Oscars 2023: Academy members at odds over how to structure ceremony

Hollywood loves a good comeback story, and this year’s Oscars will feature a few of those.

There’s former matinee icon Brendan Fraser, whose turn as a morbidly obese teacher in “The Whale” earned him a lead actor nomination. There’s once upon a time child star Ke Huy Quan, who earned a supporting actor nod for “Everything Everywhere All at Once” three decades after he retired from acting.

Then there are the Oscars themselves, which will seek their own redemption on Sunday night.

For those in charge of the Academy Awards – and the millions more who love to watch them – the past two years have been tough. The 2021 Oscars, tempered by the COVID-19 pandemic, delivered the lowest ratings in the show’s history. Last year’s telecast was preceded by weeks of heated controversy over the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ decision to shift eight less star-studded categories from the live telecast, then was shockingly derailed when Will Smith punched Chris Rock onstage for a joke for his wife. , Jada Pinkett Smith.

Even as reverberations from last year’s disastrous telecast continue to be felt — with Rock giving a 10-minute slapstick response to the new Netflix stand-up — academy leaders hope to turn the page. Producers of this year’s telecast believe the inclusion of a handful of bona fide box office hits in the best picture race, including “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “Elvis,” will help boost it. interest in the show.

“We have a lot to celebrate,” says Ricky Kirshner, who is co-producing this year’s telecast with Glenn Weiss. “We have movies that people have seen, big blockbusters with big movie stars, like ‘Top Gun.’ And there are some great races in many different categories, so you’ll have to stay until the end to see who wins this or that award.”

For the beleaguered film industry, struggling to return to pre-pandemic health and beset by nervous chatter about a potential writers’ strike, the Oscars offer a welcome chance to calm down in an intimate ritual of glamor and joy. But there’s no denying the existential challenges facing Hollywood’s biggest night, as the entertainment landscape becomes increasingly fragmented, pushing movies further from the center of the cultural conversation.

While ratings for the 2022 telecast rebounded from the previous year’s record low, it was still the second-lowest in Oscars history, averaging 15.4 million viewers, down from 40 million a decade ago. Last year’s best picture winner, Apple’s heartwarming drama “CODA,” marked the first time a streaming service won the academy’s top award, but it earned just $2 million in theaters.

Oscars leaders are hoping to move on from last year’s show, where Will Smith slapped Chris Rock on stage.

(Myung Chun/Los Angeles Times)

In a telling sign of the Oscars’ diminished status as a must-watch event, HBO — which moved an episode of its blockbuster “The Last of Us” series from the Super Bowl run last month — will air the show’s telecast season finale right across from the televised awards show.

For an academy that has swelled dramatically in size in recent years to more than 10,000 members, reaching consensus on how to fix the Oscars — or, indeed, agreement that they fundamentally need fixing — has proven difficult.

In an effort to reinvigorate hype for the Oscars and reduce the series’ notoriously bloated running time, last year the academy switched eight categories below the line and short films from the live telecast. In a letter to the group’s members announcing the decision, then-Academy President David Rubin wrote, “We must prioritize television audiences to increase viewer engagement and keep the show alive, moving and relevant.”

After a backlash from rank-and-file members, the academy backtracked on the decision — which failed to produce a shorter show — and announced that this year all 23 awards will be presented live again. (An earlier attempt in 2019 to move four categories to commercial breaks was also scrapped after members protested.)

“We want to return to a show that is respectful of film and the 95 years of the Oscars,” academy CEO Bill Cramer, who took over the organization last year, said in a roundtable interview with reporters in August. “It’s a time to really think about our involvement, all sectors of the craft, our changing industry [and] our fans. … There are ways to do this that are fun and authentic and connected to our mission to celebrate excellence in filmmaking. I don’t think that’s mutually exclusive.”

Actors Austin Butler, left, and Tom Cruise, stars of “Elvis” and “Top Gun: Maverick,” respectively, meet at the Oscar nominees’ luncheon on Feb. 13. Producers of this year’s Oscars telecast hope including such box office smashes in the best picture race will attract a larger audience.

(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Film producer and former academy governor Bill Mechanic, who co-produced the 2010 Oscars, said the organization’s handling of the controversy underscored its struggle to adapt. In 2018, Mechanic resigned from the board due to his frustration with the direction of the group.

“The whole thing about the academy is that you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, regardless of the fact that life often involves that,” says Mechanic, who advocates removing certain categories, such as the short film awards, from television. broadcasting and finding more. ways to identify the most popular movies. “The ratings will continue to fall because the audience is not interested and the show is not shaped. … No one leads the parade. It’s the blind leading the blind.”

Even this year’s host, Jimmy Kimmel, a third-time Oscar winner, has called out the academy for too often favoring particular critical darlings over more mainstream ones. On his late-night show earlier this year, Kimmel said that this year’s best picture field includes “six movies that nobody’s seen — including a movie called ‘Triangle of Sorrow,’ which I always thought was a slice of Papa John’s pizza . “

Some members of the academy share Kimmel’s sentiment. “I think we need to redefine what quality means,” says one member, who like some other respondents asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly about a sensitive topic. “A lot of times ‘quality’ means a certain kind of film. It’s a movie that walks like a duck and talks like a duck — even if it’s a turkey. We have an idea for “This is the academy.” Hopefully this will change with an evolving membership.”

Other academy members point to the show’s antiquated format, which seems increasingly at odds with the sensibilities of younger viewers, who seem largely indifferent to the awards.

“The younger generation likes to participate or be entertained,” says a long-time member of the academy. “Sitting back and watching rich and mostly white people get awards is none of their business. What they care about is TikTok. Make the show a series of funny, entertaining, fast-paced and high-energy TikTok videos. Why are they reluctant to adopt a new format?’

Critics inside and outside the academy also point to the show’s frequent emphasis on identity and other thorny political issues as a turn-off for much of the audience.

“The Oscars have felt tonally too serious and at times self-conscious for the last several years, and they need to get back to throwing a real party,” says one academy member. “Celebrating your favorite movies of the year should be fun – that’s what North Star should be. Somehow, in an effort to make the Oscars important, they make themselves meaningless.”

Although they’re keeping much of their plans under wraps, this year’s Oscars producers promise the telecast will offer plenty of entertainment value, including a musical performance by Rihanna, hot off the heels of her Super Bowl halftime show. nominee for the original song ‘Lift Me Up’ from ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’.

“If you watch the show, I think you’ll see something at the top that’s so exciting and never seen before at the Oscars — if that’s not a tease, I don’t know what is,” says Weiss, who co-produced the 2019 telecast and will host the show for the eighth consecutive year.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the formatting wheel here,” Weiss continues. “What we’re trying to do is celebrate something that everyone can relate to. We tell a story for storytellers and I think the way we tell it adapts and changes with the times. … At the end of the day, our metric [for success] it’s that we’ve tuned out all the noise out there and put on a good show. If you’re having a good time and immersing yourself in the show, that’s winning.”

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