Some award shows, like the Grammys, tend to honor popular art, rendering any top-selling artists who fail to win “snubbed.” In contrast, the Oscars, which will air this Sunday, Feb. 24, at 8 p.m. EST, usually award movies that very few people have actually seen. Take last year’s Best Picture winner, Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water.” The film grossed almost $64 million–not bad for a movie about a woman and a fish-man falling in love (Box Office Mojo, “The Shape of Water,” 02.14.2018). However, that figure comes in at just 15 percent of the earnings made by the year’s top grossing film, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which brought in $517 million. “The Shape of Water” did not even place in the twenty-five highest grossing movies of the year (IMDb, “Top 25 Highest Grossing Movies of 2017,” 02.12.2018). Similarly, the movie did not receive a wide release until Dec. 22, 2017, which allowed the audience had only a month and a half to watch the film before it won the Academy’s most prestigious award (Box Office Mojo).
The academy’s penchant for arty, obscure movies has contributed to its reputation of exclusivity. However, the Academy Awards have additionally long been at the center of discussions about race in filmmaking. Moviegoers, critics and actors protested the 2015 and 2016 awards with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which Lawyer and Advocate April Reign created when not a single actor of color was nominated for an award in 2015 (The New Yorker, “Is the Era of #OscarsSoWhite Over?” 01.23.2018). 2016 saw some more representation, with Mahershala Ali winning Best Supporting Actor, Viola Davis winning Best Supporting Actress and Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” taking home Best Picture, albeit after Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” was mistakenly announced the winner (ABC, “Oscar Winners 2017: See the Complete List!” 02.27.2017). The trend toward diversity continued in 2017. Jordan Peele won Best Original Screenplay for “Get Out” (also nominated for Best Picture), Guillermo del Toro won Best Director for “The Shape of Water” (which, as mentioned, later took home Best Picture) and “Coco,” a children’s film celebrating Mexican culture, won Best Animated Feature.
This year, too, the Academy Awards feature more accurate representation. Several actors and actresses of color received top tier nominations. For example, Yalitza Aparicio is nominated for Best Actress for her role in “Roma”; she is the first Native American and second Mexican person ever in the category (Time, “Here’s Everything You Need to Know About the 2019 Oscars,” 02.14.2019). Additionally, Spike Lee is nominated for Best Director for the first time in his three-decade career (Time, “2019 Oscars”).
In other promising news, the 2018 Academy recognized more LGBTQ+ movies than in any past year: There is a film which features queer plots or subplots nominated for almost every award, and five in the Best Picture category. (Time, “This Year’s Oscars Will Be the Queerest Ever,” 01.23.2019).
Of course, the Oscars could still further diversify its nominees. Although Black men star in three of the eight Best Picture nominees, the Academy did not recognize any actors of color for Actor in a Leading Role. While it is wonderful that the talented Aparicio is nominated, she is the only actress of color vying for Best Actress. “Crazy Rich Asians” was ignored altogether, which, while disappointing, is not terribly surprising; romantic comedies rarely garner significant attention at the Oscars.
“Roma,” nominated for five awards including Best Picture and Actress in a Leading Role, is historic in many ways (Time, “2019 Oscars). As the first movie produced by Netflix to be nominated for an Academy Award, the company released the movie on its streaming website on Dec. 14, which overlapped with its tenure in theaters (Vox, “‘Roma’ is now on Netflix. You should still see it in a theater,” 12.15.2018). In a way, the many nominations “Roma” collected may be seen as a response to complaints about Oscar nominees that had limited releases. “Roma,” which is in Spanish and Mixtec, has the distinction of being also one of only 11 foreign language films to ever be nominated for Best Picture. As of yet, not one has ever won the award (Deadline, “Oscars: Foreign Language Film Nominees Populate Key Categories In Crossover Year,” 01.22.2019).
Netflix has been campaigning extensively for its movie. The company seems to see an Oscar win as their ticket into the film establishment, hoping this recognition will finally end the dispute over whether the Academy would consider a movie only available online true cinema (The New York Times, “In Bid to Conquer Oscars, Netflix Mobilizes Savvy Campaigner and Huge Budget,” 02.17.2019).
Similarly, Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” has made headlines as the first superhero movie ever nominated for Best Picture. It was also the highest-grossing film of 2018, earning $700 million domestically (Box Office Mojo, “2018 Domestic Grosses,” 02.17.2019). Many Oscars voters have listed the film’s cultural contributions as a reason it should win (New York Times, “What Will Win Best Picture? 20 Oscar Voters Spill Their Secrets,” 02.14.2010).
Such nominations might be a sign that the Academy is determined to become more down-to-earth by focusing on movies that better represent the public, rewarding accessibility and popularity more than it has in years past.
Another example of this shift came last August when the Academy announced a new category, Best Popular Film, to ensure that the TV-broadcasted awards include at least some films with which the audience is familiar (BBC, “Which Films Could Win the New Oscar?” 08.09.2018).
However, this idea received backlash after many critics pointed out that the Popular Film category would never receive the same prestige as Best Picture, thereby heightening the difference between the movies people are watching and the ones that the Academy actually wants to win. Many others saw it as pandering to the audience in order to raise the award show’s ratings, which have been falling in recent years, dropping 23 percent last year alone. In September, the Academy stated it would not instate the new category in 2019 (BBC, “Oscars Postpone Plans for New Popular Film Category,” 09.06.2018).
In a further attempt to increase the show’s audience, the Academy decided to cut the broadcast down to three hours by rewarding some awards during commercial breaks. The Academy waited a few days before announcing which categories they would leave out. The list included important awards such as Cinematography and Editing, along with less-anticipated ones like Makeup and Hairstyling and Live Action Short Film. Although the awards would be rotated every year, and the winners’ speeches would be later edited into the broadcast, the move was met with wide protest. Fifty prominent filmmakers wrote an open letter to the Academy, complaining that “[Their exclusion was] relegating these essential crafts to lesser status” (The New York Times, “Clooney, Pitt Among Hollywood Actors Yelling ‘Cut’ Over Oscar Award Changes,” 02.14.2019). Eventually, the Academy reneged (The New York Times, “Inside the Scramble to Make the Oscars Shorter,” 02.17.2019).
Following that mishap, the Oscars have scurried to shorten the ceremony in other ways, most notably through the omission of the role of host (The New York Times, “Inside the Scramble”). Organizers originally announced that Kevin Hart would serve in the position, but he resigned following public outrage about several old homophobic tweets. Rather than selecting someone else, ABC chose to place more emphasis on the groups of celebrities that will present individual awards. The Oscars used a similar format in 1989, but every year since then has featured a host (BBC, “Oscars 2019 Show to Go Without Host After Kevin Hart Row,” 06.02.2019).
Whether the network’s efforts to increase viewership will be successful–along with the Academy’s answer to the question of who is allowed into the gilded halls of Hollywood–will be determined only when the ceremony is broadcasted on ABC.