The Academy’s controversial decisions to make the Oscars more entertaining by adding a Best Popular Film category while denying select categories live airtime during the telecast has been met with dismay from some branch members of the below-the-line crafts.
“It’s ‘Sophie’s Choice’ for crafts on the chopping block,” said an anonymous VFX branch member. “They all deserve their place in the sun, even for one evening. Not one of these crafts are disposable in the art of making movies, so becoming marginalized on the one day of the year dedicated to celebrating the very best of the movie business is counter to the generosity of spirit the achievement was meant to convey.”
With regard to the new Best Popular Film category, the reaction was just as alarming: “My feeling is the ‘most popular’ award is not merit-based but simply populist pandering for a greater audience share. It is just recognizing what everyone else can plainly see by the grosses of the picture. It doesn’t make it the best of anything. It cheapens the prestige of the Academy and what it stands for, or at least what it used to. It was a celebration of the arts and sciences, in essence, the craft of moviemaking.”
“It’s a disgrace!,” offered an anonymous sound branch member. “I feel like AMPAS really went off the rails with both of these decisions. The most popular picture award sounds like a high school competition, and it’s going to get very sticky figuring out where the line between this and best picture is. The other one, ghettoizing some awards, runs contrary to the original purpose of the awards, which is to acknowledge excellence in the art and craft of filmmaking.”
On the other hand, executive branch member Howard Cohen, co-president of Roadside Attractions, defends the changes.
“All the high dudgeon and hand-wringing over the new Most Popular Film award makes me laugh and roll my eyes,” he said. “Such pretension and self importance! The Oscars were born as the ultimate marriage of art and commerce, they started out as pure industry boosterism at a dinner party in the 20’s. In fact, that very first year in 1929 they had two top awards similar to Best Picture and Most Popular– they had a ‘unique and artistic’ picture-winner (‘Sunrise’) plus an ‘outstanding’ picture-winner (‘Wings’). They have been wrestling with this issue for 90 years! So this development is hardly a sudden shocking downfall of standards as it’s being described, but rather part of a continuing dialogue about what these awards should be.
“Oscars have been changed and refined over the years but always continued in their own bumpy way to celebrate both an art form and an industry, certainly never laying claim to academic purity. They are not the Nobel Prizes or even frankly the Pulitzers, they are industry awards — and to me Oscar still happily has tinsel in its heart.”
Still to be determined, of course, are those categories bound for the chopping block (shot live during commercial breaks and then edited down like the Tonys). What’s safe? One would think cinematography, production and costume design, editing, and song and score. But VFX could be vulnerable, despite the commercial appeal of the blockbuster nominees. Which leaves sound editing and mixing, the shorts (live-action, animated, and documentary), and makeup/hair as the most “disposable” crafts.
“The Academy at its highest aspiration wishes to celebrate the inclusive nature of the art and science of the film business,” said the VFX branch member. “The same sensation of achievement, prestige and honor is felt in every category. Not one of them can be removed from the actual process and make the same movie we all cherish. The actor depends on it from the words they say, the clothes they wear, the props and art direction of their environment, the score, sound, and cinematography all of which are made to flesh out the character they are portraying on the screen. A true team effort.”
“The inevitable effect will be to make some awards less important than other awards,” added the sound branch member, “and these awards will be presented while half the audience is heading for the bar or going to the bathroom. It would be a real shame if the sound categories were included (they probably will be), as we’ve worked so hard to get the recognition we do get. I haven’t heard of any organized efforts to dissuade them from doing this but I’m going to make as much noise as I can about it.”