It’s an Academy Award tradition for hosts, participants, and viewers alike to complain that the awards ceremony is too long. At the 90th annual Oscars ceremony on Sunday night, host Jimmy Kimmel made a joke out of the long-running complaint, dangling the prospect of an $18,000 Jet Ski as a prize for the winner who gave the shortest acceptance speech. It was a charming gag, but if the Academy is serious about shortening the speeches, a Jet Ski isn’t going to do it. It’s just not valuable enough.
The Jet Ski did find a home with Phantom Thread costume designer Mark Bridges. And offering a prize as an incentive is a better approach than the wrap-it-up music that cuts winners off in the middle of their big moment. We haven’t measured the speeches — but if they were any shorter on average this year, the difference was negligible. That’s because there are multiple competing incentives when it comes to how long or short an Oscars acceptance speech is, and one cool green Jet Ski cannot overpower the rush of a career-defining victory in front of millions of eyes.
In general, the science of reward and punishment, and which one works better, is complex and can depend on the recipient. People love rewards, whether in concrete forms like money, or abstract ones like a virtual badge from a fitness tracker. But some studies have shown that children, for example, react better to reward, while teens and adults respond better to punishment.
What is the value of a short speech? Winners who are brief are better at keeping the audience’s attention. They don’t get the embarrassment of being interrupted and played off. They don’t look boring or disorganized. And this year, they might have won an actual prize and some extra laughs for receiving it.
What is the value of a long speech? The Oscars is an exceptional case, and it’s clear that the incentives for a longer speech far outweigh the short ones, Jet Ski be damned. So few people, even in Hollywood, truly get a moment in the spotlight like the Oscars provides. This type of attention is rarer than currency. As my colleague Tasha Robinson points out, people who spend a lifetime working for recognition are likely to be too excited about getting it to waste their long-awaited moment in the spotlight on what amounts to a raffle ticket for a game-show prize. Besides, there’s a long-standing tradition of winners thanking the crews that supported them and made their projects possible, and anyone who neglects that tradition risks looking self-absorbed and egotistical.
Paradoxically, the more people who hate long speeches that run down a long list of barely distinguishable thank-yous, the more valuable those thank-yous will be for the recipients. When the audience is getting restless and the get-off-the-stage music starts, it takes more guts for a winner to make sure to wedge in thanks for their agent and mother and hairdresser — which means those people are even more likely to appreciate the time and effort given. And frankly, winners are going to keep interacting with their agents and parents and hairdressers long after the audience has forgotten whether a given speech ran for 30 seconds or three minutes.
Perhaps the strongest incentive against rambling speeches is that winners simply don’t want to bore people and look bad. But anyone who makes it up onstage to accept an award is already successful. They’ve already built up a reservoir of fame and goodwill. If they’re boring for two extra minutes, so what? The Twitter masses may grumble during that segment, but no film fan has ever said, “I’m not going to see the new Jennifer Lawrence movie because her Oscar speech was too long.” Winners have a moment of invincibility here. And by now, the “played offstage” trick is so old that when people do get played off, it’s more funny than humiliating. So many winners in recent years have successfully pushed back against the music that when the orchestra tries to cut someone off, it’s the Academy that looks bad, not the winner.
If the Academy actually wants to shorten the speeches, the incentives need to change, which means upping the ante beyond a stunt prize. Of course, to be practical, this technique also has to be something the Academy is able to enforce. The showrunners can hardly force America’s cinephiles to stop watching someone’s movies if their speech goes too long. But the Academy could, in theory, disqualify someone from the following year’s awards consideration if they go over the allotted time. Make that the incentive, and I promise the winners will fall right into line.
That would assume, however, that the Academy’s main priority was shorter speeches, not about honoring achievement. Even if that were true, it’d be a bad look for the organization, making the Academy look stuffy, draconian, and rules-obsessed rather than celebratory. So maybe it’s just as well they’ve stuck to light shaming or not entirely serious incentives. That isn’t likely to result in shorter speeches, but at least it gets everyone in on the joke.