The Oscars Need a Reboot

Figurine oscar

The Oscars are a long-winded franchise, grasping for relevance in a pop culture landscape that has all but moved on without it. Its time for some changes. 

Declining viewership and increased criticism have pushed the Academy Awards to its lowest point in 94 years of existence. It relies on the same gags over and over with diminishing returns, and only when someone messes up do people outside of the industry talk actually about it. The films nominated are usually not the ones making the biggest impacts on audiences, and the winners tend to be based more on body of work than a singular performance. 

There is plenty of blame to spread around for the downfall of what was once considered to be the most prestigious night on American television. The increase of production value and ease of access of streaming shows has given prestige films a run for their money. Our increased reliance on the internet and social media has resulted in conflicts of opinion which diminish the impact of journalism professionals. Most importantly, the filmmaker’s influence over pop culture has been quenched by money-hungry entertainment corporations. 

This slide has also been a long time coming. For more than a decade people outside of the industry became less and less concerned about the Oscars. Because of the decline, the awards themselves carry less merit than ever before. What had once been considered the pinnacle of pop culture icon status has become an afterthought to film studios obsessed with churning out the next comic book-based film. Oscars were a representation of achievement and appreciation from creative peers. Today there is so much breadth and accessibility to exhibit creative media that it is harder than ever before to affirmatively claim one person or film is better than the others. 

For all of these reasons, the Oscars need a reboot. Not only in the way the awards are presented, but also in the types of films that are nominated and the way they are nominated. For years we complained about the lack of diversity among those who are nominated and receive the awards. While strides have been made in that regard, I feel like many efforts have missed the point. 

In the past the prestige of the Oscars stood second to none. This gave the Academy incredible power to basically do whatever they wanted, and people would still pay attention. There was not really an alternative, and the glamor alone was enough to convince people to tune in and see the stars at the height of their careers. Social media did not exist as an avenue to argue about what films should have been nominated, or diminish those that did. If the Oscars nominated a film, that was that. If a filmmaker won an award, their career was changed forever. 

Consider back in the day the old Hollywood studio system. Actors and actresses signed contracts with specific studios and their next contract hinged on their star power. An academy award was a sure-fire way to a better contract. In today’s world there are still contracts, but the worth of that contract is not as reliant on the performance of the actor, but their star power. Today star power isn’t defined by acting awards – it’s defined by revenue. 

Indeed the whole industry has shifted away from appreciating filmmaking as a form of art, and instead we look at it as a form of entertainment. Creativity plays a role in the appeal of a film, but most of what we consume on the big screen these days is based on something else to begin with. Film is less about seeing something new as it is seeing something familiar in a new way. Hollywood pours billions of dollars into tentpole franchises, leaving few resources for small and mid-budgeted films which had traditionally been the industry’s bread-and-butter. 

The Oscars have been very slow to respond to these changes. Consider the call for adding a Best Stunts category. As action blockbusters have come to define the industry more and more, this would be an opportunity for fans to cheer for those films in a new way. The Oscars have so far failed to implement this change, which is indicative of the way it has been stubbornly stuck in the past. Diversity isn’t just about allowing more women or more people of color into the Academy, it’s also about acknowledging the value of those aspects of film production which play a significant role in modern filmmaking. 

Another area where the Oscars has failed to modernize is in recognition of the impact of international cinema. Improvements in technology and communication have given a rise to film industries all over the world with quality to match Hollywood. While the Oscars have given an award to the best International film since 1956 (previously the Best Foreign Language Film), this remains a very old-fashioned approach to the topic of films that aren’t released in the US. It has essentially treated those films as being different, or or lesser from the US/UK films. 

Parasite’s 2020 win as Best Picture represents the first time a non-English film had won the award. Many non-English films have been nominated for Best Picture, but their lack of success winning the award speaks to the difficulty in being recognized as an equal. With interest in film stronger than ever before in international markets, the Oscars are missing out on an opportunity to bring the world closer together to celebrate our common interest in cinema. I don’t have the answers as far as what they should do, but there has to be a better way than how the situation is being approached currently. 

If the Oscars can be more receptive to international cinema, this would provide the opportunity for a larger audience. Just because American interest in the Oscars is waning doesn’t mean there isn’t interest outside of the country. Just as international cinema is as popular today in the US, US cinema is as popular as ever outside the US. Streaming is a huge boon to allow access to the cinema of other cultures that was not previously possible. It would be a shame to not embrace the diversity of film to its fullest extent. 

Of course, giving the spotlight to non-English films also takes away some of the attention to English/traditionally American cinema. Some areas of the industry, and fans of film, may not appreciate this type of a change. But that’s exactly the type of perspective which has held the Oscars back for so long. Adhering to tradition for the sake of tradition is not going to bring in new interest from those people who don’t have a connection to that tradition in the first place. Focus should be placed on broadening the appeal of film, not limiting it because of selfish reasons. 

An overhaul of the nomination and voting process is also necessary. Currently only members can nominate films, and only those working in the same area of expertise can nominate a film for a specific category. For everything except Best Picture the voters nominate 5 potential nominees (for Best Picture it is 10) ranked 1-5. Nominees are chosen based on the cumulative score of their rankings. Final winners are based on number of votes, except for Best Picture which is again based on ranking. 

There are good reasons for the ranked voting. First, it prevents a nominee/winner from being chosen if it is not considered in the majority of votes. Second, it allows for more diversity of films to be considered. The expansion of Best Picture nominees from 5 to a maximum of 10 was also made to help incorporate more films. For the majority of cases, this process has worked out fine, but you could make the argument that this method of voting dilutes the awards. 

For Best Picture, the problem is that there are now a wider variety of films to split votes. This means if there is not one film which is the clear-cut favorite among voters, you can have a second or third-place film win the award just because it shows up on more ballots. Even when there were only 5 Best Picture nominees, this issue is likely to have arisen. Look back at Best Picture winners over the years and see how rarely the Academy selects a film which today would be considered to be the best of the year. 

We all look back at Oscar winners and can make suggestions of more worthy winners and nominees. Part of the decline of the Oscars is the idea that the awards don’t always go to the most deserving films. This dilutes the impact of the awards over time. There are several potential reasons for this. First and foremost has been the traditional lack of diversity among the voters. If the same type of professionals are always voting, they are going to continue to vote for the same types of films over and over. Age, gender, and ethnic/cultural background will play a big role. The Academy has been working on being more inclusive with its membership, but it still feels like it is too little, too late. 

The other issue that plagues the voting process is outside influence on the voters themselves. With so many films being released these days, voters have a tough enough time trying to limit their selections to 5 or 10 films. As a result, they may either restrict themselves to the films they have experience with, or be influenced by outside voices. Furthermore, its difficult to rely on voters who have not seen every movie of the year to vote on the best movie/performance of the year. This all results in some films/nominees getting unfairly left out. 

For these reasons I think it might be important to consider an additional round of voting. Use the first round of voting to put together a list of eligible films, and then ask voters to select the nominees from that list of eligible films. The first vote helps to narrow down the field, and the second allows voters to focus on a specific set of films. Furthermore, allowing voters from outside of a particular field to provide input on possible eligible films would also be a good idea. This brings in an outside perspective without diminishing the role of those voters within the field, who will ultimately decide on the nominees. It also prevents studios, journalists, media, and industry insiders from having as much of an influence on the vote. 

The last change the Oscars have to consider would be the Awards ceremony itself. Declining audiences have resulted in some desperate moves over the years to try and remain relevant. These changes include trying to appeal more to nostalgia and popular cinema. Recent ceremonies have had homages to classic films, and songs or stunts that connect with mainstream films. This year the Oscars even attempted a Twitter poll to choose the year’s most popular film. 

I feel like all of these attempts have only distracted from the core problem with the ceremony; trying to appeal more to those people who are at the ceremony than those who are watching at home. From the types of jokes, to the people who present, to the food and extremely expensive gift bags – there is very little incentive to watch for people who don’t have a strong devotion to film. It just feels very pretentious and self-serving. It feels like a pat on the back for people who are living out their dreams and making millions of dollars doing so. 

The Oscars need to give us something to look up to. The highlights of the Oscars tend to be the speeches given by the winners. They add context and meaning to the films they are working on, and this can provide a connection to the audience. But the Oscar producers have been trying to cut back on this. They try to limit the amount of time someone has to make a speech. This is understandable if someone is standing on the stage listing out names of people we’ve never heard of. But when the speech comes from the heart and has something profound to say, the audience perks up and listens. 

Maybe instead of allowing winners to make a speech, they are limited to a statement of a certain word length. Furthermore, they should allow nominees to submit the names of people they want to thank ahead of time. Then, when they win they can show the names on the screen and announce them as the person walks on stage to accept their award. Or record the thanks after the win and play back a montage of them during the show’s credits. Either way it would help to speed up the process while allowing the most emotional, and therefore appealing, moments of the awards ceremony remain. 

Another important change could be the elimination of any material that isn’t related to the films being nominated. There’s no sense in wasting time to play homage to winners of the past – that’s what the Academy’s museum is for. Same thing with presenters being those who are past winners. While it is good to see fan favorites from the past, that’s just what they are. If the Oscars wants to broaden their appeal, they will have to embrace a new generation of stars. There’s no reason the Oscars can’t replace their homage to winners of the past with popular films of the present. 

Finally, the excessiveness of the Oscars needs to be reexamined for this day and age. While it may have once been fashionable to spend lavish amounts of money on the stars, it feels very wasteful today. Audiences struggling with the realities of modern life don’t want to tune in and see people worth millions crying about how hard it was to earn their paycheck. The Oscars need to do more promotion of the community work, outreach programs, and activism of its members. There’s no reason they can’t use the Oscars as a fundraising opportunity to provide both awareness or resources towards a particular cause. 

Maybe that takes away some of the focus on the winners, and would make the event more political, but it would go a long way to reducing the ceremony’s stodgy image. It would also provide some incentive for the stars to attend that is not entirely self-serving. The participation of pop culture icons in the ceremony is exciting enough, but it would be even more satisfying to see them do something in the spotlight that is considered to be more universally important. 

These suggestions are just some of the ideas that could be considered to make a difference at the next Oscars. I’m not saying that I have all of the answers, but it is important for the Academy to consider making significant changes or else the decline of the awards will continue. By changing the way the nominations are made, the field of nominees will hopefully be more representative and diverse than before. By making changes to the focus and intent of the ceremony, the awards can become something with value beyond their appeal to the people who are nominated.

What are the other changes you might suggest? 

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Managing editor. Fascinated by the history of film. "Film can teach us just as well as it can entertain us, and the things we learn from film can be much more beneficial to our lives than the short-term entertainment we extract from it."