Everyone would like the Oscars to be shorter. Almost everyone would like to see the Academy become responsive to the culture and the needs of the 21st century. But if those efforts result in over 90 esteemed cinematographers and filmmakers politely telling the Academy and the Oscars to stuff it, someone’s going about this the wrong way.
Academy members Roger Deakins, Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, Spike Jonze, and Dee Rees are among those who signed the letter, stating that the Academy needs to rethink its plan to present the cinematography, editing, hair & makeup, and live action short categories during commercial breaks, stat. (The letter’s money line: “To quote our colleague Seth Rogen, ‘What better way to celebrate achievements in film than to NOT publicly honor the people whose job it is to literally film things.'”)
The Academy has already penned a response, chalking up the mishegas to miscommunication. Maybe? I’m starting to feel sympathy for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which has become the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Many would like to blame CEO Dawn Hudson, who tried to modernize the Academy by pushing for more inclusion (but removed a lot of institutional knowledge along the way). Under her watch the last few Oscar shows went smoothly, even if the last show was three hours and 45 minutes and the ratings bottomed out. (The famous “Moonlight” envelope snafu was clearly the fault of PriceWaterhouseCooper.)
The Academy keeps fumbling the messaging of the changes it wants to make, failing to recognize how Film Twitter, especially, can go viral. And while Academy president John Bailey may dismiss social media, his membership does not.
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How did we get here? Back in August 2018, the Academy announced that the 2019 Oscar ceremony would be shorter at three hours, with four to six craft categories handed out during commercial breaks and edited into the ceremony in shortened form, with no “perp walks” to the stage. Initial reaction wasn’t positive, but soon it was overshadowed by the relief of learning that the Board of Governors would not consider creating a Best Popular Film category in 2019.
When I spoke to Bailey then, he got hot under the collar about the Academy’s need to accept change. “The concept of these awards is not an iconic ritual, enacted year after year in the same way,” he said in an interview last September. “The history of the Academy and this award is a constantly moving entity, awards have been added and dropped, branches have been added and dropped. It’s a living entity, as is the entire concept of any art form, especially motion pictures, by virtue of being so technologically defined.”
In the months that followed, Bailey worked behind the scenes to line up the crafts’ cooperation with the plan to shorten the show. He persuaded his own Cinematography branch to sign up, while his governor wife Carol Littleton brought in the editors. The costume branch also went along. Everyone saw video of what the edited versions would look like.
“They presented it to us,” said one costume designer. “When we met, the cinematographers had agreed not to be live. ‘You as a branch can vote how you feel.’ They showed us a clip of how it would look, ‘OK, fine.’ They would intersperse them. You would barely notice.”
But when Bailey sent an email to Academy members February 11, detailing the four categories — cinematography, editing, hair & makeup, and live action short — that would be given out in the commercial breaks, all hell broke loose. “If I may: I would not presume to suggest what categories to cut during the Oscars show but – Cinematography and Editing are at the very heart of our craft,” del Toro wrote on Twitter. “They are not inherited from a theatrical tradition or a literary tradition: they are cinema itself.”
Maybe the backlash was inevitable, that there’s no way Academy members wouldn’t resent the change. But many people in the Academy and on Film Twitter did not realize the details of how the awards would be presented. They thought they were being taken out of the broadcast altogether. And of course they went ballistic.
The Academy did not set up interviews with press to explain the details of the move, and now blames inaccurate reporting for disseminating misinformation. How much damage is the Academy inflicting on itself?
And now the Academy membership has a message: They are angry at this old, fuddy-duddy, clueless institution and those who run it. And many of these people are prepared to ditch the Oscars.
Only after a list of more than 40 cinematographers, led by Deakins, and auteur directors including this year’s “BlacKkKlansman” Oscar-nominee Lee and Oscar-winner Tarantino, protested the Academy’s decision in a letter, urging Bailey to change course, did the Academy respond. The protest letter stated:
“The Academy was founded in 1927 to recognize and uphold excellence in the cinematic arts, inspire imagination and help connect the world through the universal medium of motion pictures. Unfortunately, we have drifted from this mission in our pursuit of presenting entertainment rather than in presenting a celebration of our art form and the people behind it. Relegating these essential cinematic crafts to lesser status in this 91 st Academy Awards ceremony is nothing less than an insult to those of us who have devoted our lives and passions to our chosen profession.
(See the full protest letter below.)
Here’s the Academy’s response:
As the Academy’s officers, we’d like to assure you that no award category at the 91st Oscars ceremony will be presented in a manner that depicts the achievements of its nominees and winners as less than any others. Unfortunately, as the result of inaccurate reporting and social media posts, there has been a chain of misinformation that has understandably upset many Academy members. We’d like to restate and explain the plans for presenting the awards, as endorsed by the Academy’s Board of Governors.
- All 24 Award categories are presented on stage in the Dolby Theatre, and included in the broadcast.
- Four categories – Cinematography, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, and Live Action Short – were volunteered by their branches to have their nominees and winners announced by presenters, and included later in the broadcast. Time spent walking to the stage and off, will be edited out.
- The four winning speeches will be included in the broadcast.
- In future years, four to six different categories may be selected for rotation, in collaboration with the show producers. This year’s categories will be exempted in 2020.
- This change in the show was discussed and agreed to by the Board of Governors in August, with the full support of the branch executive committees. Such decisions are fully deliberated.
Our show producers have given great consideration to both Oscar tradition and our broad global audience.
We sincerely believe you will be pleased with the show, and look forward to celebrating a great year in movies with all Academy members and with the rest of the world.
John Bailey, President
Lois Burwell, First Vice President
Sid Ganis, Vice President
Larry Karaszewski, Vice President
Nancy Utley, Vice President
Jim Gianopulos, Treasurer
David Rubin, Secretary
Will the Academy backtrack yet again? With the Academy museum looming like a financial albatross, keeping the lucrative ABC telecast vital has become more crucial than ever. (The Academy had more leverage before it began construction on the $388 million project.) ABC wants to make the show shorter and more commercially viable. Historically, the show’s ratings fare better when popular films are in a position to win major awards, from “Titanic” to “The Lord of the Rings” finale. This year, “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” A Star Is Born” and “BlacKkKlansman” are among the hits vying for Best Picture against frontrunners “Green Book” and “Roma.”
So far, the Academy has not only backed down on the Best Popular Film concept, but on viral responses to its attempts to perform only two songs (it will do them all) and not have last year’s acting winners present Oscars to this year’s crop (they were later invited to do so). And when the Academy failed to nail down first Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as host, and then his “Jumanji” costar Kevin Hart after a shitstorm of protest of Hart’s offensive anti-gay tweets, the show’s producers Donna Gigliotti and Glenn Weiss were left with no one. No host. Just presenters.
At the annual Oscar nominees lunch the producers tried to make the best of it, but begged the nominees to sprint to the stage to accept their Oscars. Someone at my table said they should wear running shoes.
Here’s the full protest letter:
An Open Letter to The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and The Producers of the 91st Annual Academy Awards Broadcast:
On Monday, February 11, 2019, John Bailey, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, announced that this year’s Oscar presentations for Best Cinematography — along with Film Editing, Live Action Short and Makeup and Hairstyling — will not be broadcast live, but rather presented during a commercial break. This decision was made to reduce the length of the show from four hours to three. The vocal response from our peers and the immediate backlash from industry leaders over the Academy’s decision makes it clear that it’s not too late to have this decision reversed.
The Academy was founded in 1927 to recognize and uphold excellence in the cinematic arts, inspire imagination and help connect the world through the universal medium of motion pictures. Unfortunately, we have drifted from this mission in our pursuit of presenting entertainment rather than in presenting a celebration of our art form and the people behind it.
Relegating these essential cinematic crafts to lesser status in this 91 st Academy Awards ceremony is nothing less than an insult to those of us who have devoted our lives and passions to our chosen profession.
The show’s director, Glenn Weiss, has stated that he will determine what “emotionally resonant” moments from the four winners’ speeches will be selected to air later in the broadcast. The show will cut any additional comment from presenters, as well as any recitation of the nominees as they see fit.
Since its inception, the Academy Awards telecast has been altered over time to keep the format fresh, but never by sacrificing the integrity of the Academy’s original mission. When the recognition of those responsible for the creation of outstanding cinema is being diminished by the very institution whose purpose it is to protect it, then we are no longer upholding the spirit of the Academy’s promise to celebrate film as a collaborative art form. To quote our colleague Seth Rogen, “What better way to celebrate achievements in film than to NOT publicly honor the people whose job it is to literally film things.”
Anthony Dod Mantle
Newton Thomas Sigel
Hoyte van Hoytema
Kees van Oostrum
Cary Joji Fukunaga
Alan Edward Bell
Sophie De Rakoff
Mary Jo Markey
Tatiana S. Riegel
Anna B. Sheppard
Terilyn A. Shropshire