Or, How the Telecast Can Get Its Groove Back
The first time I watched the Oscars, I was 11—fitting since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King swept the night with 11 wins. The night opened with a Billy Crystal musical monologue that charmed me most when he apologized to Julie Andrews for singing about Tolkien to the tune of “A Few of My Favorite Things.” My dad attempted to keep the decorum of school night bedtime, but my teary eyes convinced him otherwise—I had to see those hobbits take Best Picture. The night ended with Peter Jackson and Co. tying with Ben-Hur and Titanic, and the next day I bragged to my classmates I’d watched our favorite movie of the year win it all.
I still love the Oscars, and I plan to host annual watch parties till the day I die, but here’s the thing: If you don’t already love them (or movies in general), I’m not sure how to convince you to tune in. My love hasn’t wavered, but it isn’t blind—I know the the show is too long, too random, and too repetitive. I know winners, especially in the crowd-friendly acting categories, have become foregone conclusions, and I know #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsSoMale make their picks feel more and more out of touch.
Why block off an evening to watch a long telecast full of commercials when you can catch highlights on social media tomorrow?
Though the Academy has built its brand as the marker of quality and the keeper of film legacy, any chance of the ceremony coasting on this is fading fast. As thrilled as critics were when Parasite left with the top prize, I don’t think many sixth graders went to school the next day in a tizzy like I did, and watching Best Picture noms isn’t a given for adults, either. Television is the dominant water cooler conversation because it’s always easier to stream something as soon as it drops instead of venturing to a theater or waiting months to watch at home. Oscar viewership is half of what it was in 2004, and ratings are declining for all awards shows. After all, why block off an evening to watch a long telecast full of commercials when you can catch highlights on social media tomorrow?
A recent episode of one of my favorite film podcasts, The Big Picture, got me thinking about what the Academy could do to revamp the evening so it actually supports their mission: To recognize and uphold excellence in the motion picture arts and sciences, inspire imagination, and connect the world through the medium of motion pictures. So without further ado, I present to them (because I expect their entire Board of Governors is reading) seven ways they can make this ceremony matter to the public again.
Problem: The night has little momentum.
Solution: Count down to Best Picture
Instead of waiting until the end of a long evening to make the Best Picture conversation matter, what if we made it the focus of the night by counting down from 10th to 1st? The Big Picture introduced this idea to me thanks to Twitter user @Sean_Fay:
At first, I bristled at this—nobody wants to be a public loser, and the arts aren’t competitive sports. Then again, people actually still watch live sports, and did anyone expect Ford v Ferrari to win that award? A countdown creates instant tension, and if you see on Twitter two hours in that your favorite is still in the race, you’ve got a reason to join in the middle.
This also provides recognition for every nominee. We don’t need every producer to give a speech (more on speeches later), but a highlight reel of the film’s important moments tells the audience why they might want to watch it and would give The Irishman a chance to shine even when it doesn’t win anything.
Counting down doesn’t just create a narrative for the evening, but it also gives a better narrative of what the Academy values. Critics spend months making wild guesses about why the group votes how they do, but this would tell us if the race was really 1917 vs. Parasite all along. Plus, this keeps the body accountable if patterns reveal certain genres or stories keep appearing in last place.
Problem: The Academy feels out of touch.
Solution: Give out more honorary awards.
Avengers: Endgame wasn’t a Best Picture contender, but it’s an achievement in long-form storytelling never done before. What if the Oscars recognized movies representing innovation or cultural impact like this? This was standard in the early days of the Academy, such as when Walt Disney won an Oscar (plus seven tiny Oscars) for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Somehow honorary Oscars have become limited to lifetime achievement and humanitarian awards even though we’re still developing filmmaking today.
Attempting to add a competitive Best Popular Film category was a tone-deaf debacle, but non-competitive awards would allow the Academy to acknowledge popular films for reasons more valuable than their box office. Think of Mission: Impossible – Fallout earning recognition for its stunt work or Avatar for its technological breakthroughs. (Bonus: We wouldn’t have to nominate its weak story for Best Picture). Give us a two-minute montage explaining what this title contributed to the legacy of film, and then present the Oscar at the live show. Can you imagine how cool it would be to see the entire cast of Endgame reunited on stage?
And if your voters refuse to break their patterns of #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsSoMale, this is a stop-gap to call attention to important films, performances, and up-and-comers that the voters continue to ignore. It’s not a perfect solution, but nothing else has made the Academy’s walk match its talk of diversity and inclusion yet.
Problem: There’s no reason to watch the Oscars live.
Solution: Give people what they can’t see anywhere else.
Speaking of how cool it would be to see the whole cast of Endgame together, the greatest selling point for awards shows is exactly one jillion famous people gussied up in one room and doing what they do best: Entertaining. Why does this feel like an afterthought for the Oscars?
Sure, they mention nominees in the commercials and release names of presenters, but why don’t they tell us Idina Menzel will join nine other Elsas in a multilingual performance happening one night only? Heck, why don’t they tease the bare minimum of interesting cameos like Diane Keaton and Keanu Reeves reuniting after playing love interests in Something’s Gotta Give?
People won’t come to you because they’ve got nothing else to do on Sunday evening anymore.
To paraphrase the message of Joker, we live in a society where people have millions of options for entertainment, and they won’t risk their time on an hours-long event if they don’t know what they’re tuning in for. (Full disclosure: I couldn’t decipher a comprehensible theme from Joker, so maybe I’m overshooting it here.) Give people the FOMO they need to watch live with every celebrity you have in your arsenal to create famous-people-being-charming moments like these:
- 2019: Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper singing “Shallow” (259 million views on YouTube)
- 2014: Ellen taking a Twitter-breaking selfie starring Cooper, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lawrence, Jared Leto, Lupita N’yongo, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, and Channing Tatum (15 million views)
- 2017: Jimmy Kimmel roasting Matt Damon as he reunites with Ben Affleck (9 million views)
The Academy’s history and ad agency have done an excellent job of building the Oscars’ prestigious brand. (For all the criticism, so far they’ve avoided the legitimacy questions the Grammys are facing.) Now’s the time to go out and sell that brand—people won’t come to you because they’ve got nothing else to do on Sunday evening anymore.
Problem: The show is too long.
Solution, Part 1: Begin the ceremony on Saturday night.
How best to give people a preview of why they should watch? Begin the buzz for viral moments the night before. Get John Cho and Issa Rae back for a 90-minute, pre-recorded special to start writing the headlines before the journalists do:
- Tease the one-of-a-kind Frozen performance with a behind-the-scenes look
- Explain what non-competitive Oscar winners Geena Davis, David Lynch, Wes Studi, and Lina Wertmüller have contributed to the industry (Goodness knows the public has no idea who Studi and Wertmüller are!)
- Highlight fun facts and statistics to tell us why this year’s nominees are unique
Then move anything that slows down Sunday night here:
- Announce the shorts winners since they aren’t widely available for public viewing
- Explain categories so the presenters don’t need to year after year (e.g. the difference between sound editing and sound mixing)
- Preview the Academy’s new museum with enough time to pique our interest
Bonus: If you move the In Memoriam tribute here, you skip the annual controversy about who was missed and the awkwardness of some late individuals earning more claps than others.
Solution, Part 2: Limit the musical performances
Speaking of the In Memoriam, who asked for more than 10 musical moments this year? We didn’t need a rap to remind us what we just watched. We didn’t need Eminem to appear over a decade after he didn’t care to show up to this thing. We didn’t even need Elton John and Randy Newman to give solid performances that evaporated from our minds as soon they finished.
Dear Academy, I dare you to limit your musical performances to three:
- The winning Best Original Song, upping the stakes for voters to pick a better composition
- A tribute to an important film or person, like Lady Gaga singing a Sound of Music medley for its 50th anniversary with a blessing from Julie Andrews
- Dealer’s choice: Go ahead with that bonkers Janelle Monáe opening or tell Idina Menzel she still gets to perform because Disney put effort into a great idea for television
Solution, Part 3: Make the nominees submit speeches ahead of time.
Most of YouTube’s top Oscars hits are acceptance speeches, including memorable ones from Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, Heath Ledger’s family, Kate Winslet, and Jennifer Lawrence (including her endearing trip up the stairs). But for every Brad Pitt and Laura Dern, we also get Joaquin Phoenix and Renée Zellweger, whose lengthy ramblings made me wish they’d taken tips from Will Ferrell and Jack Black.
Remember the year the producers let winners say thanks with scrolling ticker tape? I salute their failed effort with an updated twist: Require nominees to submit acceptance speeches with a limited word count. There’s no guarantee they’ll stick to it, but we’ll know even surprise winners gave thought to what they wanted to say in a concise way. Cheers to anything preventing the tackiness of the orchestra playing emotional people off stage!
Problem: The show feels the same as last year.
Solution: Embrace spontaneity.
I asked our ZekeFilm community (hey, come join us!) about their all-time favorite Oscar memories, and these were their highlights:
- 1974: A streaker interrupts the Best Picture award, and host David Niven and Elizabeth Taylor make it hilarious
- 1980: Miss Piggy complains to host Johnny Carson about her acting snub
- 1989: RoboCop saves Pee Wee Herman from robot ED-209
- 1999: Roberto Benigni climbs over seats and hops up stairs to accept Best Foreign Language Film
- 2008: Host Jon Stewart calls Marketa Irglova back to the stage after the orchestra cuts her off
Has anything in the last five years reached that level of spontaneity, drama, or humor? I mean, besides that Best Picture envelope mix-up? Of course the most memorable moment since who-knows-when is also the one the Academy would most like you to forget.
This, of course, is not the kind of spontaneity I’m talking about, nor are Adele Dazeem or hot dog cannons. I’m thinking of Olivia Colman’s hilarious, haphazard speech of disbelief or Bong Joon Ho ceding time for a Martin Scorsese standing ovation. I’m thinking of Tom Hanks, Charlize Theron, and Margot Robbie extending this year’s telecast by insisting the Parasite team get more time to accept their award. Now that you’ve advertised all your celebrities and trimmed the fat from the programming, you have the breathing room to let presenters do longer bits and winners accept with more emotion, all without making the audience check their watches. These are the viral moments the Academy needs so people keep returning to see what will happen next year.
And the winner is…
The audience…and the movies!
We’ll never see another ceremony with 60 million viewers like when our hearts went on with Titanic, but any night dedicated to celebrating the best of an art form has potential to change culture and change lives. That 2004 ceremony was important for young me because it introduced me to a wider history of movies and nominees I didn’t know about—I believe this could true for more 11-year-olds today if they find a reason to check out the show. Inspiring the next generation is the best way for the Academy to stay relevant outside of their Hollywood bubble, but more importantly, it’s the best way to keep movies influential in the public consciousness.
Photo credits: Oscars.org