Oscar has a problem, and I say that as a fan. If I could, I’d take one of those famous statuettes by its tiny golden hand, and show it a happy life in the bars, restaurants and movie theatres of its native Hollywood. But, clearly, others don’t feel the same way. The number of people who tuned into the Academy Awards last year was the lowest it has been for eight years. Even the traditional box office boost for victorious movies isn’t necessarily worth as much as it used to be.
Viewing figures and box office receipts are, however, only the visible tip of what is a deeper problem: the Oscars aren’t keeping pace with cinema itself. They’re falling behind at a time when movies – and the ways in which they are funded, made and consumed – are a-changin’.
It was so much simpler when the first Academy Awards ceremony took place in the faux-Spanish ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel, on 16 May 1929. Back then, the American film industry was a definable thing. It was, basically, a group of Hollywood pros making feature-length fictions that would then be screened theatrically for paying audiences. If you wanted to start handing out awards, as Louis B. Mayer did at the time, then you knew which backlots to visit.
It’s not the same nowadays. One of this year’s nominees for the Best Documentary Feature award, 13th, is a good example of how the old ways are subsiding, and have been for years. It was produced not by a Warner Bros. or a Paramount or a Twentieth Century Fox, but by a bunch of Silicon Valley geeks known collectively as Netflix. You’ve probably heard of them. Netflix, of course, makes films and series to be beamed directly to our televisions, but 13th had to have a limited run in cinemas to even qualify for an Oscar nom. As page 11 of this year’s rulebook makes clear:
‘… a documentary feature must complete both a seven-day theatrical release in Los Angeles County and a seven-day theatrical release in the City of New York during the eligibility period.’
These sorts of criteria may have seemed sensible years ago. They look plain crazy at a time when, thanks to Netflix and others, movies are less bound to particular times, spaces and platforms.
I’ll soon be writing for the magazine about how another of the simplicities of 1929 has been eroded: the financing and production of movies has become globalised to the point that it’s difficult to know where the American film industry ends and another nation’s begins. There are other changes too. What about the trend for filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh, to work in television? What about the fact that, for millions of teenagers, the moving image is a live-stream of someone else playing a computer game? What about the rise of new technologies, such as virtual reality, that could blur all of these blurred lines even more?
Sure, the Academy needs to impose boundaries – if only for the sanity of its members, who cannot watch everything, everywhere. But they’ve adapted before now, otherwise they’d still be handing out an award for Best Title Writing and struggling to find any new silent films that qualify for it. A spot of adaptation wouldn’t go amiss now.
In fact, were it down to me, I’d cancel next year’s Academy Awards, rethink the whole shebang, and start again in the 90th anniversary year of 2019. Hollywood was built on a mixture of innovation and chutzpah. Its ceremonies should be no different.