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The chaotic road to the 2019 Oscars ceremony, explained

The Academy narrowly dodged a revolt.

89th Annual Academy Awards - Backstage
The Oscars have been chaotic this year — and they haven’t even happened.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

We usually spend most of Oscar season arguing about the actual movies: whether they should be nominated, who got snubbed, if movie X is a masterpiece or a travesty. But this year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that gives out the awards, seems to have decided that it would rather distract from the movies themselves by messing with the telecast of the ceremony, provoking repeated outcry from film fans, industry observers, and even the Academy’s members.

After a litany of missteps and misfires, announcements and backtracking, and what seems like a lot of unforced errors, the final form of the 2019 Oscars finally seems to be settled. Following backlash and near revolt from within its ranks, the Academy announced on February 15 that, contrary to its previously announced plan to hand out four awards during commercial breaks and then air the corresponding acceptance speeches later in the broadcast, it will now hand out all 24 awards live — likely resulting in a broadcast that runs a little longer than the three hours it promised last summer.

But there’s been a lot of frustration from Academy members and Oscar fans to get to this point, and everyone seems disgruntled. There are ways to fix the situation. But as a recounting of the Academy’s repeated missteps on the way to the February 24 ceremony shows, goodwill has been lost. And the organization will have to think hard about how to regain it in the future.

The problems began with the “Best Popular Picture” category and other announced changes to the annual Oscars ceremony

The trouble started last August, when the Academy’s board announced three major changes to the annual Oscars ceremony:

  1. Starting in 2020, the Oscars would follow a more compressed timeline. The air date for the 2020 ceremony would move up a few weeks, to early February, foregoing the awards’ traditional late February or early March slot and shortening the period between nominations (usually announced in mid-January) and the ceremony itself.
  2. Starting in 2019, the annual Oscars telecast would be limited to a three-hour runtime. (Usually, the show runs about three and a half hours, though one of its longest editions to date lasted four hours and 23 minutes in 2002. The 2018 ceremony ran almost four hours.)
  3. Also starting in 2019, the Oscars would include a new category: Best Popular Picture.

The largest of these three changes — the Best Popular Picture category — yielded immediate blowback. Absolutely no details were given at the time of the announcement about how a movie would qualify as “popular” — though presumably, the classification would be based on box office earnings. Other unanswered questions: what it would be mean to be the “best” in that category, how the Best Popular Picture category would interact with the existing Best Picture category, and why a new category was needed at all (particularly in an awards cycle when several of the highest-grossing films, including Black Panther, seemed headed for a Best Picture nomination).

The negative reactions were swift and fierce. Instituting a Best Popular Picture category was a bad idea.

The Academy’s ultimate response to widespread criticism of the new category was effectively to kick the can down the road. In September 2018, it delayed the implementation of the new category (and the dissemination of details about it). And in a November 2018 press conference about the decision to delay, Academy president John Bailey said that after pushback, “the board reconsidered and tabled it — which is not to say that the idea is dead. Even after a stake was driven through its heart, there’s still interest.”

Relative to the Best Popular Picture disaster, the plans to eventually hold the ceremony earlier in the year and keep it to a tight three-hour runtime barely seemed to register. The early February ceremony wouldn’t happen until 2020, anyway. And though the Academy did explain that it would cut at least 30 minutes out of the typical Oscars telecast by presenting “select categories live” in the theater during commercial breaks and editing the winning moments to air “later in the broadcast,” it didn’t stipulate which categories would be affected — a detail that would become an important flashpoint within a few months’ time.

Then Kevin Hart was announced as host — which backfired, and led to the first host-free Oscars in three decades

In December, any preliminary rumblings about the Oscars’ shortened telecast — and the method by which it would be shortened — were trumped by the Academy’s announcement that Kevin Hart would host the ceremony and the ensuing, very public fallout.

Within days of the hosting announcement, Hart had stepped down from the gig. Homophobic tweets he’d posted several years earlier had resurfaced, and rather than address and apologize for them, Hart’s response was to decry the trolls he said were trying to bring him down, and resign. The subsequent debate over whether Hart should host the ceremony and whether the Academy should have done its due diligence before hiring him in the first place took up more than a month and, in a weird twist, ended up involving an appeal on Hart’s behalf from former Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres.

By the time Hart was definitely, definitely not hosting, it was early January — barely eight weeks before the February 24 ceremony.

So the Academy announced that the ceremony would move forward without a host for the first time in 30 years; the last time the Oscars went host-free, in 1989, the ceremony itself went off largely without a hitch, but parts of it — most notably the opening number, in which Rob Lowe duetted with Snow White — went down in Oscars infamy.

Theoretically, a host-free Oscars could make it easier for the show to stick to a three-hour time limit, because there likely won’t be a monologue or the type of stunts that Jimmy Kimmel pulled off when he hosted in 2017 and 2018. But even without a designated host, the Oscars producers will inevitably aim to add some interstitial content between awards. And they’re reportedly turning to a variety of high-profile stars to present the individual trophies — including the Avengers (or at least the people who play them).

Plans to trim down the Best Original Song performances and not invite last year’s acting winners to present went sideways

A number of short-lived “solutions” were considered in the Academy’s efforts to shorten the telecast.

Variety reported in late January that one option was for the ceremony to only feature performances of two of the five songs nominated for Best Original Song, the two that were the biggest chart hits: “All the Stars,” from Black Panther (performed by Kendrick Lamar and SZA on the film’s soundtrack, though the pair have not been confirmed as performers for the ceremony), and “Shallow,” from A Star Is Born (performed in the film by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, who will duet during the ceremony as well).

The response to the Variety story — best characterized as bewilderment — resulted in a quick announcement the next day; all five of the songs will be performed, but in a “truncated, 90-second form.” Jennifer Hudson will perform a selection from “I’ll Fight,” from the documentary RBG; Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings will perform “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” from Mary Poppins Returns, was originally performed by Emily Blunt but will be performed at the Oscars by Bette Midler.

Another misstep: In early February, news surfaced that Allison Janney, Frances McDormand, Gary Oldman, and Sam Rockwell — last year’s winners in the four acting categories — had not yet been asked to present this year’s acting awards, a longstanding Oscars tradition. Some speculated that the reason was so that the Academy could find higher-profile presenters who might draw in more interest from viewers.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, representatives for Janney and Rockwell had reached out to the Academy and were told that Janney and Rockwell would not be asked to present in the ceremony. In a since-deleted Instagram post on February 6, Janney said that it “breaks her heart” that the Academy appeared to not be honoring tradition.

The outcry on social media was swift, and once again, the Academy walked back its apparent plans, announcing that the quartet would be among the 2019 Oscars’ presentersthough they’d atypically be presenting in pairs.

But the biggest snafu was yet to come.

Once the Academy announced which categories would be presented during commercial breaks, revolt set in

When the Academy had announced its plans to shorten the Oscars telecast back in August, it had said plainly that some awards would be presented during commercial breaks to save time. But it hadn’t offered any more details on how that approach might play out.

On February 11, with less than two weeks to go before the ceremony, those details finally came: The four categories to be cut from the live broadcast would be Cinematography, Editing, Live-Action Short, and Makeup and Hairstyling. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the announcement was made via email from Academy president Bailey to the organization’s membership. He noted that the presentations would still be streamed live on and on the Academy’s social channels — a first for the awards show — and explained that recorded versions of each presentation, edited to include the presentation of the award and the winner’s acceptance speech, would still air during the live broadcast.

According to Bailey, executive committees in six of the Academy’s 17 branches had volunteered to be considered for the cut, and the Academy selected four. According to sources who spoke to the Hollywood Reporter, those executive committees were shown a sample version of what the edited presentations would look like, and some of them called it “respectful.”

The Oscars Foreign Language Film Award Directors Reception
Academy President John Bailey, onstage with Oscar himself in 2018.
Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

Bailey wrote, “Viewing patterns for the Academy Awards are changing quickly in our current multi-media world, and our show must also evolve to successfully continue promoting motion pictures to a worldwide audience.”

But if the uproar regarding previously announced changes was loud, this time, it was deafening. The criticism reported in the trades was sharp, calling the move a “slap in the face.” Some industry observers devoted extra scrutiny to Disney’s ownership of ABC, the network airing the Oscars, and noted that the four categories cut from the live telecast just happened to be among the few in which Disney or its subsidiaries had no nominees.

Before long, prominent filmmakers and other members of the Academy — figures like Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino — had signed an open letter decrying the move as “nothing less than an insult to those of us who have devoted our lives and passions to our chosen profession.”

The letter expressed the group’s fear — citing a statement from the show’s co-producer Glenn Weiss that he would “determine what ‘emotionally resonant’ moments from the four winners’ speeches will be selected to air later in the broadcast” — that the Oscars would not properly honor the speeches of the winners. “We consider this abbreviation and potential censorship to run contrary to the spirit of the Academy’s mission,” they wrote.

“When the recognition of those responsible for the creation of outstanding cinema is being diminished by the very institution whose purpose it is to protect it, then we are no longer upholding the spirit of the Academy’s promise to celebrate film as a collaborative art form,” the letter concluded.

While removing any categories from the live broadcast rankled members, the fact that they included Cinematography and Editing — the two crafts that are most fundamental to the art of cinema — seemed especially galling. (You can have a movie without sound, without actors, without a story — but you can’t have a movie without images.)

Roma director Alfonso Cuarón, whose film is nominated for Best Picture and who made history as the first person to be nominated in the Directing and Cinematography categories simultaneously, voiced concerns that were echoed by many:

In response to the backlash, the Academy’s leadership issued another letter to its membership, which said that “inaccurate reporting and social media posts” had created a “chain of misinformation that has understandably upset many Academy members.” Then the letter explained how the edited presentations would work. (Contrary to the letter, the Academy’s description exactly matched the reporting on the move.)

Additionally, in an apparent reply to the open letter’s citation of Weiss’s remarks, Oscars co-producer Donna Gigliotti told Variety that winners’ speeches in the cut categories would not be edited — unless they ran over the allotted 90 seconds per speech.

“I wish they’d all call me up and I’d show them how it was going to work,” Gigliotti said. “When I took on this job [of producing the Oscars], the Board of Governors had made this decision [about shortening the telecast]. And at that point in time, they had a proof of concept. Everybody is going on the air. I feel badly that people are so upset, because I think if they saw it, it would allay a lot of their concerns.”

My first draft of this story noted that at this point, with the Oscars set to occur in just over a week, no major shifts would occur. But as if to underline the chaos, about a half-hour after I filed my draft, the Academy announced that after meetings with top cinematographers, it had decided to backtrack again, and would air all 24 Oscars categories live.

According to a source who spoke to Variety, this means the broadcast will almost certainly be longer than three hours.

Why all these changes in the first place?

Was any of this chaos even necessary? The Oscars have changed over the years, but why so many changes this year? And why have those changes been so controversial?

Let’s return to the Avengers, who might be able to save the world (we’ll find out, eventually), though probably not the Oscars telecast. The rumor that the cast will appear during the telecast was a reminder of what is most likely behind the Academy’s insistence on so many changes. The Avengers are a Marvel property; Marvel Studios is owned by Disney. And so is ABC, the network contracted to broadcast the Oscars until at least 2028.

Variety reported in August that executives from ABC met with Academy leadership just days after the 2018 Oscars, which recorded the lowest viewership of any Oscar ceremony to date and represented a 19 percent drop from the 2017 ceremony. Viewership in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic — that is, millennials — was down 29 percent from 2017 and 56 percent from 2014, when Ellen DeGeneres hosted and 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture.

86th Annual Academy Awards - Show
Remember when Ellen hosted, and Bradley Cooper took a selfie? That year was the last big year for Oscar viewership.
Ellen DeGeneres/Twitter via Getty Images

Apparently spooked by these numbers, ABC’s executives reportedly told the Academy that it needed to change the show or risk irrelevance, and then suggested a number of changes, including the earlier air date, the shortened ceremony, and a proposed “Best Blockbuster” category. All of these suggestions were eventually included in the Academy’s August announcement. And according to Variety, ABC executives were relieved.

But it’s no sure thing that a ceremony that ends at 11 pm instead of 11:30 on the East Coast, or a ceremony that features actors who play popular superheroes, or a ceremony that might award a Best Popular Picture trophy to, say, a Mission: Impossible film (or an Avengers film) would attract more viewers, to say nothing of viewers in a younger demographic. Ratings have dropped off for live events generally. The viewership numbers for the 2019 Grammys, which aired two weeks before the Oscars, were up slightly from 2018 but dropped to a new low among adults ages 18 to 49. Even the Super Bowl ratings hit a 10-year low this year.

It doesn’t take a statistics genius to see that people watch less live television than they used to — particularly younger people. There’s no reason to sit through an hours-long televised event waiting for something interesting to happen when you can binge-watch something on Netflix or go out for the evening, then catch the highlights on YouTube the next day. There are a few exceptions; sports still reliably draw live audiences, and in the past few years, live productions of musicals like Grease and Jesus Christ Superstar have at times pulled in strong ratings, particularly among younger viewers. But in general, strong audience numbers for event-based TV are a thing of the past.

So taking a half-hour out of the Oscars broadcast, or creating a category that is supposed to appeal to a broader viewership, or announcing high-profile presenters all seem like imperfect solutions, though it’s no wonder that those solutions are reportedly being pushed by ABC executives, who likely have an eye toward opportunities for corporate synergy, both now and in the future. (In addition to owning ABC and Marvel Studios, Disney owns Pixar, and will soon own Fox’s movie properties as well, which includes the X-Men franchise.)

Can the mess be fixed?

This long, combustive path to the Oscars points to two issues within the Academy. One is that, at minimum, the Academy has been remarkably bad at communicating its intentions to its membership, who obviously felt blindsided by many of these announcements. The decision-makers don’t seem very in touch with the rest of the organization; Variety reported that the Academy’s leadership was “bewildered” by the backlash to the decision to move four categories to commercial breaks, since “the Academy’s membership voted to approve this decision last August.” And indeed, the August announcement included a statement that some awards would be handed out during the commercial breaks to make the ceremony three hours long.

But it’s increasingly clear that the membership of the Academy only voted on the idea in the abstract, rather than on a concrete plan — and when presented with the details, they revolted. As IndieWire’s Anne Thompson notes, “The change wasn’t communicated properly, turning into a PR disaster that burgeoned out of control.”

That underlines a serious communication problem within the Academy itself. An organization with a stronger public relations strategy would never have announced the Best Popular Picture category without any accompanying details. It also would have dug into its host’s tweets before hiring him, in order to avoid responding to criticism reactively. It might have anticipated the blowback from decisions about presenters and preempted said blowback with clearly stated rationale. And it certainly would have been clearer about what was happening with the categories being moved to commercial breaks — not just to its membership, but to the press.

25th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards - Inside
Black Panther is in the hunt for Best Picture this year. Would a Best Popular Picture category have thwarted that?
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Turner

So better communication is one issue, but the other is this: The Academy is desperate to improve the Oscars’ ratings, likely at the behest of ABC. And that makes a lot of sense. The Oscars bring in the lion’s share of the Academy’s revenue, which it uses throughout the year to fund everything from fellowships for emerging screenwriters to education and grants to programs focused on increasing diversity to a research library to film preservation, restoration, and oral history initiatives.

But it would have been wise to explain its goal of boosting the Oscars’ ratings, and to be transparent about its motives and strategies for doing so.

To the public, the Oscars are the only reason the Academy exists, and fixating on the awards’ ratings smacks of the self-centered bent the industry is often accused of. Many people don’t care at all about the Oscars, and the particulars of the ceremony won’t matter at all to them.

To the Academy’s membership and its most devoted fans, however, these changes suggest the Oscars are abandoning the celebration of craft in order to sell more ads.

But noting the reasons for some of the changes — and communicating them clearly in the first place — could have gone a long way. Going forward, such explanations will be the only way to restore goodwill toward the organization that’s been lost, both from Hollywood’s biggest fans and from the Academy members who have devoted their careers to the craft.

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