On Monday (February 11th) the Academy announced in a membership email the decision to eliminate four categories from the live broadcast of the 91st Oscars ceremony. The awards for best cinematography, film editing, live-action short, and makeup and hairstyling would be presented during the commercial breaks and therefore not aired in the live programme as per usual, in an effort to shorten the ceremony’s runtime. "Viewing patterns for the Academy Awards are changing quickly in our current multi-media world, and our show must also evolve to successfully continue promoting motion pictures to a worldwide audience," Academy president John Bailey wrote.
As a clarification, the Academy announced on Wednesday (13th) that although the presentations would not be shown live, a compressed version of the speeches would be available for online streaming services. This plan was reportedly comprised by the Academy’s board of governors in August, but at the time the categories to undergo this change hasn’t been announced yet. Additionally, Bailey stated that the branches that oversee cinematography, editing, live-action short and makeup all volunteered to have their respective awards presented off-air.
The Academy’s decision was seen by top industry professionals as offensive and disrespectful as leading figures (including many of this year’s nominee) quickly voiced their displeasure and outrage. Alfonso Cuarón, (nominated for producing, directing, writing and cinematography for Roma) expressed his displeasure on Twitter, bringing attention to cinematography and editing in particular. “In the history of CINEMA, masterpieces have existed without sound, without color, without a story, without actors and without music,” he tweeted. “No one single film has ever existed without CINEMAtography and without editing.” Guillermo del Toro, last year’s winner for Best Director, also voiced his opinion, saying that cinematography and editing are at the very heart of the film industry.
On Wednesday (13th), the American Society of Cinematographers issued an open letter to the Academy, urging the organisation to reconsider their severely criticised decision. The letter was signed by dozens of industry professionals, including high-profile names such as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan and Spike Lee. “When the recognition of those responsible for the creation of outstanding cinema is being diminished by the very institution whose purpose it is to protect it, then we are no longer upholding the spirit of the academy’s promise to celebrate film as a collaborative art form.” Among other things, the letter called the Academy’s plan an insult to the cinematic arts. “Relegating these essential cinematic crafts to lesser status… is nothing less than an insult to those of us who have devoted our lives and passions to our chosen profession,” the letter read.
On Friday (15th) the Academy caved and reviewed their decision to not air four of its categories, issuing the following statement: “The Academy has heard the feedback from its membership regarding the Oscar presentation of four awards – Cinematography, Film Editing, Live Action Short, and Makeup and Hairstyling. All Academy Awards will be presented without edits, in our traditional format. We look forward to Oscar Sunday, February 24.”
All of this tumult was an attempt from the organisation to make the broadcast time shorter and therefore more appealing to a mass audience. Most people would like to see the awards ceremony respond to the culture and needs of its younger viewers. However, by eliminating 4 of their awards categories and therefore compromising their own foundation, the stance taken by the Academy hinted an almost cowardly response to pressure. Yes, the Oscars are unbelievable long, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Their running time adds to the idea that this is a prestigious annual event, only to be celebrated by those strong enough to stay up past 5am in the morning on a Sunday, only to regret it the next day.
This has been just the latest flop in the weeks leading to the big broadcast. What started as a few tweaks for the sake of increased viewership has become an endless pile of failed attempts. Previously, the organisation had announced a new category entitled Popular Film, but that was quickly struck due to widespread confusion and controversy. They also tried to scrape the tradition of having last year’s acting winners present this year’s award, only to receive very negative comments from an enraged Allison Janney (2018’s winner for Best Supporting Actress). Following all the controversy around this year’s ‘host-less’ awards, the Academy also considered inviting only 2 out of the 5 Best Original Song nominees to perform live, only to be met with more criticism and change their minds once again.
In an interview to Indie Wire last September, Academy president John Bailey stated, “The concept of these awards is not an iconic ritual, enacted year after year in the same way. The history of the Academy and this award is a constantly moving entity, awards have been added and dropped, branches have been added and dropped. It’s a living entity, as is the entire concept of any art form, especially motion pictures, by virtue of being so technologically defined.” But surely, cutting major awards from the broadcast programme and generating public indignation among industry professionals can't be worth a few extra thousands of viewers, can it?