MCN Commentary & Analysis

What Is The Academy? Where Is It Going? (4/5/21)

I wrote this piece back in April 2021 and I never published it because I feared the repercussions. I honor of Dawn Hudson’s exit from the CEO slot – however long it takes – here it comes… unedited since April and without a closing graph or two.)

There is a contingent in The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences that thinks that they have already defined the future of The Academy.

I beg to differ.

It is true that the leadership of The Academy, in the last 5 years, has shown little interest in the future of the organization aside from embracing a primary platform of social change and protecting the organization’s often-exposed ass.

The fear that once dominated, of protecting an idea of Hollywood and this industry which is steeped in a century of white men making decisions and applying biases whose definitions were mostly unspoken, is not gone. It has been moved, as The Academy always has moved, into a new generation and new variation.

The proposed goal of the 2020 plan has partially failed. The only reason there is a perception of The Academy being racially progressive is that it has taken the tack of highlighting people of color at every possible turn, significantly out of proportion to the percentage of American members who are of color. This doesn’t much affect me or the public, though one wonders how it affects members, silenced by the current myopia of ideas, who are not social justice warriors and don’t want to pretend to be in order to be an esteemed part of the Academy family.

Right now, the tone is that members have to be in sync with the voice that leadership has chosen or they really need to shut up. And if they are out of sync at all, they are positioned as closet racists and/or Luddites. This is the extreme bias that has become the public face of The Academy. It’s not based on any real knowledge. It’s based on feeling… just as all irrational biases are. It’s based on fear… just as all irrational biases are. It’s based on how we see ourselves in the mirror… just as all irrational biases are.

The film industry is not a historical document. It is a living organism that changes in real ways every single day of every single year… at least since the old studio system broke in the late 60s. But in the vanity that strikes all of us, we see it though the lens that we have lived. And so it all gets defined by our ideas of fairness, of progress, and of change, as we see it as individuals.

Things change in the pizza business too. But when you keep ordering the same pizza from the same great place for year after year, you don’t really see anything changing. You aren’t in the business of making pizzas. You aren’t in daily competition with all the other pizza parlors in town. And in current days, you don’t really understand how much food delivery, for instance, has changed the dynamic and the amount of competition.

Anytime someone touts how “exhibition has to change” or “the industry is changed forever and there is no going back,” I laugh and I cry… because it’s not even a real argument. To call it ignorant is to judge something that isn’t necessarily ill-intended. It is uninformed. It is the kind of argument adults have with children in era after era, as the kids discover the new thing and insist it is now THE Thing and will never ever change.

Things change.

And yes, “the adults” in this scenario are often too clingy to the past… to the changes they made… to the idea that the next idea is dangerous to the status quo that makes them quite comfortable, thank you.

But it is the nature of things to build on the past, not to break things because, somehow, that will lead to better new things.

There has been a massive paradigm shift in all things because of computers. For the film industry, there have been 1000s of incremental steps. But I would simplify that while in many ways, the VHS was a huge tipping point in the 1970s, but it was the DVD that pushed the industry over the edge in 2000. One the content side, the holy trinity was Jurassic Park in 1993, Toy Story in 1995, and then the top over the age came with Spider-Man in 2002.

These delivery systems and these movies changed every part of the industry, from intention to production to distribution to exhibition. IMAX was shown only with a giant projector showing giant film until 2007, when they started down the digital projection road and its first digital theaters opened in 2008… just 13 years ago. DVD stopped being a growth business in about 2010. Production budgets for theatrical skyrockets in the early 2000s, just as marketing budgets for Home Entertainment began to rival theatrical releases. The first billion worldwide gross (first run) was in 1997. The first year with more than one billion dollar gross was 2010. In the pre-COVID years since, we have averaged 3.8 a year… and we have still never had a $1 billion domestic grosser.

Change. A ton of change.

And the industry can do better at every single level. Better in its stated job. Better in inclusion. Better in serving broader audiences. And even better at the job of offering award shows.

Change doesn’t happen without motivation. So those doing the heavy lifting of pushing for change deserve endless praise. This is dangerous work. One creates enemies who will never acknowledge being enemies. Of course, one also creates friends who they may never know have become their advocates in the world.

That said, The Academy has been living in concussion status for quite a while now based on three issues that have hit it hard in the head. First, there has been a decade-long fog around fear of failing ratings on the TV show and what to do about it. The Oscars are the financial lifeblood of this organization’s more important work and whether it’s preservation or what many consider to be an ill-advised amount of money going into the Academy Museum, no TV show, no go.

The second issue is Inclusion. The Academy had to step up to the challenge and in some ways they succeeded and in some ways they have failed. The organization has succeeded in getting much closer to balance in the gender area. They have failed – because the industry has failed – to make any serious progress with People of Color in Hollywood/NY (aka the industry in which The Academy has always been grounded). The Academy has invited all the key players of color into the organization, essentially silencing any significant criticism from this group and thus silencing protest (though the threat of more publicity issues remains).

As an alternative to finding enough people of color in the industry to come close to the % of POC in America (who just haven’t existed in big enough numbers in the working ranks), The Academy turned their focus onto a massive expansion of international membership, for which there compelling positive arguments. We have yet to see much of a real effort to make international cinema more of a focus of The Academy, but beggars can’t be choosers.

But the great irony of *Oscar this season is that movies made by or lead by People of Color that as “Oscar-y,” which is to say dramas, are in greater abundance than in an season ever. Literally.

Judas & The Black Messiah (the film will the biggest marketing budget to get a nomination this year) and Minari (likely the smallest marketing budget of the group) got Best Picture nominations. Missing the cut while still getting other nominations were “black films” The United States vs Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, One Night in Miami, Da 5 Bloods, Soul, and “Indian film” The White Tiger. (There are also only 2 Best Picture nominees with female leads or co-leads this year… another conversation.)

In this very limited season, with half the nominees coming from streamers without any serious theatrical intentions, this parade of “movies of color” that fit the format well, biggest ever, can only score 2 slots.

Two years ago, three “movies of color” seriously competing (Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, Roma) got into BP, in a much more complex and crowded field of 45 different nominated films. There were 5 acting nominees of color (8 this year), 2 directors of color (2 this year) and 2 more who hold passports from countries other than American (2 this year).

But that season was seen as a setback because Green Book won.

Objectively, this season was an easier road with similar results… so why are people celebrating… acting like they won the culture wars?

Well, on one hand, they should be celebrating. There were more “movies of color” that were in serious contention this year than ever before. That is the goal… not the actual nominations. If the movies are there, they will get nominations, more and less, year after year, just as “white” movies have forever. More movies means a change in the industry. A change in the industry is really how The Academy will change.

On the other hand, with so few movies overall seriously in play and such a relatively high percentage of “movies of color” in that group, this result is underwhelming. The percentages are unlikely to ever play out better than this in any future season in view. Hopefully, there will forever be at least 5 “dramas of color” in serious play every year. But when the real competition returns, the competitive barriers to BP entry will be higher.

But those who have been aggressive touting social justice in The Academy, showing harsh bigotry to white male Academy members for years now, claiming every win has been in spite of the white male members, who are still the largest voting block, they are still selling “us vs them,” which is a shame. I have long (and often singularly) acknowledged that there are real biases against people of color and women in the largely liberal Academy. Generational bias. People who would have marched in the Civil Rights movement in the 60’s who still saw people of color as The Other or inferior, in spite of so many good intentions and even movies about race. But still, 12 Years A Slave and Moonlight and The Shape of Water and Parasite didn’t win in spite of white male Academy members. In years past, Moonlight might have been unofficially disqualified by some of the membership, but the world has changed and I believe that in this last decade, Brokeback Mountain would have won. You don’t have to create a bias in The Academy to solve a bias.

The third issue is Streaming. So far, The Academy has completely laid down its history and standing to give in to the new money. The timing couldn’t be better for The Streamers or worse for The Academy, in terms of The Oscars. A moment of middle-aged (and older) white people in The Academy screaming about social justice as the most important goal of The Academy at the same time streaming happens and they really want to watch TV instead of bothering to leave their very comfortable houses to be with “those people” at the movie theaters.

Hey, those filmed versions of Hamilton and Bruce Springsteen on Broadway and David Byrne’s American Utopia were terrific this year. How about we stop giving Tony voters free tickets and just stream all the Broadway shows on TV for them (qualify by playing on Broadway or Off Broadway or in Regional Theater or in Stock) and they can vote. No problem. You know, technology. Netflix is going to premiere Diana on the network before it premieres on Broadway… no biggie. Just get to voting.

“But that’s different!” Yes. Broadway is much more elite than movies. Tickets are way more expensive and in shorter supply. The racial inequities are pretty similar. “But the experience. It’s about the experience of live theater!” Yes. And it’s been about the experience of watching movies on a screen with other people for 90 years. But a new television experience comes along and calls 120 hours of their over 2500 hours of original content a year “movies,” and The Academy must include it because, hey, they called it “a movie” and followed the long-standing rules of qualification that were consecrated decades before streaming TV and the subscription model of pay-tv existed.

Don’t get me wrong… The Academy has always been whoring on some level. It was launched for promotion and lived through many changes as a promotional event over many decades. But in the latest issue with Streaming competing, they have gone from Playboy to Hustler.

It’s understandable. If you did a survey of working Academy members in the U.S. (who still dominate the organization), I would have to bet that Netflix alone puts money in the pockets of twice or three times as many members as any other single company. This is not a slap on Netflix. Not suggesting it’s nefarious. But in the last 5 years, they have been the deepest pocket in town. It’s hard to go against the company that is paying your mortgage, especially in public.

This is not really a Netflix issue. This is an Academy issue. What is The Academy? If The Academy were to say, in June, that to qualify for an Oscar BP nomination, you had to do at least 3 weeks in theatrical and report your grosses, Netflix would either follow or not. The only real issue for Netflix would be to remeasure the publicity value of Oscar vs the added cost and the possibility of being embarrassed by a public failure of some of their films.

At this point, The Streamers are playing on a very different field than legacy theatrical. And this season has brought it out in great relief.

One Response to “What Is The Academy? Where Is It Going? (4/5/21)”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    The Academy has been quite clear about its direction. It will honor smaller art house film genre, not the big popular films. Audiences did not abandon the Oscars. Oscar abandoned the audience. Now, Sunday Night Football draws double and triple the number of viewers as the Academy Awards. Tom Brady is a star. Frances McDormand isn’t.

    You say Broadway is for elite audiences? Is the Broadway audience much different in size or make-up from the audiences for the elite films the Academy honors? The Oscars are evolving into the Tonys

    Look at the demographic of the audiences for Oscar movies. It is old, and white, just like the Academy membership. Twenty year olds are the bread and butter of theatrical, but, really, why should they bother with the Academy? Clearly the Academy does not care about the movies they support. Is there any wonder that the audience for the Oscars is dying?

    These dynamics will not change. All the talk about re-buiding the ratings of the Oscars by tweaking the show, or tweaking the rules so that maybe, hopefully, a popular film gets a nom….. all of this is a waste of time. The Academy is contemptuous of the audiences for popular film and it shows.

    The Oscars have become a reinactment on an antebellum plantation, people dressing up in civil war uniforms and hooped skirts for an afternoon once a year.

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