You can have prestige or you can have popularity, but you can’t have both.
That’s the conclusion I come to when reading some of the think-piece alternatives to recent changes made by the Academy to the Oscars ceremony. Many of them are reflected in this worthwhile piece by IndieWire’s Tom Brueggemann, “How To Make The Oscars More Popular Without Ruining Them: A Modest Proposal.”
But first, a refresher for those still not quite up to speed.
Following the Academy’s new addition of an “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” award to the Oscars ceremony, there was near-universal uproar from film writers, critics, fans, and even some Academy members. The feeling is that the category will tarnish the value and artistic integrity of this 90-year-old legacy.
A few pundits have tweeted possible alternative options, ones that would strive to meet the desired goal of attracting more viewers by increasing the likelihood of more popular and widely seen films being nominated in the Best Picture category (rather than pandering with a “Popular Film” slum that would be a slap in the face to those respective filmmakers).
Brueggemann’s piece is one such “modest” proposal, and its reflective of other suggestions floating out there. You can read it here.
In short, he makes a one-two punch pitch of going back to 5 nominees instead of a possible 10 while also ditching the preferential ballot for a more simplified “most votes is the winner” outcome.
Basically, what Brueggemann is suggesting is to just go back to how they used to do it (mostly). The funny thing is that if The Dark Knight hadn’t been snubbed in 2008 we probably wouldn’t even be in this mess.
We also likely wouldn’t have had some of the recent surprise winners that have made history since. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Brueggemann’s proposals – especially ditching the preferential system – would increase the chances of getting more popular nominees. How so? First, an explanation of how the preferential system works, as opposed to a “most votes” simplicity.
In a preferential system, the voter fills out her/his ballot according to preference. For the nominating process, in the 5 slots for Best Picture the top choice would get 5 points, the next choice 4 points, and so on.
This way, a smaller film like Moonlight that has passionate support (and a lot of 5-point entries) has a better chance of competing against bigger, more widely seen titles that may be listed on more ballots but don’t have as passionate support and, thus, get lower point totals.
In short, the Preferential System gives films of artistic (rather than commercial) ambitions a competitive chance, possibly even an edge depending on the buzz surrounding it.
Preferential also becomes important, even vital, when there are 8 to 10 nominees rather than just 5. With that many options, the film with the “most votes” still may end up representing only 20% of the membership, effectively meaning that 80% of the membership didn’t vote for the Best Picture winner. That’s a problem.
But by going back to 5 nominees, that problem disappears.
So Brueggemann says go back to 5 and ditch the preferential. Now voters would simply list their five nominees in no particular order because no points would be assigned. The eventual five nominees would then be the result of the five titles listed most across all ballots. The end. Breuggemann’s hunch is that the net effect would be more popular fare making the final cut. And he’s probably right.
But is that what the Academy really wants?
If we go back to a system that favors popular fare, we’ll likely squelch the possibility of surprise wins like Moonlight and Spotlight, two upsets by critically lauded achievements that have bucked the typical “middlebrow” victors that often don’t hold up well over time.
To further prove this dynamic, one need look only at the recent trend of Best Picture and Director winners not lining up as they traditionally have throughout Oscar history. Yes, The Shape of Water and its director Guillermo del Toro both won last year, but that was in contrast to the shift that has occurred under these new rules.
In 2012, the two categories split between Argo and Life of Pi (of course Argo’s Ben Affleck wasn’t even up for Director, a shocking snub). In 2013 it diverged again between 12 Years A Slave and Gravity, in 2015 it was a Spotlight / The Revenant split, and in 2016 it was Moonlight and La La Land.
Now consider: in the Directing category (as with all others except for Picture), the vote is not preferential. It’s simply “most”. If that had been the case for Picture, too, you’d likely have seen Gravity, The Revenant, and La La Land walk off with Best Picture wins. In other words, the popular nominees with the bigger box office.
But again I ask: is that what we really want?
12 Years A Slave and Moonlight were absolute breakthroughs in Oscar history. The preferential ballot finally allowed minority-driven films to have a shot.
There’s also Spotlight, a more straightforward piece of filmmaking without the support of all the flashy art and tech categories, but one that was brilliantly (even deceptively) constructed in the fundamentals of script, cast, and direction, akin to some of the classics from the 1970s.
In other words, what constitutes a Best Picture Oscar winner has been redefined over the past five years, and most would argue it’s been very much for the better.
Yes, if we go back to the old traditions as Breuggemann essentially suggests, we will have achieved the goal of favoring popular films once again. But should that be the goal?
What’s more valuable: temporary ratings or long-term posterity?
Clearly for ABC – the network that airs the Oscars – the answer is ratings, and so that’s what’s driving everything right now, from the overall conversation to the Academy’s decision-making.
And the biggest irony? The net effect won’t be a healthy increase in ratings. The problem was never the nominees or show length to begin with; it’s been the universal decline in ratings for every kind of show, not just the Oscars (which remains the highest rated non-sport broadcast of the year).
The problem is something that the Academy (or anyone) will never be able to fix: the evolutions in TV media, from the infinite channels options to on-demand / recording / streaming options to the variety of viewing devices. Oh, and the glut of all other media and entertainment out there, too.
So yes, Breuggemann’s suggestions, and others like them, are worth considering, particularly if the goal remains striving for popularity, but the gains of diversity that so many film fans, writers, and professionals have praised will most certainly be lost.