If you want to understand the war the Academy Awards are fighting, picture this.
You’ve made an incredibly successful movie during possibly the most difficult times for movies in history, by re-adapting a story that’s already been tried twice before. Multiple news articles argue that you’ve helped save the industry by getting audiences back into theatres, while simultaneously launching your wirey, brown haired boyish lead into the stratosphere of superstardom.
And come Oscars night on Sunday, the biggest night to celebrate the year’s best films, you’re going to spend the majority of your time in the wings.
Congratulations! You’re Spider-Man. And also, somehow, Dune.
The Oscars’ fading relevancy, and seeming inability to honour movies that perform best with audiences, is nothing new. Every year for the past seven years the ceremony has contended with a new record-low viewership, along with a slew of criticism over which movies — and which faces — get recognized.
So that Spider-Man: No Way Home managed to capture a box-office return twice as large as the second-place finisher, but still only gets a single nomination, tells you the Oscars’ past.
Dune tells you the Oscars’ future. The star-studded, big budget, space opera epic bridged the gap between crowd pleaser and high brow the academy looks for, the type of movie that makes both audiences and critics happy. And they awarded it, too, burying it under 10 nominations — the second-most of any film there. That hints at what kind of movies the Oscars will feature moving forward.
But Dune, like Spider-Man, is still being sidelined. Because, while it’s up for 10 awards, half have been cut from the live telecast in an effort to tighten up the show, bring audiences back and make the Oscars relevant once again.
Whether that has any chance of working is one question. But another that members of the industry are asking is whether — at this point, and with this sacrifice — the Oscars are even worth saving.
“On the one side, you have commerce and ratings and those revenues that the academy gets,” said J. Miles Dale, one of the producers of 2021’s Nightmare Alley.
“And on the other side, you have what this is supposed to be, which is recognition for the artists that create the best films of the year.”
Dale said the decision to sideline eight categories leaves a large segment of movie makers, largely on the technical side, feeling like “second-class citizens.”
In February, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced it would be cutting eight of the 23 trophies given out live on-air: best documentary short, film editing, makeup and hairstyling, original score, production design, animated short, live-action short and sound.
It’s really no surprise that half of Dune‘s awards are among these categories — more mainstream films often find success at the Oscars in technical categories, while more traditional films dominate the rest of the show. Mad Max: Fury Road received a similar 10 nominations in 2016, for an almost identical list of awards. In 1998, Titanic dominated with 14 nominations — eight of which were technical.
So the Oscars omitting them from the big show may seem a bit like having one’s cake and eating it, too — giving mainstream movies recognition on paper without committing the time.
But to Dale — whose Nightmare Alley snagged four nominations — there’s more at stake.
Box office smashes don’t need any added publicity. Nightmare Alley, though, was only thrust into the spotlight after its dark horse best picture nomination. Dale said it struggled opening during a COVID-19 surge and in the same week as Spider-Man.
Oscars give recognition — and a fighting chance — to the low-concept, to films on the fringe, to films the average moviegoer only goes to see after the academy gives it its stamp of approval. And with three of Nightmare Alley‘s nominations in the technical categories — including for Canadians Shane Vieau and Tamara Deverell — that recognition is threatened.
“I think for anybody, it’s their hope that they do get this recognition, and it can get the word out that their film is good — and that people are going to see the film,” he said.
“You don’t make movies for that reason, but it sure [is] a nice shot in the arm.”
Oscars struggle with ‘legacy media problem’
Bilge Ebiri, a film critic for New York Magazine and Vulture, described the decision to cut televised categories in a single word: “terrible.”
First, he said the idea that removing segments honouring people who do the nuts-and-bolts work of filmmaking would cure a ratings problem is backwards, as that’s the entire reason people tune in. Second, he said the problem the awards have isn’t even a ratings problem, “it’s a legacy media problem.”
All live TV events — outside of, possibly, the Super Bowl — struggle to attract eyeballs in the age of streaming. And despite how unlikely these changes are to succeed in their goals, Ebiri pointed to rumours that the show’s broadcaster ABC pressured organizers to make the change in the face of plunging numbers.
“And that’s tragic, frankly,” he said.
“Because that’s putting the fate of the Oscars in the hands of people that, as far as I can tell, don’t really care about the Oscars, and maybe even don’t care about movies.”
He said as the Oscars fail to prop up the “middle ground” movies — the medium budget, star-led comedy or dramas — fewer will find success, and fewer will be made. And as that’s where the Oscars “have fed for decades,” the awards will only be able to champion the big-budget, mainstream movies the world already knows about.
But even filmmakers behind those bigger movies are pushing back against the change. Shawn Levy, the director behind Ryan Reynold’s smash hit Free Guy, saw the film get a single nomination at this year’s awards. Like Spider-Man, that nomination was in the visual effects category.
“I think it’s absurd. I think it’s incomprehensible,” he said.
“I feel like why in the world would movies get penalized for popularity?”
To Levy, the new award is as ill-advised as the original. The concept of giving an informal participation award — safely removed from the “serious” awards handed out by the academy — showcases everything wrong with the Oscars’ struggle for relevancy.
“I’d love to see it shift without the need for some ghettoized niche category that acknowledges popularity,” he said.
“So, yes, I’m confounded by it, too. And I hope that in the span of my future career, I see that evolve.”