The Oscars: Take four!

Or is that five? Or six?

It’s easy to lose count of the counterproductive programming ideas in the run-up to Sunday’s Academy Awards, the climax of an awards season that’s seemed like punishment.

Among the host of issues was the host himself. Or at least the previously announced host, comedian Kevin Hart, whose unearthed, unfunny homophobic tweets caught up with the actor, and with the Academy, leaving the event without a host for the first time in 30 years.

The tempest wasn’t the first test for this year’s Oscars: Take one was a new “popular-film” Oscar category that was meant to reflect the success of hits like “Black Panther,” but came across like a condescending consolation prize. The Academy soon retreated. But “Black Panther” advanced, as the superhero movie’s superlative box office and reviews resulted in an Oscar nomination.

“Black Panther” wasn’t alone in achieving commercial success and critical acclaim. Variety reports that this year’s nominees are the highest-grossing group in almost 10 years, earning a combined $1.3 billion at the domestic box office.

A different audience metric, Nielsen ratings, was behind the most recent reversal by the Academy. Pressured to trim the telecast and reverse last year’s record-low ratings, the Academy announced a since-scuttled scheme to cut live coverage of four awards, including cinematography. “Who ever heard of a movie being made without a camera?” Susan Smoluchowski, executive director of the MSP Film Society, rhetorically asked. “How could you possibly determine that cinematography … could be shunted off into a commercial break?”

Commercialism is indeed at the crux of this controversy, Carol Donelan, professor of cinema and media studies at Carleton College, said in an e-mail exchange.

“The Academy’s idea of presenting some of the highly collaborative technical and craft awards during commercial breaks suggests anxiety about viewer ratings and how we make sense of the industry or find meaning in the achievements of industry insiders,” Donelan said.

Donelan is right about ratings, and also about the focus on on-camera stars instead of industry insiders. But instead of a telescopic gaze on telegenic stars, perhaps a wider view of the constellation of contributors — and more profoundly, the artistry they create — would make the Academy Awards more, not less, relevant.

Because while they will still have sway, and have their say, many stars haven’t shined too brightly recently, with stilted, scripted bits often overshadowing the actual award winners. And in this deeply divided era some hosts, hostile to certain political viewpoints, have likely led some to tune out.

But if movie stars are polarizing, movies are popular. “It’s our most accessible art form today,” said Smoluchowski.

Marvel movies, like “Black Panther,” to be sure. But also marvelous movies from around the world, like Oscar favorite “Roma” and the scores screened every April by the Film Society at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.

Film “allows us to experience stories of people who we really think are very different from us but in fact turn out to have so many parallels to us,” said Smoluchowski (who could have been referencing “Roma,” the domestic drama set in 1970s Mexico).

“Film has also been compared to literature, architecture, sculpture, music, comic books and video games,” said Donelan. “Maybe what is unique about cinema is its hybridity; it is capable of ‘remediating’ dimensions of so many other art forms. At the same time, cinema is more than an art form; it is also a business.”

So show us more of the show business, Academy.

Concern over obscure films among nominees? Show more extended clips and give viewers reason to be moviegoers.

Concern over obscure technical categories? Show more extended examples of how cinematography, score, screenplay, sound editing and sound mixing, editing, costume design, makeup and hairstyling are essential, exciting elements of how films — particularly the “popular” ones — are made.

This is especially true of the visual-effects category, where work on nominees like “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Ready Player One” are a key reason why Hollywood is such a global cultural force.

As the telecast stands now, very brief examples — mentions, really — of this work are shown and then the worthy winners get a few moments at the mic. Instead, the Academy should more completely and confidently counter its concern over these awards by showing just how important they are.

In the process, maybe the film industry can rekindle the thrill of theatrical screenings. Sure, streaming is convenient, and an excellent method of making film’s artistry even more accessible. But part of what makes movies unique is the shared experience, which should be preserved and promoted.

“I love that I can now access films on my own time, on my own screens,” said Donelan. “But I would be upset if the ritual experience of collective viewing in a cinema theater were no longer an option. This is not turning out to be an either-or proposition. Multiple models of film access now coexist.”

In fact, “Roma” was released (and was stunning) on the big screen, but was seen by most on small screens via Netflix.

“Filmmakers and film distributors and producers want to see the collective reaction that goes on in a room full of people watching a movie,” said Smoluchowski.

So do most moviegoers. So the Academy shouldn’t hide, but highlight, its cinematic magic and make its ultimate awards show as accessible as the art form it is honoring.

 

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.