Last night’s Oscars were as exciting, unsurprising, tedious, engaging and ultimately debatable as just about every other year.
There was the usual mix of new talent being ushered into the spotlight, established talent getting long-overdue recognition, winking humor from the hosts and presenters, overlong sequences and all the other elements go into the ceremony. As always, it’s a bit weird to be looking for something to be crowned “best” when art is inherently subjective, and kind of crazy that what we’re watching is essentially an industry trade group’s annual national convention.
This year’s awards also arrive at an interesting time for the film industry, which is weathering a bevy of internal and external market forces. So it’s worth looking at how the movies that won or lost, as well as the broadcast of the ceremony, reflected and addressed some of those issues.
What Counts as a Movie?
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a number of requirements that a movie must fulfill in order to qualify for Best Picture. Most well known are two rules regarding distribution: 1) The movie must play in a Los Angeles theater for at least one week during the awards year, and 2) it cannot appear on TV, VOD or home video before that L.A. screening.
The question then is: How relevant will that rule continue to be in the streaming era?
There were no Best Picture contenders that were streaming-exclusive in 2017, but it’s hard to imagine that will be the case for much longer. While both Netflix and Amazon Studios seem to be cutting back on the number of “prestige” films they finance or acquire, they’re not getting out of that business entirely. Both they and other streaming/VOD services will likely continue to offer homes to the kind of low- to mid-budget movies that studios are increasingly turning away because they don’t offer the kind of overseas box-office potential as a franchise entry.
Indeed, the Academy seems to see the writing on the wall. It held a meeting last fall to discuss the Netflix situation out of fear that should it be able to gain a foothold on awards season, it could “cheapen” the accomplishment. Holding to this narrow definition of what is or isn’t a movie is increasingly out of touch when Mudbound is on Netflix and The Emoji Movie is in theaters.
The #MeToo Era … Kind Of
Everyone was watching the Oscars to see how host Jimmy Kimmel, the presenters and the winners addressed larger social issues, particularly #MeToo, given how much that has rattled the foundation of the entertainment industry.
Turns out it was a little weird and inconsistent.
On the plus side, you had a good number of attendees wearing pins symbolizing solidarity, a few jokes and other comments from Kimmel, a joint appearance by the movement’s leadership of Annabella Sciorra, Salma Hayek and Ashley Judd, and a fire-emoji speech by Best Actress winner Frances McDormand. No one mentioned Harvey Weinstein in their acceptance speeches for the first time in decades. The issue was certainly not missing from the room.
Unfortunately, there were moments where it was clear there’s still miles to go before we sleep. Ryan Seacrest, who has been accused of sexual harassment, was still on the red carpet, as he appears oddly immune to the fate others have suffered. Kobe Bryant won a Best Animated Short Oscar for the “Dear Basketball” film he was involved with, though he was accused of rape in 2003 and engaged in a scorched-earth campaign against his accuser. Spousal abuse charges didn’t stop Gary Oldman from winning Best Actor.
There were other, more subtle signs showing that long-held institutional attitudes toward women aren’t all changed as well. Yes, it’s cool that Tiffany Haddish wore the same dress she sported when appearing on Saturday Night Live, and that Rita Moreno brought out the same gown she wore to the 1962 Oscars. But should it be that big of a deal? There’s still the expectation that women will be not only incredibly talented actors but also wear completely flawless original fashion at each and every event.
And speaking of Rita Moreno, when was the last time we saw her in a major feature film, not a TV show? How about Eva Marie Saint?
All Those Liberal Elites
As with #MeToo, everyone was eager to see how the stars handled #TimesUp, Trump and other social issues.
Actors and other artists (to paint with an overly broad brush) tend to be a tad more progressive than society as a whole. Thus it has ever been and likely ever will be. Art is supposed to push the public into new and uncomfortable areas.
The broadcast and ceremony offered welcome glimpses of this. Kumail Nanjiani made a comment in a video package about how it shouldn’t be hard for white audiences to identify with the story of someone who doesn’t look like them; he’s been doing it for years. While accepting Best Director, Guillermo del Toro talked about being an immigrant. While Get Out was denied other awards, Jordan Peele won Best Original Screenplay for a metaphor of white people co-opting black culture and giving nothing back. It was hard to miss a decidedly liberal bent to the evening.
That said, while the awards may have gone to movies that pushed some societal boundaries, the recipients were overwhelmingly white, at least in the major categories. In addition to Oldman and McDormand, there was Sam Rockwell (Best Supporting Actor for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and Allison Janney (Best Supporting Actress for I, Tonya.). Peele was the first black person to win Original Screenplay, while del Toro was part of a trend that’s seen Mexican directors win Best Director in four of the last six years.
Oscar as Marketing Tactic
There’s this notion that an Oscar nomination, and win, will increase the financial fortunes of the movies in the spotlight. There’s some validity to that, which is part of the reason studios continue to carve out fall as the time for their high-end releases, hoping for a bounce from increased attention, particularly from older moviegoers. Some of the nominated movies are still in theaters, while others have already made it to home video.
That’s great, but for Hollywood it’s still a drop in the bucket. Consider that this past weekend, as the Oscars were winding down, Black Panther was crossing $500 million at the domestic box office. By way of contrast, the nine Best Picture nominees have made a combined $693 million, with $364 of that coming from just two films: Get Out and Dunkirk. Hollywood continues to feature a unique disconnect between 1) making movies “for the fans, not the critics” while 2) recognizing, with the Oscar, movies that impress critics more than fans.
So the entire entertainment industry is still dependent on drawing in the masses, even if the movies being recognized are ones that many people either haven’t seen because they didn’t play anywhere near where they live.
Despite all that, the broadcast is still a massive marketing platform in and of itself. Notable moments included:
● Disney kicking off the campaign for Mary Poppins Returns by airing the first trailer. Stars Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda also presented during the ceremony.
● Walt Disney World promoting Toy Story Land, coming soon to the theme park.
● The TV debut of Twitter’s #HereWeAre campaign, though that was quickly dragged by the actual women of Twitter who complained that offering lip service while continuing to overlook rampant sexist trolling and harassment is an odd fit.
● A kinda-sorta promotion by Disney for A Wrinkle in Time during a segment that saw various stars leave the Oscars and crash a nearby screening of the movie.
● Netflix dropping the first teaser for the upcoming Kevin Spacey-less season of House of Cards.
● Short films by Dee Rees, Melissa McCarthy and Nancy Meyers for Walmart.
● A spot inspired by The Shining by the Academy itself to promote its upcoming museum.
So What Does All This Mean?
A lot of people haven’t seen many of the movies that were nominated because those movies didn’t play theatrically near them.
Streaming has the power to change that by making movies instantly available to everyone regardless of proximity to a theater.
Theaters are unarguably suffering because a few mega-successful blockbusters can’t bridge the gap opened up by the loss of mid-grade movies.
Those mid-grade movies are exactly the ones being snatched up by streaming services, which are attracting top talent by offering creative freedom.
Movies are making strides (albeit haltingly) in showcasing on- and off-screen talent that’s increasingly inclusive, though there’s still tons of room for progress.
Streaming services are uniquely positioned to lead the way on that because they’re available in areas where theaters are few for various reasons.
All those points, and others, lead to one inevitable conclusion: Eventually the rubber will meet the road and the Academy will have to fully acknowledge streaming-only movies as being fully qualified for awards. It might take a few more years of painful scraping along, but it’s where we’re going. Everyone, even those who are fighting it, sees it happening.
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