How the Oscars became a casualty of the streaming wars

An award for achievement in ‘popular film’ is being considered for the Oscars – but the Academy is behind the times

‘The screaming is always the loudest,’ a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan told me over a drink recently, ‘well after the limb has been removed.’

Which makes sense, of course. People tend to make the most noise when it’s too late — when the amputation is complete, when the parent is dead and buried, when the cultural change has taken root, when the next generation has taken over. The screaming is always the loudest, in other words, when hope is lost and whatever you’re screaming about is already permanent.

So when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — an organisation as pompously flatulent as that name suggests — announced recently that there would be a new category in the 2019 Academy Awards, something called Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. The introduction of this category has now been postponed pending ‘further discussion’ with Academy members, but it’s not hard to see the proposal as a lot of screaming after the fact.

Movies and television are engaged in the Great Streaming Wars, and movies are losing. The Streaming Superpowers — Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and a host of others poised to launch — have captured the eyeballs of millions of viewers, simply by distributing their content directly onto the screens most of us carry around in our pockets. Whole categories of films — mysteries, romantic comedies, adult dramas — are no longer part of any studio’s yearly releases into cinemas. As an agent told me a few weeks ago, ‘If there’s any way you can turn your screenplay into a ten-episode series, do it.’

Movies are still a terrific business. Noisy superhero movies still rake in major coin. Epic movies with eye-popping budgets are still getting made and packing them in at the cinema. But movies with budgets between, say, zero and $50 million are almost impossible to get going at any of the big studios. Which is why they often turn into multi-part series for streaming platforms.

That’s what makes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nervous. If all the clever and arty material gets turned into television, what’s left at the cinema are big-budget crowd-pleasers like Black Panther and Coco, and, as good as those pictures are, the uptight grandees of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences prefer to hand out statues to Serious and Meaningful Pictures that Say Something.

And that stuff is on TV, where it will probably win Emmy Awards, which are the middle-class relatives of the Oscars. TV is a crasser and more bottom-line business. Popular actors on popular television shows routinely win Emmy awards. Ratings power-houses take home armloads of hardware.

But for feature film people, handing out an award to a popular cash-haul of a movie, even a really good one, just seems a little not-done. People in the movie business grasp and wheedle and cheat and snatch and lie and steal and beg for money 364 days a year, but on Oscar night they get to pretend it’s all about the art and the mission and bringing people together to share a common culture. That’s why I’ll never understand why people complain about the length of the Oscar ceremony. Let it go on and on, is my feeling. For most of the people sitting in the Dolby Theatre, it’s the one chance they have to behave like normal, decent human beings. A fourth or fifth hour would do them some good.

If the films in the cinemas are getting bigger and louder, the Academy, for its part, has responded by getting smaller and weirder. The Oscar telecast continues to lose viewers, and the pictures it celebrates are for the most part eccentric niche products that most of us have never heard of. The movies it awards — decent but tiny pictures like Moonlight and The Shape of Water — are spectacularly unseen. The Oscars used to be about movies you’d already seen that year duking it out for the top trophies. Now it’s a three-hour promotional video, introducing audiences to unknown movies that are often already available on multiple streaming platforms. The Oscars — once the mightiest and biggest night in show business — is now nothing more than a three-hour-long advertisement for video on demand. The Academy just noticed, and started screaming.

The theory is that with a ‘most popular’ category folded into the ceremony, normal people might begin to watch the Oscars again. If the Academy condescends to acknowledge movies that audiences actually want to see — superhero blockbusters like Black Panther, romantic comedies like Crazy Rich Asians, high-end cartoons like Coco — then maybe we’ll tune into the Oscar telecast with renewed interest.

Or maybe it’s too late, which it probably is, because the screaming just started.


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