Mar. 2, 2015 | By Bruce R. Feldman
First published in Variety, March 2, 2015
We’ve heard it all before.
When it comes to the Academy Awards broadcast, everyone’s a critic. The show is too long. The jokes are lame. The wrong films were nominated. Everyone knows what’s wrong with the telecast and has at least one idea about how to fix it.
Luckily for the Motion Picture Academy, ABC, Hollywood in general and those of us who toil in it, many members of the press have lots of ideas. In Ramin Setoodeh’s Feb. 24 Variety essay “How to Fix the Oscars in Five Easy Steps,” for example, the journalist proposes improvements to save a ceremony that he says is “facing an identity crisis” as it becomes “more and more insular” each year.
To explain what he means by this, Setoodeh bemoans “the gap between the movies that win the Oscars (‘Birdman’ with its relatively small box office of $37 million) and movies that general audiences love to watch (‘The Guardians of the Galaxy,’ ‘Captain America 2’).”
What’s wrong with this picture? For years Academy voters took a drubbing from the press for ignoring serious and independent movies. That changed in the mid-1980s when films like “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “The Trip to Bountiful” received multiple nominations and won Oscars. Now that we’re taking the high road, along comes a reporter to chastise us for doing what the media exhorted us to do and what an academy of professionals is supposed to do: honor achievement in filmmaking rather than popularity.
We would all like to see the Oscar broadcast be more successful, but thoughtful Academy Awards voters aren’t willing to trade their votes for bigger TV ratings. And while Setoodeh’s “gap” may indeed account for a declining audience, there also are external factors the reporter overlooks: the proliferation of awards shows resulting in what some have called “awards fatigue,” the dwindling role even crowd-pleasing movies play in our cultural life, the years-long decline in TV viewing overall.
Can the Motion Picture Academy do anything right?
Here’s another one of Setoodeh’s “easy” fixes: He wants the broadcast “tightened” by eliminating Oscars for short films and documentaries, a suggestion that has been around for many years and against which the Academy rightfully resists. It’s illogical to call the Oscars “a celebration of all facets of the movie-making business,” as Setoodeh does, and then exclude certain types of movies from the mix.
This brings us to what the reporter characterizes as the “hosting crisis,” which is an overwrought way of heaping blame on every entertainer who has or might one day front the show other than Setoodeh’s personal favorite (and apparent Oscar night savior) Jimmy Fallon. It’s not at all clear why Setoodeh is so certain that Fallon will prevail where so many others have failed. Is he more talented than Chris Rock or Whoopi Goldberg?
Setoodeh criticizes the Academy membership itself for being “un-hip.” Ouch! His solution: the wholesale addition of “thousands” of younger members to the Academy’s rolls in order to “shake up” the voting. Whether in the arts, sciences or any other field, a professional academy by its very nature is always going to be an older, more experienced group. Individuals must have achieved years of distinction in their fields before they can even apply for membership.
All of this begs the one central, unanswered question in Setoodeh’s critique: what and whose view of the world should the Academy Awards reflect? Setoodeh insists on a cursory populist, ceremony, one in which the host plays games with celebrities and belts out songs (Setoodeh’s words). Academy members have higher expectations: an entertaining evening, yes, but also one that recognizes artistry, commitment and accomplishment first and foremost.