserving: in the last decade, the animated category has been so crowded with excellence that Persepolis, WALL-E, ParaNorman, Waltz with Bashir, Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, The Illusionist, Toy Story 3, The Wind Rises, The Lego Movie, Song of the Sea, and Anomalisa didn’t even win the Best Animated Feature category. That’s right, a dozen films that deserve Best Picture nominations couldn’t even win the category limited to animated films, because they were up against masterpieces like Inside Out, Frozen, Rango, and Ratatouille.

This year alone, Zootopia, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Moana deserve a place in the top category as much as, say, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, or even La La Land. And yet all three of these beautifully constructed animated films could go home without any statue at all. I think it’s crucial that animated films get the credit they deserve to mature the form, to encourage narrative risk-taking, and to celebrate a craft that requires a degree of planning and collaboration that often surpasses traditional filmmaking. But until the film industry takes animated films seriously, I suspect most adults will continue to think of cartoons as kids’ stuff.

Tamara Warren: It’s Hollywood’s big night. If the Academy and its 5,000-plus power-hitting members stay on message, this could be their biggest blockbuster broadcast in years to make a case for why movies matter. The Oscars might be entertainment and escapism, but they’re also our most mainstream representation of popular culture, which is first in line in the president’s firing squad for arts funding and free speech. Meryl Streep, as always, has given the nominees the blueprint on how to rock a winning acceptance speech. Be clear. Be real. Be brave. But I’m worried. The ultimate bro of bros, Jimmy Kimmel, is hosting, and he’s already said he plans to play it safe. And his bosses at ABC, and their marquee advertisers, are watching. But let’s stop and think about what playing it safe really means. Flash back to other play-it-safe comedians, like nine-time Oscar host Billy Crystal, who made terrible racist jokes in his 2012 schtick, or Seth McFarlane’s 2013 ridiculous boob jokes, or Chris Rock’s digs on offensive Asian stereotypes last year. And then there’s Hollywood’s affinity for getting lost in the safe space of navel-gazing at its own reflection, and slapping self-congratulatory Best Picture prizes on films about making art: Birdman over Selma, or The Artist ahead of The Help. If the Academy voters decide to linger in La La Land instead of honoring Moonlight, that’s a tough metaphor to swallow about the message Hollywood wants to send to the world.

Lizzie Plaugic: The Oscars are too bleeping long. The sheer amount of time the ceremony takes up makes it unwatchable, especially if you live on the East Coast and have never once dreamt of staying up until 1 a.m. on a Sunday night to listen to men say “Thanks” into microphones dozens of times. According to The Hollywood Reporter, last year's Oscars ran for 3 hours and 16 minutes, while the longest in history, in 2002, ran for 4 hours and 20 minutes. Think of the things you've done for 4 hours and 20 minutes straight. Now think of the things you've done for 4 hours and 20 minutes straight that you've enjoyed. The list is probably very short! It’s true that the Oscars are dull and weirdly paced and have a terrible track record with diversity, but the awards show is also so, so long.

If we could cut out the dorky introduction, the presenters, the acceptance speeches, all attempts at humor, and just have the host rapid-fire shout the names of the winners like an auctioneer, maybe I could sit through the ceremony without feeling my soul peel itself off my body and float away. Award recipients could pick up their statues after the show, or opt to have them shipped home at a later date.