Declining audiences for the Oscars broadcast, tone-deaf addition and then removal of a ‘best popular film’ category, an entrenched gender and racial bias, the inability to find presenters that won’t be too boring or too edgy, fumbling attempts to get more people on the committee who aren’t old white men… the list of missteps goes ever on (don’t even start on the way nominations raise eyebrows year after year).

Then, with the predictability of Laurel and Hardy dropping a piano down a staircase, they go and shunt four categories to be presented in a commercial break; live-action shorts, make-up and hairstyling, cinematography and editing.

Cue the inevitable shit-storm, and another U-turn.

A barrage of outrage was unleashed, in an open letter to the academy by a host of cinematographers and directors reminds us that ‘The Academy was founded in 1927 to recognise and uphold excellence in the cinematic arts, inspire imagination and help connect the world through the universal medium of motion pictures’, they go on to say ‘Relegating these essential cinematic crafts to lesser status in this 91st Academy Awards ceremony is nothing less than an insult to those of us who have devoted our lives and passions to our chosen profession’. The full text with all the signatories can be found at the end of this article.

The decision was justified by saying that the acceptance speeches will be broadcast, just not the interesting bit of being able to watch the nominees faces before the reveal. Then each year four to six categories will be rotated to the commercials to presumably make it more fair. There are rumours that these have been offered up first to get it out of the way, poor old John Bailey went from white knight to pariah overnight – how could the first ever cinematographer to be president of the Motion Picture Academy allow this to happen?

At least the Academy can’t be accused of not listening, on Friday 15 Feb they issued a statement saying that all 24 categories will be broadcast.

There is more than a hint of desperation in all of the academies recent decisions. Time and time again it comes back to the fact that watching the big 3 hour awards ceremony on TV with all it’s pomp and grandeur is just not as popular as it used to be. There are many factors at play here, none of them having anything to do with the popularity of the moving picture.

Firstly it cannot be ignored that there are a lot of other awards out there, the BAFTA’s, Golden Globes, DGA, SAG, NSFC and so on. The BAFTA’s and Golden Globes in particular gain kudos and respect every year. The days when they were regarded as a bit of a warm up for the Oscar’s are gone. So how have they become more serious whilst the Oscar’s get more lightweight? The answer is not a simple one, after all the BAFTA award evening was cringeworthy, and the signs of impending failure have been there for years, the academy has managed to get out of touch on so many issues affecting society in general that it becomes hard to see how they can get back on track.

The academy has not handled #MeToo at all well, in fact that is probably at the root of their problem, thinking of it as something that has to be ‘managed’ rather than putting their own house in order. The plain fact is that sexual abuse and racial inequality runs deep in this industry, and has been aided and abetted by those in power for far too long. It is too big an issue to gently tiptoe around, and it is a conversation that will not go away, the Academy needs a root and branch examination of itself.

As long as institutions are run mostly by white men they will never reflect the real world. Stronger leadership might have seized the zeitgeist and steered a new course, huge changes have to be made and some people have to be called out. But, and it’s a huge but, the Academy isn’t concerned with that, it has become a ratings supertanker that simply cannot change course easily. Hence we get these plain weird decisions to literally cut chunks out.

We live in a different world now, is ‘event TV’ even a thing now? Not many are interested in watching celebrities in ballgowns and tux’s self congratulate, we’re quite happy with the highlights or pics on Instagram thank you very much. So trying to nip and tuck it to make it more appealing as a TV show is a slippery slope.

Just look at the hosts, once this gig was a career high, now it’s become a poisoned chalice (check for skeleton’s in your cupboard, don’t offend anyone, don’t be too relevant, don’t be boring). Plus the ideal candidates to be hosts simply don’t need this any more, they can get more productive attention via social media.

Can this decline be turned around? Maybe a start would be if the Academy got back to actually celebrating the ‘art and science’ of the moving picture – actors, directors, cinematographers, editors, designers and every member of the crew are integral to that. Let’s get serious about it and stop this facade of Hollywood glitz and glamour, treat it as a serious art form and be bloody relevant to the current social, political, gender and racial landscape.

Iain Hazlewood

Here is the full text of the letter to the Academy, with all the names attached

An Open Letter to The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and The Producers of the 91st Annual Academy Awards Broadcast:

On Monday, February 11, 2019, John Bailey, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, announced that this year’s Oscar presentations for Best Cinematography — along with Film Editing, Live Action Short and Makeup and Hairstyling — will not be broadcast live, but rather presented during a commercial break. This decision was made to reduce the length of the show from four hours to three. The vocal response from our peers and the immediate backlash from industry leaders over the Academy’s decision makes it clear that it’s not too late to have this decision reversed.

The Academy was founded in 1927 to recognize and uphold excellence in the cinematic arts, inspire imagination and help connect the world through the universal medium of motion pictures. Unfortunately, we have drifted from this mission in our pursuit of presenting entertainment rather than in presenting a celebration of our art form and the people behind it.

Relegating these essential cinematic crafts to lesser status in this 91st Academy Awards ceremony is nothing less than an insult to those of us who have devoted our lives and passions to our chosen profession.

The show’s director, Glenn Weiss, has stated that he will determine what “emotionally resonant” moments from the four winners’ speeches will be selected to air later in the broadcast. The show will cut any additional comment from presenters, as well as any recitation of the nominees as they see fit.

Since its inception, the Academy Awards telecast has been altered over time to keep the format fresh, but never by sacrificing the integrity of the Academy’s original mission. When the recognition of those responsible for the creation of outstanding cinema is being diminished by the very institution whose purpose it is to protect it, then we are no longer upholding the spirit of the Academy’s promise to celebrate film as a collaborative art form. To quote our colleague Seth Rogen, “What better way to celebrate achievements in film than to NOT publicly honor the people whose job it is to literally film things.”

Signed,
Cinematographers
Dion Beebe
Bill Bennett
Roger Deakins
Peter Deming
Caleb Deschanel
Robert Elswit
Mauro Fiore
Greig Fraser
Janusz Kaminski
Ellen Kuras
Ed Lachman
Robert Legato
Emmanuel Lubezki
Anthony Dod Mantle
Seamus McGarvey
Chris Menges
Dan Mindel
Reed Morano
Rachel Morrison
Guillermo Navarro
Phedon Papamichael
Wally Pfister
Rodrigo Prieto
Robert Primes
Robert Richardson
Linus Sandgren
John Seale
Newton Thomas Sigel
Vittorio Storaro
John Toll
Hoyte van Hoytema
Kees van Oostrum
Roy Wagner

Directors
Damien Chazelle
Cary Joji Fukunaga
Spike Jonze
Ang Lee
Spike Lee
Dee Rees
Seth Rogen
Martin Scorsese
Quentin Tarantino
Filmmakers
Kym Barrett
Judy Becker
Alan Edward Bell
Erin Benach
Avril Beukes
Consolata Boyle
Maryann Brandon
Alexandra Byrne
Milena Canonero
Chris Corbould
Hank Corwin
Tom Cross
Nathan Crowley
Sophie De Rakoff
Chris Dickens
Bob Ducsay
Lou Eyrich
Dante Ferretti
Paul Franklin
Dana Glauberman
William Goldenberg
Affonso Goncalves
Adam Gough
Jon Gregory
Dorian Harris
Joanna Johnston
Paul Lambert
Mary Jo Markey
Joi McMillon
Ellen Mirojnick
Stephen Mirrione
Bob Murawski
John Ottman
Sandy Powell
Fred Raskin
Tatiana S. Riegel
Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir
Mayes Rubeo
Nat Sanders
J.D. Schwalm
Anna B. Sheppard
Terilyn A. Shropshire
Joan Sobel
Michael Tronick
Mark Ulano
Martin Walsh
David Wasco
Billy Weber
Julie Weiss
Michael Wilkinson
Hughes Winborne
Janty Yates
Mary Zophres