LESSON #1: WAIT FOR THE FULL DETAILS BEFORE JUDGMENT— This week’s column will be heavily centered on exploding all over the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science board of governor’s announcement of major changes to the Oscar categories, telecast, and format. I had a whole batch of Netflix-related news, but they can wait and MoviePass will keep on dying to. Let’s stay on the main event. To be nice, I might as well put my penance up front and say the positive lesson of patience and get it over with. Without knowing the as-yet-unannounced or in-progress criteria for the controversial “Best Popular Film” category, it’s probably best to take as seat at the “wait and see” picnic table instead of joining the think piece parade of pitchforks and torches. So, we can try to do that, but a better situation could have been created.
LESSON #2: DON’T ANNOUNCE A MAJOR CHANGE WITHOUT FULLY CALCULATING, ORGANIZING, OR SETTLING ON THE DETAILS OF SAID MAJOR CHANGE— Come on, AMPAS. Did the entire room of out-of-touch decision makers elbow each other in the ribs in unison with a “guys, they’re going to love this idea, just you wait” cluelessness?! Did no one there have the fart-in-the-wind thought in their mind that maybe dropping this undefined idea wrapped in undetermined ambiguity would be seen as problematic for potential public backlash? Did no one ask how condescending this looks? No wonder why your show has declined in prestige (predictable winners), viewership (slipping ratings), and respect (#OscarsSoWhite). You’re asleep at the wheel of hubris.
LESSON #3: LET’S BE CLEAR. DISNEY IS THE BAD GUY HERE— Peachy products be damned, Disney continues to do thrust shady business moves left and right with a big billionaire smile across its face because it can, from shoving out publications, undercutting partners, and squeezing everything it can for more money and dominance. This is another one of those questionable self-serving moves because they own ABC, the network the Oscars on, and it’s their declining bottom line (see the numbers), not the film industry’s or the artistic medium’s bottom lines. And, which films do think have the best and most financially-armed chances to campaign heavily for that new “popular film” Oscar? Their own, just like the last tailor-made category fell into their lap: Best Animated Feature. If that’s not gloryhounding and forcing the AMPAS to play ball, I don’t know what is.
LESSON #4: IF THE GOAL IS A SHORTER SHOW, CUT OUT THE SUPERFLUOUS FLUFF— Let me let Disney and ABC in on a not-so-little secret. It’s not the obscure films that make the Oscars boring, it’s the unnecessary variety show bits and comedic crap the producers pack into the show that take away from the importance that should marvel with majesty. For me, the Oscars should play like opening or closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games. The pageantry and the excellence of the moment is given the gravity it deserves and the results captivate us every time. Instead, we get late night talk show leftover monologues and dumb gags that inflate the running time more than any impassioned deadline-stretching speech. Let’s do some generous math. Give 24 categories 5 minutes each (3 to introduce it gracefully with deeper montages than mere quick mentions and 2 full minutes for each winner’s speeches) and that’s 120 minutes. Tack on 5 minutes to open with a welcoming monologue, 5 minutes to close with a thankful prologue, 3 minutes for the annual dead people roll call, and 30 minutes for required commercials to pay the bills. Bingo-bongo! You’re well under three hours, the awards are given rich room to operate, and nothing is forgotten except another hare-brained skit. For other outstanding suggestions, I must strongly recommend this editorial from my Chicago critic friend and colleague Jeff York on The Establishing Shot. His list of smarter changes is outstanding.
LESSON #5: THERE ARE SO MANY OTHER WORTHY AREAS FOR NEW OSCAR CATEGORIES THAN THIS SILLY IDEA OF A POPULAR FILM ONE— Of all the new and unsung categories, it had to be blockbuster level cheese? You can do better, Academy, to celebrate the real people that make any of these movies, large or small, special. Jeff York’s column got the ball rolling with suggesting a Best Stunt Work award and excising the antiquated and watered-down Best Song category. That’s a great place to start. IndieWire’s Zack Sharf listed seven possible category additions in a column on Thursday, all of them with more solid merit than the popular film one. Praise is overdue, but not for the moneymakers. Give it to the hard workers behind the scenes.
LESSON #6: IF YOU WANT MORE POPULAR FILMS TO WIN AWARDS, MAKE BETTER POPULAR FILMS. IT’S THAT SIMPLE— Again, without criteria, this new category reeks to be like the equivalent of a participation ribbon in some crappy youth sports league. There have been more than enough times in the 90 years of Oscar history where the popular films are also thought of as among the best of the given year as well. That distinction of quality and the integrity to maintain that are the whole point of the awards. They have to be earned. Want one? Make a better movie. Sure, any of these awards are given in the moment and years before we’ll ever know if the films fully deserved them or had the staying power to stand as the best they were deemed to be. But that doesn’t mean you have to lower that level of quality just to endear some demographic you want to watch your silly, broken comedy variety awards show. That’s what the MTV Movie Awards are for.
LESSON #7: FINALLY, “FAVORITES” WILL ALWAYS BE MORE LOVED THAN THE SO-CALLED “BEST” ANYWAY— I say it all the time on the FF airwaves and social media walls. There is sometimes a difference between “favorite” and “best.” When they are the same, that’s wonderful and special. It earned that universal acclaim and deserves all the praise, be that awards or otherwise. However, if a “favorite” doesn’t win, that’s perfectly OK because the loyal love they generate cannot be taken away and will outlast any golden hardware it didn’t win. The box office profits and, more importantly, the endearment and continuous place among the celebrated classics of the masses will always be a stronger justification than any trophy. Just ask every parent which films they pass on to their kids. I bet it’s more non-Oscar winning personal favorites than academic winners. Just ask all of those filmmakers and actors who become permanent legends from non-Oscar-winning films and cult classics. They didn’t need an award to be loved. Their adored films and performances spoke for themselves. All of that is better than enough.
DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson and also on Medium.com where he is one of the 50 “Top Writers” in the Movies category. As an educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film now for over a year, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends while chipping in with guest spots and co-hosting duties, including the special “Connecting with Classics” podcast program. Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium to follow his work.