As The Hollywood Reporter’s awards columnist since 2011, it has been my job to cover every twist and turn of the film awards season each year from Cannes to Labor Day to Oscar Night. The Academy and the Oscars not infrequently drive me crazy, but I have always been grateful that they exist because they, as much as anything, encourage people in our business to continue to make artistically ambitious films. Without them, I fear, the entire cinematic landscape would look like it does for the first three-quarters of every year: a desert of remakes, sequels and adaptations of pre-existing intellectual property.
However, as I write this in April 2022, I fear that the Academy (like many American institutions) and the Oscars (like many TV programs) are facing an existential threat.
The operations of the Academy are paid for by funds generated from the Oscars, primarily the licensing fee which ABC pays for the right to broadcast the ceremony. In return for that substantial sum of money, ABC expects the Academy to put on a show that the general public wants to watch. And the primary obstacle to that is that the taste of the general public and the taste of the Academy’s membership, in terms of which kinds of films are appealing, and the taste of the Academy’s membership and the taste of ABC, in terms of what sort of an awards ceremony is appealing, have never been further apart.
As a result, the Academy’s leadership has been taking heavy incoming fire from both its members (a number of whom resigned in protest over a variety of its recent decisions) and its broadcasting partner (which has reportedly threatened to pull the plug on the Oscars telecast). With one wrong move, the whole thing could fall apart — and if you think that sounds hyperbolic, I would refer you to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and its Golden Globe Awards.
Things are not looking good. This year’s Oscars ceremony generated TV ratings which were considerably up from last year’s record low, but were still the second-lowest ever. And thanks largely but not exclusively to the slap heard ’round the world and the way it was responded to immediately afterwards (or, more aptly, not), the image of the Academy and the Oscars at an all-time nadir.
With the Academy’s top two positions about to be vacated — its unpaid president David Rubin will term out of office in the summer and its highly-paid CEO Dawn Hudson will leave her post at some point before her contract expires in 2023 — the organization is at a pivotal turning point, which makes it impossible for this close observer of it not to share a few unsolicited ideas — specifically, 10 — for how to improve the prospects of survival for the Academy and the Oscars.
1. Clarify what your mission is — and is not.
The Academy and the Oscars were created largely to encourage and reward outstanding achievements in filmmaking. They were never intended to serve as a mechanism to dictate which sorts of films should and should not get made or to remedy the problems of the film industry and society. The tail (the Academy) cannot wag the dog (the industry), and whenever it has tried to, dating back to the blacklist era, it has failed and resulted in embarrassment and consternation for the organization.
2. Make the board of governors functional.
Other than the Academy, I am aware of no major organization in the world which has an oversight board of 54 people. This is because too many voices in the room make it impossible to expeditiously tackle tough problems and make leaks inevitable. The board needs to be downsized, and the most equitable way to do that is to authorize a runoff whereby the members of each of the 17 branches vote to determine which two of the branch’s three governors will remain in office continue (unless one of the governors voluntarily withdraws). This would bring the size of the board down to 37 — two governors from each of the 17 branches, plus the three “governors-at-large.”
Then, eliminate the three governors-at-large, positions which were added in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite with the mandate to fight for inclusion, as it is the responsibility of every governor to fight for inclusion. This would bring the size of the board down to 34, which is still too large a number, but is much better than 54.
3. Win back over your members.
Right now, a huge segment of the Academy’s membership resents the organization’s leadership. Rightly or wrongly, many members feel they were disrespected in the aftermath of the #OscarsSoWhite situation, when their motives and lifetime memberships were called into question; and this year when eight “below-the-line” categories were shunted off the live Oscars telecast (making those categories’ nominees and winner feel like “second-class citizens”) and the lottery through which rank-and-file members can hope to win tickets to the Oscars ceremony was discontinued.
The new president and CEO should immediately announce the return of five of the eight categories — cinematography, makeup/hairstyling, original score, production design and sound — to the live Oscars telecast. The experiment failed, as it did not reduce the length of the show.
The other three categories — animated short, documentary short and live-action short — should be presented at a special ceremony a week before the Oscars telecast (which ABC could easily arrange to stream on Disney+), perhaps at the end of a day of screening the shorts nominees on the big screen at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre. Some members — particularly from the short films/feature animation branch — will be unhappy about this, but it is time to face the reality that the general public no longer consumes shorts in the way that it did decades ago, and therefore is not invested in the outcome of those awards. They would be far from the first categories to be dropped from the telecast when their relevance waned.
The new president and CEO should also immediately restore the lottery for Oscars tickets.
And finally, in recognition of the fact that the Academy is a membership organization and members deserve the opportunity to be heard by their leaders, I believe that the new CEO should, like a university professor, announce “office hours” during which members of the Academy may schedule 15-minute meetings with him or her — in person or via Zoom — to discuss ideas and concerns. And, to that same end, the CEO should also announce that the Academy will henceforth hold an annual all-member gathering, modeled after the State of the Union, in the month after the Oscars, at which the CEO can make whatever points he or she feels should be communicated to members, and members, in turn, can ask questions of the CEO.
4. Stop being secretive.
There is a bizarre lack of transparency in almost everything the Academy does. Why do members have to find out about what happened at gatherings of the board of governors — their elected representatives — via leaks, rather than minutes of a meeting?
There is also no good reason why the names of all members of the Academy are not published on the Academy’s public-facing website. Other awards-bestowing organizations disclose their members (see: the Critics Choice Association, the Tony Awards nominating committee, the Pulitzer Prize board, etc.), and if it is indeed a badge of honor to be an Academy member, and if the Academy’s membership includes worthy people, then why wouldn’t the Academy do the same? Besides, for the last several years the Academy has publicized the names of people who have been invited to become members, so why not just go all the way?
5. Treat the entertainment press like allies, not enemies.
One of the reasons why the Academy is the subject of so much bad press is that the relatively small number of journalists who regularly cover the organization for major media outlets — the people who are seated inside the Dolby for the Oscars — do not, by and large, have any real relationship or chain of communication with the Academy’s leadership, and therefore have little to no insight into the reasons for why the Academy does what it does. It is much harder to write harshly or inaccurately about people who you actually know and interact with.
One way to build bridges would be to invite these folks to a monthly off-the-record lunch with the Academy’s president, CEO and PR team, at which they can be briefed on the organization’s plans and motivations. Another would be to invite them to a ceremony each year celebrating the inauguration of the new president and governors of the board. It is in everyone’s interest for these people to know each other.
6. Show the public that you do not look down on them and their tastes.
In this day and age, a ceremony at which rich and famous movie stars give each other gold trophies does not have the same appeal that it did before the advent of the Internet and social media, when it was much rarer to see movie stars out in the wild. Today, the way to get your Average Joe or Jane to tune in to the Oscars is not to pander to him or her with an award decided on Twitter or with presenters from walks of life unrelated to the movies. It is to show that the Academy respects and values the movies that they do — not instead of the sort of movies that the Academy more frequently nominates and awards, but in addition to them.
The idea of an Oscar recognizing popular cinema has been flippantly tossed around in recent years, but, if handled thoughtfully, could still make sense. Such a concept actually dates back to the very first Oscars, at which there were essentially two best picture awards treated as equally significant — one for “unique and artistic picture” (awarded to the art film Sunrise) and one for “outstanding picture” (awarded to the blockbuster Wings). The “unique and artistic picture” award was abandoned ahead of the next Oscars in order to have just one top award, but there is no reason why worthy blockbusters cannot be honored again.
The board of governors should henceforth be tasked with bestowing a special achievement Oscar each year — to be presented on the Oscars telecast — to a commercially-successful film which also displays artistic merit and is a credit to the industry. This would be different from, and therefore would not “devalue,” the competitive Oscar, and would certainly not preclude its recipient from competing for competitive awards. While this special Oscar would most logically go to the film’s director and its principal producer, the film’s stars should be encouraged to accept alongside him or her (which would certainly not hurt TV ratings, either).
Recent films which could have been honored in this way include 2017’s Wonder Woman (director Patty Jenkins and producer Zack Snyder could have been accompanied by stars Gal Gadot and Chris Pine), the first modern female-led superhero film; 2019’s Avengers: Endgame (directors Anthony Russo and Joseph Russo and producer Kevin Feige could have been accompanied by the actors who played the Avengers), the culmination of a remarkable 11 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; and 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home (director Jon Watts and producer Feige could have been accompanied by the three actors who have played the title character), a milestone in a 20-year-old franchise which helped to sustain the film industry through the aftermath of 9/11 and COVID.
7. Don’t forget your core audience.
Many of the biggest movie buffs, especially but not exclusively those of a certain age, feel that the Academy has shown disrespect to the elders of the business — and themselves — by no longer including on the Oscars telecast the presentation of special awards to long-term contributors to the industry (the recipients of the honorary Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Award and the Irving Thalberg Award).
Even though the Governors Awards ceremony is a wonderful event which generates sizable revenue for the Academy, they are not wrong, so throw them a bone. Partner with Turner Classic Movies to broadcast the Governors Awards — it’s a match made in heaven — and then, on Oscar night, don’t just invite the Governors Awards honorees to take a quick bow, but instead ask them to collectively present an important award. If handled correctly, it would always result in a special moment and a standing ovation.
8. Improve the voting process.
All Academy members are invited to nominate films for best picture, which makes sense. But why, if only a specific branch’s members are qualified to choose the nominees for its corresponding award(s) — e.g. the members of the film editors branch solely determining the nominees for the best film editing Oscar — does it make sense to then invite all Academy members to choose the winners for all awards? A costume designers branch member is no more qualified to evaluate the nominees for the best sound Oscar than your average person on the street, and this dynamic results in coattail voting that benefits only a small handful of films. For instance, on the many occasions when a film which was a best picture Oscar nominee was also nominated for the best visual effects Oscar, it lost to a film which was not also a best picture nominee only once. This surely has to do with the fact that the visual effects branch members who selected the category’s nominees, and truly understand the nuances of their craft, account for only 6.2 percent of the members who are eligible to vote for its winner; in other words, 93.8 percent of the members who vote for its winner aren’t really qualified to do so. There is no good reason for this to continue.
Furthermore, as a service to the industry and to the public, why not ask members to select five of the 10 best picture nominees at the end of the first half of the year and then the other five at the end of the second half? This would encourage studios to release high-quality cinema throughout the year, not just in the year’s last quarter.
9. Shake up the ceremony.
There is a widespread perception that the Oscars ceremony is stiff and staid. Many Academy members are angry because they are not able to attend the ceremony. And the general public has no presence at the ceremony, which it used to.
All three of these things could be addressed by using the Hollywood Bowl — which has giant screens, great acoustics and five times as many seats as the Dolby (17,500 versus 3,400) — as the venue or, alternatively, a second venue, specifically for all musical performances, for the Oscars. (There are plenty of precedents for the Oscars emanating from multiple venues, from the very first year the Oscars were televised through 2021’s COVID-impacted ceremony.) Attendees at the Hollywood Bowl would still be expected to dress in black-tie, but would enjoy a more fun and loose gathering than people at the Dolby — the Academy could serve attendees boxed picnic dinners, for example. And, just like the red carpet outside the Dolby, the Hollywood Bowl, though spacious, can, in the highly unlikely event of rain, be covered with tenting.
Finally, stop worrying about hiring “names” to produce the Oscars telecast (e.g. Steven Soderbergh and Will Packer) and instead hire people who have specific experience and expertise in live television (e.g. Ben Winston, the producer of The Late Late Show with James Corden who has also impressively produced the Grammys for the last several years) — and mandate a multi-year commitment so that the producer(s) can learn and grow in the job, rather than have to start from scratch each year. This would also enable the producer(s) to secure a host (or hosts) much earlier than in recent years, giving that person (or those people) more time to prepare, which would result in a better show.
10. Learn from televised sports, the only sort of TV which still generates big ratings.
The Academy never has the attention of more people prior to the Oscars telecast than when it announces the Oscar nominations, so make those people feel invested in and excited about the show.
Discontinue the traditional 8 a.m. ET/5 a.m. PT nominations announcement — it might be preferable for ABC’s Good Morning America, but it angers everyone else — and instead broadcast an hourlong primetime special, produced in the model of the “March Madness” selection special, with cool graphics and music, expert commentary, reaction videos and call-ins from people who have just been nominated and teases about the Oscars ceremony itself.
Moreover, move the Oscars ceremony up from the end of March, when it was held in 2022, to early February, when it was held in 2020 (while obviously avoiding the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl). When the Oscars is held any later than that, the season leading up to it feels oppressively long and the ceremony feels anti-climactic because so many other award shows have taken place before it, usually crowning the same winners.
This timetable would allow studios to continue to unveil films through the end of December (although few wait until that late), and the Academy to move up Oscar nominations voting to mid-January (from Jan. 27-Feb. 1) and final voting to late January (from March 17-27). Particularly if you already have a producer and host on board well in advance of the ceremony, there is no reason for a long gap between nominations voting and final voting.
Then, on Oscar night, introduce the nominees for each category with clip packages featuring music and graphics (including stats like “years since film debut,” “prior nominations,” “fun facts,” etc.), not unlike the way National Football League players are introduced on nationally televised games.
And leverage everything and everyone in your power — including your big-name governors and museum trustees — to lobby the studios to make the Oscars telecast the place where they make big announcements (e.g. why not reveal the next “James Bond” star during the show?) and the commercials during the Oscars telecast the place to unveil exciting promotional material (e.g. trailers for highly-anticipated movies).