In the Stephen King novel 11/22/63, school teacher Jake Epping discovers a portal in a pantry at the local diner that can transport him back to the year 1958. He decides to use this wrinkle in time to track down and kill Lee Harvey Oswald before Oswald can assassinate John F. Kennedy — a cultural inflection point that knocked the country decisively off course. Yet the closer Jake gets to Oswald, the more time and history pushes against him, growing into as much of a mortal threat as any other monster in King’s books. The past doesn’t want to be changed, and it’s determined to punish anyone who tries.
This is what’s happening with the Oscars this year, except the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the awards show’s producers aren’t attempting anything so noble as changing history for the better. They’re definitely trying to change history for the shorter. They’re seeking to cut back on laborious pageantry that may please the guilds and flatter the famous, but that consistently leads to poor reviews and the most thankless hosting job on the show-business calendar. And most of all, they’re searching for some elusive formula that will reverse the trending plunge of their TV ratings. They want to win over a younger generation that continues to tune out. Yet the harder they press against hidebound traditions, the more intense the backlash becomes — and the deeper the embarrassment goes.
When the 2019 Academy Awards ceremony airs on Sunday, February 24th, it will almost surely be a fiasco of historic proportions. Over the weekend, the producers’ plans to give out four awards during commercial breaks were reversed after a mutiny by prominent academy members. (It was a particularly misguided effort, given that two of the categories, Best Editing and Best Cinematography, are the two art forms that separate cinema from any other medium.) And that was just the latest in a series of embarrassing academy gaffes committed in the public eye this year, including the selection of a host in Kevin Hart, who had to withdraw after a PR kerfuffle over homophobic tweets, and a brief moment when 2018’s winners in acting categories weren’t invited back as presenters.
But the original sin, the one that set this entire rolling catastrophe into motion, happened back in early August, when the academy announced a new award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. It established what has been a consistent pattern of behavior: an ill-considered, hastily vetted decision, followed by an inept public rollout, followed by overwhelming disapproval from all corners, and ending in retreat.
Beyond sounding like the award Montgomery Burns invents to avoid a lawsuit over radiation poisoning on The Simpsons, Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film was a raw statement of intent: the academy could not continue to avoid the disconnect between the mid-budget critical favorites it’s been honoring, and the world-conquering box-office behemoths that people are actually seeing. So it’s trying to make more decisions geared directly toward winning back multiplex viewers, whose interest in fish-fucking period pieces was perhaps limited.
The brain trust behind the hastily withdrawn Popular Film award and other decisions — including academy president John Bailey, CEO Dawn Hudson, show producer Donna Gigliotti, co-producer / director Glenn Weiss, and Disney’s Bob Iger, among others — didn’t think through the obvious pitfalls. Popular films are already “awarded” by receiving hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. “Popular” is not an aesthetic criteria. And even Most Popular film winners would feel, rightly, that their work was being given a participation award, and openly placed in a less-respected arena than any Best Picture nominees.
The same kind of logic dictated the initial decision to hire Kevin Hart as host, which wasn’t about finding a good fit for the show’s mix of light irreverence and heavy gravitas, and more about casting the most popular stand-up in America, and hoping he’d lure in on-the-fence viewers. This desperate gambit had the “Hail Mary” quality of John McCain recruiting Sarah Palin as his running mate: no vetting was done, obvious red flags were missed, and the candidate’s personal flaws and poor reaction to criticism made a bad situation worse.
The conflicts the Oscars ceremony is facing may be unsolvable. How do you produce a more popular broadcast without alienating the artists you’re supposed to be honoring? Is it possible to keep impatient younger viewers from getting siphoned off by streaming services and other niche entertainment that’s much more directly designed toward their interests? Years of unwieldy shows and low-profile winners have accounted for some of these losses. It’s no coincidence that Titanic won Best Picture in the highest-rated Oscars show, while the least-watched broadcasts honored films like No Country for Old Men and The Shape of Water. This is an age of splintered, specialized audiences that rarely recognize appointment TV, and that are more interested in skimming headlines than committing to a four-hour ceremony. Luring those lost millions of viewers back to the Oscars seems as plausible as reopening shuttered Rust Belt factories. There’s a fundamental sense that they’re simply not coming back.
As we head into Sunday, the academy is offering a show with no host, the usual 24 awards and speeches, award-winning actors giving awards to other actors, a running time that will eclipse the hoped-for three-hour cap, and a stage that’s been likened to a giant vulva and Donald Trump’s hair.
I think we can all agree that the world is filled with TOO MANY straight lines & square thinking. For the #Oscars this year I have designed a world based on the idea of inclusion & warm welcoming shapes that stretch out & envelope not only the audience but everyone watching. pic.twitter.com/uStpUiDnFX— David Korins (@DavidKorins) February 18, 2019
Even the one certain showstopper, Lady Gaga performing the Oscar-nominated “Shallow” with Bradley Cooper, will be an echo of Gaga’s recent Grammy performance, when she was surrounded by some of the biggest names in music, rather than the nominees for directing the Best Live-Action Short. Every indication says the 2019 Oscars will be a no-frills affair that will settle into a stupefying rhythm earlier than usual: “We were hired to deliver a shortened show,” Gigliotti told The New York Times. “How do we do that so you’re not seeing award, award, commercial, award, commercial, award? So boring.”
Perhaps there’s some future assemblage of academy talent that can thread this thin needle of producing a more broadly appealing show without alienating those who care about it the most. But this year’s model has seemed, from the start, like an expression of contempt for the Oscars. It’s as if someone believes that abruptly tossing out 90 years of tradition, and replacing it with a faux-populist conceptual abomination, could somehow serve both the traditionalists and the audiences who didn’t care in the first place.
In a sense, though, that apathy from the public is the price Hollywood is paying for its own longstanding behavior. If sequels, remakes, and other nine-figure franchise blockbusters are its core business, then the academy shouldn’t be surprised when smaller movies gobble up all the awards attention. The chances of popular hits aligning with critical favorites have become more and more remote as the gaps between their budgets, marketing, reception, and audiences all widen.
But trying to force an awkward handshake between those poles clearly isn’t the solution. People reflexively dismiss and decry change, especially on social media, which amplifies all the most immediate knee-jerk reactions to new events. But people can get used to changes that seem well-considered and well-intentioned. This year’s haphazard attempts to revamp the Oscars are neither, and they’re doing more to drive away potential viewers than to ease them back into the fold.