Like a jittery director fresh out of film school, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences continues to second-guess itself and make last-minute changes, with little more than a week to go until the 91st Oscars ceremony.
On Friday, the academy announced that it will abandon a plan to run commercials over four awards presentations on Feb. 24, after hundreds of actors, directors and filmmakers signed a letter of protest.
“The Academy has heard the feedback from its membership,” the academy wrote in a statement — just two days after its top executives had dismissed said feedback, saying it was due to “a chain of misinformation.”
It’s the latest fumble for the academy, which has been trying to retool the format of the awards ceremony after last year’s Oscars telecast dragged on for nearly four hours, bored many critics and drew a record-low audience of 26.5 million (fewer people than once watched Jake Paul order pizzas on YouTube). Last fall, the academy’s president, John Bailey, and its chief executive, Dawn Hudson, promised to deliver “a more accessible Oscars for our viewers worldwide,” including a significantly shorter broadcast with more focus on box-office hits and crowd-pleasers.
But many Hollywood artists, for whom the awards also ostensibly exist, immediately complained about this nod to the masses. The academy quickly abandoned plans to add a “popular film” category to this year’s awards after actor Rob Lowe said that doing so would be no less than the death of the film business.
Ditto a short-lived plan to pare down the live music performances from all five best-song nominees to just two.
Selecting comedian Kevin Hart to host the Oscars went some way toward rectifying the ceremony’s long history of white domination: “It’s significant that Hart will … be one of the few black stars to host the ceremony,” The Washington Post’s Bethonie Butler wrote in December. But days later, Hart stepped down amid a public furor over anti-gay comments he’d made several years ago. This year, the Oscars will go host-less.
Of all the plans announced to modernize the 91st Oscars, only one big idea survived into the final stretch: shortening the broadcast from four hours to three — from a “Heaven’s Gate” down to a more tolerable “Dances With Wolves.” But to hit that mark, something had to give. On Monday, the academy announced it would be cutting to commercials during the awards ceremonies in four categories: cinematography, film editing, makeup and hairstyling, and live-action shorts.
If greater Hollywood had been upset over the possibility of not hearing “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” (from “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) sung live, they were apoplectic over this.
As Allyson Chiu wrote for The Post, immediate hot takes ranged from “a fundamentally stupid decision” to “a slap in the face” to profanities. The director Alfonso Cuarón, whose film “Roma” is up for the cinematography award (among others), pointed out that editing and cinematography are the most fundamental components of filmmaking — even if they are not the biggest ratings earners.
First dozens, then hundreds, of filmmakers and celebrities signed an open letter to the academy this week — endorsed by the likes of Sofia Coppola, Martin Scorsese and George Clooney. “Relegating these essential cinematic crafts to lesser status in this 91st Academy Awards ceremony is nothing less than an insult to those of us who have devoted our lives and passions to our chosen profession,” the letter reads. “We consider this abbreviation and potential censorship to run contrary to the spirit of the Academy’s mission.”
With days to go until showtime, the academy tried damage control. In an email obtained by Variety this week, academy officers told members that “inaccurate reporting,” “social media posts” and “a chain of misinformation … has understandably upset many Academy members.”
Clips of the winners’ acceptance speeches would be aired later in the broadcast, the executives promised. “No award category … will be presented in a manner that depicts the achievements of its nominees and winners as less than any others,” they promised.
And they suggested it may be too late to change course, writing: “Given that it was a board decision, the only way to reverse it would be to convene the body for another meeting in the next seven days."
Yet by the end of the week, the academy appeared to have done just that. “All Academy Awards will be presented without edits, in our traditional format,” read Friday’s brief statement, with no mention of past contradictions and about-faces. “We look forward to Oscar Sunday. ”