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Column: The Academy’s Oscar changes just opened up Pandora’s envelope

The Oscar statue remains the gold standard of Hollywood filmmaking. (AP)

WASHINGTON — And the Oscar goes to … Pandora’s envelope!

On Wednesday, the Academy Awards announced major changes after last year’s broadcast saw an all-time low of 26.5 million viewers, down 19 percent from the previous year and marking the first time the awards ceremony had fewer than 30 million viewers since 2008.

This includes three major changes:

  • Limiting the ABC broadcast to three hours (Thank God)
  • Shifting the date earlier to Feb. 9 in 2020 (No complaints)
  • Creating a Most Popular Movie category (Hold up, what?)

First, I love that they’re trimming the runtime. Even as someone obsessed with the Oscars, the broadcast always dragged. Instead, some awards will now be presented during commercial breaks (i.e. technical categories), limiting the broadcast to the major categories. Can’t we cut the lame sketches instead? I suppose I’m willing to consider a compromise, but only if the hardworking craftsmen receive their statues with speech highlights shown in a montage.

I also support moving the date earlier. Award season is currently way too long, creating paper champions that win Oscars simply as contrarian picks to the Golden Globes. I’d even take it a step further and hold it at the end of each calendar year, rewarding movies that people have actually seen throughout the year (i.e. “Get Out” in February), rather than the current cottage industry of “Oscar bait” crammed in at the end while folks are out of town for the holidays.

While I support these first two ideas, I strongly oppose creating a separate category for Most Popular Movie, an idea filled with good intentions but ripe with unintended consequences.

Sure, it’s not unprecedented. The very first Oscars rewarded Best Picture to “Wings” (1927) and Best Artistic Picture to “Sunrise” (1927), a practice it quickly scrapped. Who knew that the infamous 2017 envelope gaffe was actually foreshadowing? I could totally see Best Artistic Picture going to “Moonlight” (2016) and Most Popular Movie going to “La La Land” (2016).

Still, I don’t believe this two-tier system is the answer.

For instance, “Black Panther” is a lock for Most Popular Movie, but that suggests it’s not artistic enough for the actual Best Picture, which it most certainly is. Are you now seeing the danger in creating two segregated classes of movies? Not only does it dilute the conversation — title belts lose their meaning when every boxer has one — it fractures the space-time continuum like Biff Tannen’s Almanac by creating two diverging timelines of movie history.

Rather than breaking it down into two “separate but equal” Best Picture categories, I’d much rather see an effort to include more mainstream movies in the actual Best Picture category (i.e. “Wonder Woman” should have absolutely been included in last year’s top nominees).

How quickly we forget that blockbusters used to win Best Picture all the time.

In the 1930s and 1940s, a Top 10 grosser won Best Picture a whopping 90 percent of the time with “It Happened One Night” (1934), “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935), “Gone With the Wind” (1939), “Rebecca” (1940), “Casablanca” (1942) and “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946).

In the 1950s, it held at 80 percent with “All About Eve” (1950), “An American in Paris” (1951), “From Here to Eternity” (1953), “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) and “Ben Hur” (1959).

The 1960s saw 90 percent of Best Pictures come from Top 10 grossers with “The Apartment” (1960), “West Side Story” (1961), “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), “My Fair Lady” (1964), “The Sound of Music” (1965), “In the Heat of the Night” (1967) and “Midnight Cowboy” (1969).

And the 1970s saw 90 percent with “Patton” (1970), “The French Connection” (1971), “The Godfather 1 & 2” (1972-1974), “The Sting” (1973), “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), “Rocky” (1976), “Annie Hall” (1977), “The Deer Hunter” (1978) and “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979).

But in the 1980s, things dropped to 60 percent as “Platoon” (1986), “Rain Man” (1988) and “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989) proved exceptions to a disturbing new trend of audiences shying away from the likes of “Ordinary People” (1980), “Gandhi” (1982) and “Amadeus” (1984).

The 1990s fell to 50 percent with “Dances With Wolves” (1990), “Silence of the Lambs” (1991), “Schindler’s List” (1993), “Forrest Gump” (1994) and “Titanic” (1997), while the 2000s fell to 30 percent with “Gladiator” (2000), “Chicago” (2002) and “LOTR: Return of the King” (2003).

Now, the 2010s have bottomed out at 0 percent. That’s right, zero of our Top 10 grossers win Best Picture with “The King’s Speech” (2010) at No. 18, “The Artist” (2011) at No. 71, “Argo” (2012) at No. 22, “12 Years a Slave” (2013) at No. 62, “Birdman” (2014) at No. 78, “Spotlight” (2015) at No. 62, “Moonlight” (2016) at No. 92 and “The Shape of Water” (2017) at No. 46.

What changed? Franchises. Yes, the same decade that Gordon Gekko proclaimed, “Greed is good,” Hollywood studios fell in love with the franchise model, preferring the safe bet of sequels over the risk of original content. Can you really blame Oscar voters for wanting to reward fresh ideas rather than those who ride the coattails of other past filmmakers?

Think about it, if we start rewarding the box-office champ, we’ll open a can of worms where “Star Wars 10” wins Best Picture when the original “Star Wars” did not in 1977. “Indiana Jones 5” could very well win Best Picture when “Raiders of the Lost Ark” did not in 1981. And “Batman vs. Superman 4” could win Best Picture while “The Dark Knight” did not in 2008.

The truth is that sequels don’t make money on their own merits; they capitalize on built-in brands. Are we supposed to reward the film itself, or decades of action figures, trailers and market research that ensured it would be the year’s top grosser before anyone even saw it?

Alas, we’re crying over spilled milk. Hollywood is already drinking our milkshakes. Pandora’s envelope is officially opened. The genie is out of the bottle and the lamp is being rubbed by Disney, which owns both Marvel and ABC and thus wants to honor superheroes. All that we passionate movie buffs can do now is memorize two Best Picture winners for every year.

Tinseltown’s Cooperstown just decided to crown two World Series champions each year: one team that wins on the scoreboard and another team with the highest stadium attendance.

Time to dust off the old T-ball participation trophy. It’s starting to look a lot like Oscar gold.

Or as Robert DeNiro told Ben Stiller, “Focker, I didn’t know they made ninth-place ribbons.”


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