The Four Hundred: The Problems With The Oscars

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On the surface, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a non-profit organization. Its name invokes a sense of prestige, a sense of respectability. Its origins may not have been as noble. The Academy was formed initially as a group of almost 36 writers, actors, directors, producers and technicians, to prevent them from unionizing. The idea behind the organization came from Louis B. Mayer, the west coast chief at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), who was pretty powerful at the time.

 Mayer had thought of the Academy in response to the problems he had faced when he began construction at his private Santa Monica beach house. Mayer wanted to use his MGM craftsmen for the job, but in the 1920s, studio construction unions were being formed. These unions had increased the construction costs of Mayer’s beach house up. Mayer thought that studios would face similar problems in movie making, which is why he decided to create a trade group that worked towards the best interests of Hollywood movie studios. The studio basic agreement was signed by the five major studios of the time, and it was primarily focused on money and investment for the future.

 The Academy Award of Merit, as it was called then, was another part of this plan against unions. Mayer’s intentions behind the awards weren’t noble. As Scott Eyman wrote in his biography of Louis B. Mayer, Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, Mayer had once proclaimed:” I found that the best way to handle [moviemakers] was to hang medals all over them. If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.”

 The Academy Awards ceremony in the first few years didn’t have the pomp and grandeur that it has now. The first ceremony was held in a hotel on Hollywood Boulevard where two hundred and seventy guests, including prominent film stars, directors and influential producers, gathered for a ceremony that lasted only 15 minutes. The winners for the first decade of the awards were given to newspapers for publication at 11 pm on the night of the awards to announce the winners after the ceremony, but when Los Angeles Times broke the embargo on one occasion, the Academy began using sealed envelopes to reveal the names of the winners since 1941.

 It was only in 1953 that the Academy Awards were first televised. Although there are many theories for how the award was called the Oscar, the name was officially given to the trophy in 1939. The first Oscar went to Emil Jannings, the only German actor till date to win a Best Actor award. However, there is a Hollywood legend that goes that a German shepherd by the name of Rin Tin Tin received the most votes for best actor, but members of the Academy wanted the awards to be taken seriously, which is why the award went to Jannings. Did this set a precedent for the Oscars to have some sort of controversy around it?

 There have been a lot of controversies around the Oscars. Each year, there are questions around each award. The Best Picture award each year has had its share of disputes. The Washington Post published in an article in February 2018 how the Best Picture Oscar has been awarded to a less deserving film on more than one occasion. Even the Best Actor Oscar has had its share of questions. One reason for that might be because the Oscars are awarded to who is due to receive the award more in lieu of consistent performances over a period of time, rather than the nominee who turns in the best performance for the year.

The root cause of the problems around the Oscars could be the composition of the members of the Academy. In a 2014 report based on a survey done by Los Angeles Times on the voters of the Academy, The Atlantic stated that the members were 94 percent White, out of which about 77 percent were men. In fact, when pitched against the demographic of America itself, the Academy is only behind about 7 states in America where the population is white. That must have a bearing on who and what the preferences are for voting.

 The Academy has taken steps to change this composition. In 2018, the Academy added 928 members from 59 countries, from which 49 percent of these members were female and 38 percent of the new members were people of color. This was a significant increase from 2017, when 774 new members were added, with 39 percent of them female, and 30 percent people of color. The Academy has steadily increased this composition of members from 2015.

 Plus, the Academy has been unable to recognize excellence in genre films and comedy films. Seth Macfarlane, who hosted the Oscars in 2013, stated in a tweet on March 4, that about 99 percent of the films nominated were dramas. The facts support this tweet. In a 2011 report at Collider.com, journalist Brendan Bettinger studied the Oscar winners of the past and found that about 85.2 percent of the nominations for Best Picture were drama films. In the years since, there hasn’t been too much of a change in that statistic, with only about four or five comedies Bridesmaids and The Wolf of Wall Street having made the cut.

 The Academy had announced the category of Best Popular Film in August 2018, but it quickly reversed its decision in September 2018. Dawn Hudson, the Academy’s chief executive, said in a statement that the academy recognized “the need for further discussion with our members.” The New York Times reported that some influential members like filmmaker Steven Spielberg were uncomfortable with the announcement that came nine months into the awards year.

The Oscar ceremony has also been reduced from its nearly four-hour length to three hours in order to maintain the viewership, which has been in a steady decline. The viewership had reduced from a high of 43.7 million viewers about four years ago to 26.5 million people in 2018. Seth Macfarlane even went to the point of stating in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that award shows, in general, were a “dusty format” that was as current as “the 1950’s variety show format” and that it was “oftentimes fitting a square peg in a round hole.”

 With the steps that the Academy has taken, it seems to be going in the right direction, at least as far as changing with the times is concerned. It is unlikely that any changes that the Academy makes will ever satisfy everyone because it is an event that is widely watched. Whether the Academy embraces criticism of its moves and still remains true to change and progress remains to be seen.