Ahhh, the day after the Academy Awards. If there was ever a day set aside for thorough satisfaction and a pervading sense of fulfillment it’s today, isn’t it? We all just saw an engaging and suspenseful race among well-known competitors culminate in an exciting night of pulse-pounding awards. The nominations, announced last month, were on point, hitting all of the year’s artistic triumphs but also including a few unexpected surprises. The year’s cinematic output was embodied in an even and thoughtful manner, and the top prizewinners can be agreed upon as a cinematically accomplished yet diversely representative distillation of the year’s major trends in movie-making. And the speeches! All of them snappy, original displays of Oscar Wilde-caliber wit, each one of them over with much too quickly.
Sigh. All right, we’ll come out of the realms of denial now. Let’s talk about what actually happened last night.
Regardless of whether you were on Team Birdman or on Team Boyhood, or whether you agree with the merits of Julianne Moore and J.K. Simmons’s acclaimed performances or not, I think that we can all agree that there’s something about the Academy Awards that’s, well, broken. The idea of an awards show that honors the preceding year’s achievements in filmmaking is all well and good, maybe even important to the health of the industry, but its execution leaves a lot to be desired. The selection process for nominees and winners has long been the subject of raised eyebrows and skeptical glances. And I don’t just mean that films adhering to a rather specific set of topics and preoccupations (bio-pics, costume dramas, disabilities, Nazis, etc.) are far more likely to take home trophies, or that the Academy Awards are infamously easy to predict.
And it’s not like the Academy doesn’t recognize that there’s something rotten in the state of tinsel town. A few years ago they announced their widening of the Best Picture category to include up to ten nominees, partly as a way of addressing criticisms over their snub of popular juggernaut The Dark Knight. Since then this policy has mostly met with shrugs from the public at large, and their latest tweaks to the qualifications fine print hasn’t done much in way of helping. The Academy needs some major reform, and it needs it yesteryear.
Now, there’s not nearly enough space in one humble editorial column to cover all of the changes that would be necessary to really cure all of the Oscars many ailments. That’s material for an epic-length multi-part series, if not a full book. So rather than try to give the Birdman’s eye view of the many methods that could be used to tackle these issues, let’s spend some time discussing one of the most radical ideas, but one which, I believe, could do the greatest good.
The Oscars’ corrupting influence extends beyond the award show itself, affecting the way films are made and released throughout the entire year. Not only are there films made each year that appear to fall under the auspices of “Oscar Bait,” but there’s a very particular – and maddening – way in which these films are made available to the public. Since the final months of the year are seen as “Oscar Season,” almost all films that are thought to possibly be in the running for any of the big prestigious awards are unmercifully jammed into that period by any means necessary. The result is that year after year we starve through the barren wastelands of January through March before having to gorge our way through the clutter of the final eight weeks of the year. Of the eight films that were nominated for last night’s top prize only one, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was released in the first half of the year.
A lot of people believe that the Best Picture nominees should be trimmed back down to five, but I think there should actually be twelve nominees per year. Let’s simplify that system and make it slightly more specialized: each member of the Academy submits a ballot with twelve titles on it, one from each month of the year. The votes get tallied, and voila! We have our twelve nominees.
Just take a moment to imagine what the Oscars race would look like under this system. First of all, it blows the world of Academy Award speculation wide open. Rather than an unwieldy giant that wakes up for a three month period between mid-November and mid-February, Oscar “Season” becomes an active force throughout the entire year. The suspense and intrigue of each month’s cinematic landscape would make for fascinating discussion, not to mention interesting betting opportunities. It’s like having a playoff game every month.
But the real beauty of the 12 Months of Oscar model is the effect it will have on how we think about release schedules. Imagine how different the release calendar would look if there was an active incentive to release Oscar-worthy films throughout the entire year. Not only would the Academy Awards feel like a better summation of the entire year, but it would improve the quality of film-going on multiple levels. Publicists can give proper attention to the films they’ve got under their protection. The surprisingly smart summer blockbuster can have a real shot at getting a nomination if the designated “Oscar bait” films fall asleep at the wheel. Indie films have a better shot at gaining some traction with the public consciousness. Most important of all: we would get more good films released all year round. Everybody wins.
Think about what this year’s Oscar race would look like if the Best Picture nominees were chosen this way. Sure, there would a lot of familiar faces around: The Grand Budapest Hotel almost certainly claims the March nomination and Boyhood probably crushes the competition for the July slot. But which of the November releases, Imitation Game and Theory of Everything, gets the most votes? And without a second British mathematician biopic cluttering things up, more diverse pictures can get into the mix. Does crowd-pleasing critical smash Guardians of the Galaxy (this year’s The Dark Knight stand-in) get the August slot? What happens to The LEGO Movie, the film most often touted as an overlooked “snub” this year? In this alternate universe that I’m proposing, it’s practically guaranteed a Best Picture nomination by dint of its February release date. You can already see how the cinematic conversation centered on the Oscars would expand.
“Hold on, hold on,” I can hear some of you saying, “what happens during those months of the year when nothing worth nominating comes out? What would be the nominee for the January that just ended? Taken 3?” That’s a totally valid point, but how long do you think that would be the case? Remember – the reason why so many “prestige” pictures get crammed into the end of the year is because conventional wisdom says that’s a crucial way of building momentum for the awards track. Once you reframe that into a series of smaller competitions, each with equal weight, the thinking changes. Sure, you could stick American Sniper into the last minute December release date and hope that it beats Selma and the other heavy hitters in that month… or you could hold it back until January of the following year and have a sure thing on your hands. Likewise, go ahead and release Whiplash in the middle of October, see how it does against the juggernaut of Birdman. Or, push up its release date to April, when it’ll have a real chance to dominate movie-going consciousness for a bit. It will not take long for people like Harvey Weinstein to start doing this kind of math. And sure, November and December will probably still be weighed a little heavier than the other months just by their sheer proximity to the awards themselves, but that by itself might not be such a terrible evil. Finishing up a year of healthy competition with the studio’s big favorites might give a nice sense of escalation to the proceedings. Nothing wrong with a photo finish, as long as it doesn’t devolve into a glut.
Of course, this is just the beginning. This crazy little dream only focuses on the Best Picture category, and does nothing to address the bigger issues of representational limitations and shortsightedness that tends to plague the voting. (not to mention the question of who actually goes home with the award) But in terms of shaking up the conversation it’s a start, and it could do a lot to make the lumbering dinosaur feel more exciting and unpredictable. It would help to get more good films seen around the calendar, it would get more worthy films a more realistic shot at being noticed, and it might make the entire proceedings just a little bit more fun.