Oscar voters must reclaim the public’s faith

On Sunday, there will be plenty of films to cheer for at the Academy Awards. But this year, I’m more concerned about the status of the Academy Awards than with who wins Best Picture or Best Director. Oscar voters must regain the trust of moviegoers without jeopardizing their taste-making credentials. It won’t be easy, but the Academy must attempt for the sake of the industry’s existence.

It’s no secret that the actual ceremony has had a rocky road ahead of it. In the last five years, the Academy Awards broadcast’s ratings have dropped by 70%. The Oscars’ sparkling veneer has been shattered by a succession of high-profile gaffes. Worst of all, the voters for these awards continue to make judgments that appear to jeopardize their reputations as tastemakers.

To some extent, this is not the fault of the voters. As entertainment journalist Richard Rushfield pointed out in his newsletter, The Ankler., last week, the ratings have fallen approximately in lockstep with the average box office gross of the Best Picture candidates.

The emergence of superhero films and mega-franchises like the “Fast & Furious” franchise has placed a damper on the kinds of original blockbusters that used to contend for Best Picture, such as “Titanic” or, more recently, “The Martian.” The film industry’s growing reliance on international box revenue has polished away much of what made American films unique in the first place. The covid-19 epidemic also kept the Oscar-targeted crowd away from the theatre. “King Richard” and “West Side Story,” two Best Picture candidates, are both approachable and excellent. However, because no one saw them, there is no one cheering for them to win big on Oscar night.

As a result, the Academy is doomed to fail. Best Picture winners like “Crash” and “Green Book” have been dubbed “oldsters” by the Academy. They were accused of forsaking what the public enjoys in favor of their own esoteric preferences when they acknowledged films like “Moonlight” and “Parasite.” Giving a Marvel film Best Picture would almost certainly result in accusations that the Academy had sold out to Big Superhero.

Despite the difficulty of reversing the ceremony’s decline, the Oscars remain one of the only forces preserving a specific type of film that is tiny in scale but rich in ideas and creative elements. It would be a pity if the Academy Awards self-destructed, bringing non-superhero films down with them. The Academy’s function in the movie business ecosystem is to enable a larger number of films get created at all, rather than to ensure the success of a few.

To begin with, according to Netflix’s proprietary data, viewership for a film like “Mank” may increase by 702 percent following a Best Picture nomination – but 702 percent of what isn’t obvious. The Oscars, more generally and more significantly, define a genre that encompasses anything from serious adaptations of classic science fiction books to micro-budget indies set on the outskirts of the American gig economy. “Oscar movies” are now a genre that fans expect to discover on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, alongside reality series, big fantasy dramas, and blockbusters. Oscar movies have benefited from the streaming arms race. However, these golden times may not endure indefinitely.

The Academy has fumbled around for a solution, bouncing back and forth between an extended Best Picture pool, a hastily rejected idea for a “Best Popular Film,” and this year’s sure-to-be embarrassing “popular favorite” prize voted through Twitter.

A more elegant solution might be as simple as adopting a new mindset. Rather than attempting to inject youth or edge through the host, the Academy should select someone who can maintain the spotlight on the ultimate victors. Enough with the attempts to create viral moments. Instead than telling audiences why they should go to the movies when the implied answer is “because a lot of affluent celebrities want you to,” remind them of what going to the movies used to be like at its finest.

Most importantly, voters should not act as though commemorating popular films is a concession, if not outright loss. The Oscars might ignite new interest if they recognized a wider spectrum of films, not out of desperation or a reluctant nod to popularity, but simply because there is quality to be found everywhere. And, if spectators regain faith in Oscar voters’ judgment, they may be more inclined to attempt some of the more unusual or arty films that receive well-deserved accolades at the ceremony each year.

The family drama in Disney’s beautiful animated film “Encanto” is nothing like Jane Campion’s somber Best Picture candidate “The Power of the Dog,” but it’s nonetheless enthralling. Even if you despise superhero movies, you’ll be pleased to see Tony Leung elevate the genre merely by his presence in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”

Too often, the Academy Awards feel more like a cinematic counterpart of a survivalist colony fending off the day when American culture enters a fatal decline than a celebration of film. That’s a blunder. If the film is truly what brings people together, the Academy Awards should unify those who produce films and those who watch them.

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