This week the Academy of Motion Picture Arts announced a series of changes for the Oscars, its annual awards ceremony. Chief among them is a new category for achievement in popular film. While the move is ostensibly a nod to the fact that many successful, fan-favorites are not recognized as top films during the awards, the undercurrents leading to it suggest a shift in the Academy’s priorities for the awards ceremony.
To understand what these changes mean, for fans and filmmakers, Thomas Quinn, the director of the Film & Video program in Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, who is an award-winning writer/director, answered a few questions about what we can expect from the Oscars going forward.
What do you think was the deciding factor that pushed the Academy toward making this change in 2019?
The reasoning seems to be that the Board of Governs wants to increase viewership of the show. I think most of the industry agrees their approach will likely cause more problems and confusion. For instance, under the new rules, the same film could win in both the “popular” category and best picture. It is unclear whether all voting members will participate, or what even constitutes a “popular” film.
All in all, it seems like the Academy is further shifting away from its mission, which is to highlight the very best in the art and craft of filmmaking.
What does this actually mean for the big-budget blockbusters that are doing well in the box office but haven’t received this type of acclaim from the Academy?
At the moment, it feels like a consolation prize. There is nothing that keeps a big-budget film from winning honors, as evidenced by “Titanic,” “Gladiator,” “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” and countless others. At the moment, films that show excellent artistic craft or break new ground are often rewarded. Most of the comic films that are popular right now are well-made, but not breaking new ground or pushing artistic boundaries. There’s nothing wrong with that, but to make new awards to compensate feels like a strange move. This type of approach feels more appropriate for The People’s Choice Awards.
How might this impact filmmakers who are doing quality work but without the big budgets of the blockbusters?
I think these films are struggling at the moment, but I don’t see this announcement making a significant impact. There used to be many $30-40 million “adult dramas” akin to “There will be Blood,” but those films are increasingly rare. At this point, studios want cheaper films that are low-risk, or more expensive films that can produce sequels and play internationally for larger margins.
What would you say are the all-time biggest “snubs” that would have won this category if it had been around since the beginning?
I think it’s hard to argue that there are many. There are certainly strong arguments for snubs over the course of the Academy’s history and some winners do not hold up well, but I’d imagine the proposed winners would be from a range of budgets based on the year. Personally, I wish “E.T.” had won best picture!
Are there any other categories the Academy should look at adding? Or changes it should consider?
I think the more frightening thing at the moment is that this new announcement, which limits the Oscars to a three-hour broadcast, means that some categories will happen during commercial breaks.
So many people work tirelessly to get a film made. But the spotlight we shine is increasingly shrinking and more and more craftspeople are left in the dark because they get a separate ceremony or speeches are rushed.
In some ways, I think the Academy Awards mean less to the public because the bar has been lowered and the Academy is as guilty of that as any other part of the culture. If you don’t stand for anything or represent your history well, people won’t want to invest time in you and the show is meaningless. I think that’s where we are right now. Things go in waves and could likely turn around, but I think the Academy could use its platform to bring attention to the artists working behind-the-scenes and continue to celebrate that.
Thomas Quinn is a Gotham and Independent Spirit Award-nominated writer and director. His film “The New Year Parade” won Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance Film Festival. Quinn was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 News Faces of Independent Film” and Moviemaker’s “Ten Young Writer-Directors to Watch.” His most recent film, “Colewell” was selected for the Sundance Film Music and Sound Design Lab at Skywalker Ranch.
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