5 Problems Haunting The Oscars (Besides Lack Of Diversity)
For the second year in a row, the Academy Awards are being called out for being as stark white and monstrously aged as the shimmering salt flats of Bolivia. And, while that failure comes as a surprise to exactly zero people, you might be delighted to learn that it's not nearly the only behind-the-scenes problem persistently haunting the Oscars like a mediocre ghost.
As we've noted in the past, it turns out that lavishly gathering beautiful rich folk to huck golden humanoids at each other is a surprisingly slapshit process. For example ...
Writing The Ceremony's "Script" Is A Goddamn Nightmare
Some of you have probably never thought of the Oscars as having writers; Billy Crystal or whichever vaguely humorous celebrity is hosting just goes up there and acts like his own vaguely humorous self, right? Nope, there's a whole team of writers who start working on the script months in advance. Unfortunately for them, writing for the Oscars is like making a choose-your-own-adventure where the reader keeps mindlessly ripping pages out like a drunk toddler. Since anything can happen, the ceremony script is less like a linear story and more like a hundred-page list of contingencies and jokes -- 98 percent of which will never see the light of day, depending on who wins which award. This is all according to Bruce Vilanch, head writer for the Oscars and enchanted Muppet you might recognize from reruns of Hollywood Squares.
After every single joke, picture this guy going, "Waka! Waka!" backstage.
Along with being constantly on their toes, the Academy's writing staff is dealing with the equally unpredictable swarm of celebrity egos tasked with actually delivering the dialogue ... which, as you can imagine, results in a shitload of back-and-forth rejection and the surprising irony that some actors are genuinely bad at playing themselves on stage. This, plus the fact that no one vets the acceptance speeches, means that the ceremony also requires an on-the-go writer's room in case something off-the-rails goes down. You know, like if some scruffy nerf herder gets booed off the stage for talking about the war in Iraq:
Michael Moore's wayward acceptance speech from 2003 had the backstage writers furiously throwing out ideas for how Steve Martin could respond. The resulting joke about "the Teamsters helping him into the trunk of his limo" was decided in response to the actual stagehands who booed Moore from backstage, something the confused TV audience had no idea happened. Because believe it or not, the Academy Awards are written not for the people watching it on TV but the live audience in the room. The logic is that if you see Bruce Willis is laughing, you'll figure something funny probably happened and you should laugh too.
In fairness, Jennifer Lawrence is way more effective than a laugh track.
This is oddly one of the biggest challenges of the night, as the ceremony is aiming to entertain a room full of egos that are slowly getting bruised like lethargic prizefighters. As Vilanch explains, "Say, for an example, there are 10 supporting actor nominees and those categories are given early. Those 10 faces will be gone, generally, by the middle to the end of the show. And they'll be replaced by secretaries from Paramount who might not be too keen to laugh." You're essentially trying to entertain a group made up of a majority of people who are either at work or having a professional crisis -- and unlike the Golden Globes, they don't serve drinks to grease up the levity.
OK, that doesn't always work.
Not Even The Voters Know What All The Categories Mean
Everyone knows that two B-list celebrities taking the stage to robotically read off the cinematic merits of short-form documentaries is the universal signal to take an extended bathroom break. But, while the general public might not give two ungodly shits about the sound design or animated short awards, it's generally assumed that someone in the industry does, right? Like, they're certainly not just picking favorites or blindly voting on categories they hate ...
"I know Friends has been off the air for a while and sitcoms aren't technically movies, but fuck it."
Oh fudge, that's exactly what's happening -- which kind of explains why the most commercially popular animated films often get picked over the highest praised. After all, if a large percentage of Academy voters don't even watch all of the best picture nominees, they sure as shit aren't going to weigh the cinematic merits of the Shaun The Sheep movie. Now imagine this lack of interest applied to categories like best sound editing and best sound mixing -- two awards that are often given to the same film simply because no one has any idea what they mean.
"I'm not clear on what 'actors' or 'scripts' are, either. Hey, is Shrek showing up?"
Those are just some of the answers from The Hollywood Reporter's anonymous interviews with Academy voters, most of which understandably have no clue how to judge the nuances of sound design in film.
In case you're wondering: Sound editing is when you assemble sound effects and dialogue and sync it with the visuals of the movie, and sound mixing is when you take all those sounds and adjust the volume in relation to the music and surround sound. And yes, those two duties often overlap to the point where actual sound technicians struggle to explain the exact differences. This total lack of understanding is what causes films like Get On Up to meticulously re-create live James Brown performances based on original recordings and matched acoustics with the historical locations, and somehow get completely shafted out of even a nomination. And if that seems discouraging, it's a miracle that any film gets a nomination considering that ...
The Rules For Nominations Are An Ever-Changing Labyrinth
Did you hear? After getting publicly ridiculed for their lack of diversity, the Academy has announced plans to enact a series of new and exciting rules designed to weed out older voters and encourage a sundry assortment of skin colors.
"We're getting more giant statues so it looks like there's more yellow people. Problem solved!"
While that's great for progress, anyone in the industry might easily see this change as yet another arbitrary rule tacked onto a holy-shit-almost-90-year-old system struggling to get with the times. Case in point: In 2009, many believed The Dark Knight was overlooked for the best picture nomination (a category that has changed its name four times), and so the Academy decided to up the number of nominees from five to 10 films to give movies that aren't sad biopics a shot.
Then, after only two years of this new system, the amount was changed again to a looser sliding number between five and 10, depending what people voted on. This also adjusted the voting process itself and caused many ballots to be discarded along the way like mere Al Gore votes.
In unrelated news, the Dolby Theatre won't be running out of toilet paper anytime soon.
Along with the broader rules, various arbitrary adjustments were also made, such as the number of actors each studio can submit for consideration and how many producers are allowed to be on a best picture nomination. But the biggest "fuck your mother" came when the Academy began to slowly tighten the noose on the documentary category -- starting with the requirement that every potential nominee must have a review in either the New York Times or Los Angeles Times in order to qualify. Then, in 2014, because the Academy really wanted to punish those generally micro-budgeted and thinly released movies, the rules got even more oddly specific by excluding any documentary that didn't have a seven-day theatrical run of at least four showings per day between noon and 10 p.m. No, seriously -- even if your documentary was shown in millions of theaters around the world, you would be excluded from Academy Award consideration if those showings occurred only during brunch hours.
Furthermore, the rules stipulated that at least one of those showings had to have been between the hours of 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., because dinnertime is apparently the most artistically reputable time of day.
If your movie didn't cause at least five teens to get mono, you're disqualified.
And now that we're all sufficiently numb-skulled about how the nomination process works, it's time to have an aneurysm over the actual voting process ...
The Vote-Counting Is Like A Drunk Riddle
Let's play a game, meatheads! Say you made a classroom full of children write down their five favorite colors on a ballot in order of most awesome to least awesome. (You're not a teacher or anything; you just walked in and demanded that.) And, let's say for the sake of simplicity that the voting results looked exactly like this:
"Fuck orange" is the message here.
If you then showed the results to the children, even their stupid little brains would know that blue had won the vote on account of it being the most top-rated color. And yet, this hilariously isn't the case when all these colors turn into a slate of pretentiously named Oscar contenders.
"We had to take steps so that the Madea movies didn't win every year."
Turns out the Academy runs on something called a "preferential voting" system, the goal of which is to find the film most broadly selected among the ballots. It's very simple. The first step would be to figure out the number of nomination slots, adding one, and then dividing that number by the total votes. So, if I wanted to know the top three colors our classroom of urchins had voted for, I would divide the 32 votes by 4 (3 slots +1). The answer to this equation is the number of votes that automatically qualifies an entry for nomination. Confused yet? Too fucking bad, because there's more goddamn rules.
Once a color gets eight or more votes, those ballots are then taken off the table and the rest are recounted. So going by that original tally, blue would be automatically nominated with 10 votes, leaving these remaining colors ...
On second thought, forget orange. Fuck math.
Since one of the three nomination slots has been filled, we have to do the math all over again (yay!). There are now 22 ballots left and two slots to fill. You once again add one and divide that to get seven as the new number to beat.
BUT WAIT! THERE'S MORE! After redoing the math, you're then supposed to eliminate the lowest-rated category and redistribute those ballots based on what people voted as second choice. That means that since green got the least votes, that color would be eliminated and those votes would go to red (the second-most voted).
Fuck ... fuck?
That means red gets the second nomination slot ... with 11 votes. In other words ... blue doesn't win. In fact, once you keep going with the math, blue comes in third, because while it was the No. 1 pick most often, orange and red were more likely to be No. 2 or No. 3 choices on the ballots. And if you think that was confusing as fuck-all, try doing it when the votes are in the thousands and the combinations are endless. Also, try doing it by hand with physical ballot papers and stacks -- because that's absolutely how the Academy still counts their votes. If you're exasperated as to why they don't just switch to digital, well, so are the people in charge of tallying the votes, who have been trying and failing to get their members to vote online. This has proven to be difficult, because the average voting Academy member is 63 years old.
Like the crusty paper upon which they scribe their annual judgments, the entire Oscar system is dying like an old tree, and ...
The Oscars Are Becoming Less Relevant By The Minute
Along with promoting diversity, the new Academy voter rules potentially serve an almost equally important purpose: eliminating those pesky seniors by discounting votes from anyone who hasn't been active in the industry for 10 years.
Not even Mike Myers is sure if he qualifies.
It would be unfair to say that older voters didn't see a film like Straight Outta Compton because they're all racists (which obviously isn't true). Most of them didn't watch the movie because it's about an era of music they couldn't give a fuck about, because they are as old as dinosaur shit. And that's the big problem going hand-in-hand with the Oscars' lack of diversity: The older Academy members aren't deliberately shunning non-whites so much as they are totally uninterested in seeing films that don't fit what they consider their golden years. This is why the ratings for the Academy Awards have been steadily dropping, and the movies winning best picture have been steadily doing worse at the box office: They're no longer representative of what modern audiences consider entertaining and relevant.
And yet the number of memes spawned per show is going up. Baffling.
Audiences are getting more diverse, movies are getting more international, and the Academy is still right where it was 20 years ago ... getting more and more out of touch each ceremony. But the good news is that they totally realize this, which is why they changed best picture nominations to 10 slots in the first place, to include more popular films like Avatar, Lord Of The Rings, and Inglourious Basterds. The bad news, however, is that those films still aren't winning, and instead lose out to films like The Artist, Birdman, and Argo ... which coincidentally are all movies about the film industry. Meanwhile, genres like comedy, horror, and sci-fi almost never get recognized or even considered for a nomination, whereas biopics, dramas, and period pieces rule the land.
And that's really the big failing here, because the phrase "best picture" has nothing to do with the movie that's most universally beloved, but rather whatever fad a small bubble of industry workers happened to arbitrarily enjoy over Christmas break. But hey, maybe this year we'll finally see the true best picture go home with the golden statue it deserves.
Better make that shit chrome ...
Dave loves Mad Max more than his life. You can reach him on Twitter.
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