Oscars 2019 set to leave more heroes unsung?

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By moving to cull four filmmaking categories from the live telecast of the award ceremony, the Academy appears to be stealing the spotlight from those who deserve it but rarely get to enjoy it.

The Academy, as an institution of high repute and social influence, cannot come to be seen as inequitable. | AP

After the hullabaloo about the popular film category — whether to have it or not — many thought that the Academy was attempting to step outside its comfort zone this year. With Marvel’s superhero flick Black Panther getting a Best Picture nomination, it looked like the award season was going to come off without acrimony, until...

... it came to light that the Academy had decided, in a bid to shorten the running time of the programme, to relegate the presentation of four awards — Cinematography, Editing, Makeup & Hairstyling, and Live-Action Shorts — to the time allotted for the airing of commercial breaks. The announcement sparked widespread irritation within sections of the film fraternity, especially among past Oscar recipients.

 

 

 

 

The awards for Cinematography and Editing, cornerstones of a film, are usually held in high regard to those familiar with the technicalities of filmmaking. To many film buffs, watching ace cinematographer Roger Deakins get an Oscar after 14 nominations, had to have been a special moment. A film takes shape at the Editing table. And to regard editing as something unimportant enough to not deserve screen time in the telecast proper indicates that the Academy clearly ranks and prioritises certain parts of filmmaking process to be superior and some inferior.

In Period films, which usually end up with a lot of nominations, makeup and hairstyling play a crucial role towards making the film believable. This year too we have quite a few films that hinge on makeup and hairstyling — Mary, Queen of Scots; Vice; The Favourite; Bohemian Rhapsody. These crafts create the verimisimilitude of a particular time period and help the filmmaker achieve credibility as a nuanced storyteller.

 

 

In its defence, the Academy has clarified that these four specific categories are not permanently excluded from the programme’s telecast, and four others among six different categories will face this plight year on year. But think again before thinking this absolves the Academy of being biased. I can’t help but wonder if ‘main’ categories such as Best Picture, Actor/Actress, Director will ever get their turn to face the culling. If they don’t, then the Academy proves that it does indeed consider certain industry roles/people to be superior. And the very aim of this move — to improve viewership for the Oscars ceremony — may be jeopardised in the long run.

One way to ensure a shorter ceremony may, in fact, be to cut the duration of the performances. As per tradition, the evening is usually littered with music and dance performances that certainly extend the duration of the programme without always enhancing its watchability. Setting up a cap or time limit for performances could go a long way in preventing gratuitously-long award ceremonies. Already, award-winners have been sent the memo instructing each one to kindly zip onto and off the stage in 90 seconds. Surely, the six minutes needed for the presentation of four important awards can be cumulatively saved if six gracious artists spared a minute each from their performance, or 12 spared half a minute each, or... you get the idea.

The function is also going to go hostless (sorry Jimmy Fallon) for only the second time in history. Comedian Kevin Hart in December stepped down from hosting the show after past homophobic tweets resurfaced. With the Academy trying to maintain its image of inclusivity — films and otherwise — no replacement has been announced. Instead, the presenters will be turning hosts as well. And if history does indeed repeat itself when it comes to hostless Oscars, the 2019 event looks to be in trouble.

For a while now, the Oscars event has been battling low ratings and declining viewership. Ratings for the 90th Academy Awards fell to an all-time low of 26.5 million viewers, down 19% from the previous year — it was the first time since 2008 that the glitzy awards ceremony had fewer than 30 million viewers. It also clocked in at nearly four hours, making it the longest show in over a decade. Perhaps the move to reduce the 2019 ceremony into a brisk three-hour affair is a knee-jerk response to the fact that last year’s show, clocked in at nearly four hours, had been the longest show in over a decade. The date for the Oscars in 2019 has also been advanced to February 24, 2019.

 

 

In a year filled with such challenges — not to forget the shadow of the Harvey Weinstein saga — the Academy has had its hands full. Brainstorming among the board led to announcements of a slew of changes late last year.

One of the most significant ones was the inclusion of a new category titled ‘Best Popular Film’ as an addition to the Best Picture Oscar. The announcement made waves in the movie industry, a few lauding the Academy for having finally last woken up to the fact that popular films too deserve an Oscar, while others expressed their confusion over the distinction between popular and, by corollary, unpopular films. The Oscars by itself, is by and large subjective to votes by the Academy members under the different categories. After a lot of uproar online and offline, the Academy recanted its statement and said that the usual categories would remain. And by giving the Best Picture nod to Black Panther, the Academy redeemed itself in the eyes of its critics. Or so we thought.

The purpose of the Oscars

The Oscars has been a lot of things in the 90 years of its existence. For the most part, it is predictable, albeit surprising at other times. But in the past few years, it has had a decidedly sociopolitical tinge, for better or worse — cheeky references to the United States President Donald Trump, members raising a voice for the #MeToo movement, winners fighting for equal pay between male and female actors. The biggest cinema awards festival is no longer just another day for film awards. Its scale and reach renders it a platform for embodying social values, primary of these being equity.

 

 

The event that kicked off the change has to be the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. In 2015, the hashtag was created to infer a lack of diversity in the way nominees and winners were selected at the Oscars (which also suggests a certain level of prejudice amongst the voters). Soon what began as a single tweet caught on fire and became a movement that made the Academy sit up and take notice. Ever since, more attention has been accorded to the nominations.

It tried a lot to be ‘inclusive’ by increasing the number of wins doled out to non-white actors and directors, when the #OscarsSoWhite campaign broke out. Jordan Peele’s Get Out — the majority of its cast is black — broke records at the box office and won nominations in the Best Picture category, though this is not an honour a ‘horror’ film is usually accorded.

An awards ceremony such as the Oscars is the only decent platform available to the countless technicians to have their faces seen and their remarkable work acknowledged by the world. Failing to allow them that precious time in the spotlight, which could change the course of a career, is not only insensitive, but dismissive. After nearly a century of upholding the history of films and its culture, it would be unfortunate for the Academy to pay short shrift to industry professionals simply to reduce screen time. It would be in the Academy’s interests to be transparent about its voting and decision-making process, recognise its institutional role purpose, set its priorities accordingly.

NOTE: The Academy has since reversed their decision following protests from filmmakers, and said all awards would be presented during the live telecast.

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