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by Jason Frank Koenigsberg

I know I am a little late to this but many people have asked me and I had to let my thoughts ruminate before committing them to be published. A few weeks ago the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to improve their dwindling ratings that they would add a ‘Most Popular Film’ category, as well as make some other changes such as shorten the awards show and move the date up from late February to early February. They seem to think that this will increase viewers in an already long program. 

When I heard this immediately my mind went straight to my teenage memories of the MTV Movie Awards, and I thought to myself, “What’s next? a Best Kiss category?” and the downward spiral this change could create lowering the standards for the Academy to increase ratings in the annual Oscar telecast. The MTV Movie Awards, The People’s Choice Awards, and even the Golden Globes all have their place in American pop culture and they all historically honor their types of films, not necessarily the ones the Academy honors. Their awards are meant to be different than the Oscars movie winners and they should stay like that. Every so often a film crosses over and wins big at the Academy Awards and the MTV Awards or other ‘less prestigious’ awards shows like Pulp Fiction (1994), The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), but for the most part the Academy selects films that, for better or worse, do not match with the mainstream public choice of what the best movies and performances are of a particular year. How else could you account for a then-unknown Geoffrey Rush winning Best Actor for Shine (1996) over the likes of household names such as Tom Cruise and Woody Harrelson, or an underseen British drama about track runners Chariots of Fire (1981) winning the coveted Best Picture over more popular and star-studded films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Reds. Guess what, that is what makes the Oscars the definitive award show for motion pictures as frustrating as it may be, the Academy Awards should continue to incite debate, awareness, and controversy for lesser-known films. Did Shine and Chariots of Fire deserve the Oscars they won? That is debatable but what is unquestionable is that the Academy shed light onto important films that deserved to be seen and discussed that overwise would have fallen through the cracks and be lost in history. In some cases that may be a good thing, The English Patient (1996) was certainly unworthy of its 9 Academy Awards, and in other cases, the Oscars can jump-start a talented actors career as they did for Geoffrey Rush and Daniel Day-Lewis when he was an obscure name but won his first Best Actor Academy Award for My Left Foot (1989) defeating Hollywood heavyweights Tom Cruise, Robin Williams, and Morgan Freeman. 

Like most of the rest of the country, I recall being outraged and infuriated when the 2008 Academy Award nominations were announced and The Dark Knight was snubbed for Best Picture and instead had it’s slot filled with The Reader, a stereotypical British Oscar bait picture that was not particularly good and nobody had seen. But as much as it frustrated people, that is what makes the Academy Awards the Academy Awards. 

Their solution after the outcry of The Dark Knight being replaced by The Reader was to increase ratings by increasing the pool for Best Picture nominees from the usual five to ten nominees (and later five up to ten nominees depending on how many votes a film gets). They were hoping that this impulsive reaction would improve ratings, but it did not. In fact, ratings have steadily decreased since that year. Also, increasing the number of Best Picture nominees took away from the prestige of a film nominated for the Academy’s highest honor. It made being a Best Picture nominee a lot less special. It felt like a cop-out and hugely diminished the importance of your film being a Best Picture nominee with a less likely chance of being the actual winner. Plus, it did not change much in terms of the types of films that are nominated for Best Picture. Instead of honoring popular blockbusters with a Best Picture nod, the Academy chooses more of the same, selecting their types of movies to fill in the extra spots now that there are more than five Best Picture nominees. Films like An Education (2010), War Horse (2011), and Darkest Hour (2017) are all typical Oscar fodder that Academy members love and vote for. Those three films had no realistic chance of winning the top prize yet filled in extra slots that really served no purpose. They also could have been released anytime in the past fifty years and would have been fine. Comedies are still underrepresented in the top category and still to this date no Superhero films have been nominated for Best Picture despite the huge strides that subgenre has made in the past decade. People were outraged when Deadpool (2016), Wonder Woman (2017) were ignored by the Oscars and they will no doubt feel the same way if Black Panther (2018) does not get some recognition this year. 

Which brings us back to the dubious ‘Most Popular Film’ category. This could inadvertently have a very negative backlash with cries of racism if the Academy honors Black Panther as a ‘Most Popular Film’ nomination and not a Best Picture nomination. That is a cop-out of another kind and a way of the Oscars saying ‘Hey Ryan Coogler and friends, you guys are good enough to win this award that we just made up but not the real Best Picture award that so many audiences and critics seem to think you deserve’. The Academy Awards did something similar back in 2002 as a reaction to Shrek (2001). Critics and audiences all thought that it was one of the very best films of the year and it had a chance to make history as only the second animated film to be nominated for Best Picture since Beauty and the Beast (1991). The Academy wanted to reserve their five Best Picture slots for more safe and typical movies such as In the Bedroom, Gosford Park, and the eventual winner A Beautiful Mind. So Shrek was relegated to winning Best Animated Feature and no other major awards that night. A very bogus move by the Academy. Plus, why not just use the box office receipts to determine the ‘Most Popular Film? Is that not what they were created for? Just go by that instead of a sham category that wreaks of desperation. 

So having more Best Picture nominees is not the answer to improve ratings or improve the Oscars themselves. The Academy seems to still be very much out of touch with the American public and they want to honor their peers and that is what this awards show is supposed to be about. Besides, Best Picture is always the last award given out. The Oscar producers in the past have done what they can to make sure that the program goes on way too long and does not end at the time it is supposed to, so most viewers lose interest before they get to the top award. Also, most viewers that watch the Academy Awards do not watch the whole thing, nor do they stay up super late on a night they have work or school the next morning unless they are real traditionalists or die-hard movie fans. Besides in this day and age with the internet, nobody has to watch the Oscars, they can just look up the winners during and after the show. 

Moving the date up to early February will not help much either. It will have it’s benefits and drawbacks though. For one thing, it will cut down on the unscrupulous campaigning that takes place and hopefully let the movies and the performances speak for themselves. It would be nice to have an Academy Awards where they are honoring films that most people saw during the calendar year. I remember growing up when the Academy Awards used to be held in late March and a lot of the major nominees could only be seen in the months of January, February, and March. It seemed rather odd and annoying at times that Shakespeare in Love was the Best Picture of 1998, yet most people around the country could only see it in theaters or on home video starting in 1999. The drawback, some movies that did deserve Academy recognition would not get any awards, nominations or eyeballs watching them if the Academy moved up the Oscars to early February. Daniel Day-Lewis would not have won for My Left Foot, Marcia Gay Harden would not have won her Oscar for Pollock (2000), and Adrien Brody would not have won Best Actor for The Pianist (2002) if the Oscars were held in early February or even late February for that matter. Those films did not generate enough buzz or hit their stride until the final few weeks leading up to the Academy Awards which resulted in those actors winning for their well-deserved performances. 

My real question: What is all this hullabaloo about with the ratings? Do the Oscars really need everyone to watch them on ABC in order to exist? Should the Nobel Peace Prize only start to honor celebrities and people that are household names since most people do not know the winners from each year? Of course not! The Nobel Prize committee should continue to honor excellence the way they have for decades and the Academy Awards should continue to do the same. To quote Warren Beatty, “The Golden Globes are fun, the Oscars are business.” These are the most prestigious awards in all of the entertainment industry and they should continue to be, not tarnish their reputation for the average shmoe who does not know or care much about movies to all of a sudden tune in to watch what wins Best Picture. If they want to attract a younger audience, they are going to fail at that since most younger people are glued to their phones and not watching television. Even MTV has seen their ratings decrease over the years. The Oscars needs to keep the viewers that they already have. 

If they want to improve the show itself, that is another concept altogether. I for one, say get rid of the songs and their performances. Sadly, movie musicals are no longer as popular as they used to be during Hollywood’s golden age and studios have cut corners and use previously recorded songs on most of their soundtracks, rather than the way it was in the 1980’s where seemingly every movie had an original soundtrack with popular artists lending their talents. Get rid of it, or just do not perform the songs, very few people will miss it and that will guarantee that the telecast ends on time. Another thing they can do, get rid of some of their technical awards, not all but some, mainly just condense the Sound Mixing and Sound editing Oscars into one, called Best Sound, the way it used to be for many years. I know Sound editing and mixing are very different and they traditionally award it to different films, but as my friend Frank Morano, who hosts a radio talk show has stated, “Nobody has ever walked out of a movie and said, ‘wow that sound mixing was so good, but the editing was not'”, he is right and that would certainly cut some time off as well. 

Also, you want to keep people interested do not just do one of the Best Supporting Actor categories right away as the first award of the night and then have all the other major acting, writing and directing awards handed out near the last twenty minutes. Spread out the wealth. You want people to watch it? Well, those people have jobs and a life and are not going to sit through three hours of fluff to see something that they only marginally care about. Have the major awards given out earlier and spread out accordingly. This way people can stay awake and if they see who wins Best Actor, maybe they might be more interested in seeing who wins Best Actress and they do not have to wait until a quarter to midnight to find out. 

Overall, these are just some of my ideas. The Academy Awards should go back to what made them important and prestigious for all of those decades and not succumb to shameless attempts to improve ratings. Bring the nominees back to five, continue to honor the films they think are important, for better or for worse. Controversy has often been one of the Academy’s best aspects, like in the year of Do the Right Thing, they shunned that film to only a few nominations, winning zero, while they honored Driving Miss Daisy with Best Picture. Were the Oscars right for doing that? Hell no! But did they create controversy and buzz for both movies that are terrific in their own right and both deserve to be seen? Absolutely. The Oscars should not be trying to emulate the MTV Awards if anything the MTV awards should be trying to duplicate the respectability of the Oscars. The Academy should not sacrifice their integrity for their historical importance in our culture. 

Here is a montage of some films the Academy has honored and I hope they continue to do so for decades to come.

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