Another year, another Oscars controversy — and another effort by academy leaders to tamp down criticism of their decisions.
Facing protests over last week’s announcement that eight awards will be shifted out of the upcoming live Oscars telecast, film academy leaders defended the move and offered further clarification on Tuesday, while indicating that they are unlikely to walk back the changes.
The academy’s decision to hand out five below-the-line awards and the three short film awards in the hour before the March 27 Oscars telecast begins has been characterized by various guilds, industry organizations and academy members as an offense to some of film’s most vital craft.
On Monday, Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro, whose latest film, “Nightmare Alley,” is nominated for best picture this year, added his voice to the chorus of criticism.
“If any year was the year to think about it, this is not the year not to hear their names live at the Oscars,” Del Toro said of the affected nominees during a speech at the Hollywood Critics Assn. awards. “This is the year to sing and do it live.”
In an interview with Deadline, academy President David Rubin and Chief Executive Dawn Hudson attempted to defuse the controversy, saying that the decision to shift the award presentations — for film editing, makeup and hairstyling, original score, production design, sound, documentary short subject , animated short and live-action short — out of the live ceremony was a matter of necessity, while insisting the honorees will be treated with the utmost respect.
“We think it’s going to be an amazing experience, so we’re really enthusiastic about it,” Rubin said. “I can’t imagine that we’re not going to deliver the Oscar experience that both the nominees and the audience have been wanting and are dreaming about. We feel really good about this plan. It feels inclusive and respectful and celebratory.”
With the March 27 show looming, the academy also offered further details on the plans. The ceremony will officially begin in the Dolby Theater at 4 pm, with the eight awards handed out in front of an audience of nominees, presenters and guests in the hour before the live telecast kicks off. All of the nominees will be announced and the winners will give their speeches from the Oscar stage. Those with tickets are expected to be in the theater by 4 pm, even as the red carpet pre-show continues on air.
The acceptance speeches will be edited down to highlight the most emotional moments, with the clips then incorporated into the live broadcast throughout the evening and played on large screens for the audience in the Dolby. Winners from the first hour will be announced on social media as they happen, with clips from the speeches shared as the show goes on. Additionally, the winners will be asked to participate in traditional backstage press opportunities — including the photo room and press conference room — after their categories have been formally announced on air.
The academy has long contemplate changing, if not eliminating, the presentation of some of the less starry awards, but stiff resistance to the idea among the organization’s rank and file has kept such proposals from moving forward. In 2018, the academy announced a similar plan to shift four award presentations off the live show, only to reverse the decision shortly before the 2019 Oscars in the wake of industry pushback largely spearheaded by cinematographers (a category that is notably set to be presented on this year’s live show).
But faced with a host of major challenges — including steadily declining ratings for the Oscars, which hit an all-time low last year, increasing pressure from ABC, the financial burden of the recently opened Academy Museum and an existential crisis for film itself — Hudson and Rubin told Deadline they felt they had no choice but to make difficult changes to a show that is steeped in nearly a century of tradition.
”ABC’s been such strong creative partners with us and we’ve allowed for a lot of experimentation on our show for many, many years, but it became imperative,” Hudson said. “We just had to make changes. We had to look for the future for this show and for the organization. Is this the right answer? I don’t know. We need to try this, assess, and move forward.”
The two explained that a major driver of the decision was the mandate to keep the often bloated show to three hours. “After 11 o’clock, the viewership on the East Coast goes down, and you measure viewership up until the last commercial break,” Hudson said. “If your last commercial break is after 11 o’clock or way after 11 o’clock, now you’re just absorbing all that declining audience and it impacts your entire ratings, which impacts your advertisers for the next [year].”
The academy has striven to limit the show to three hours for years but has consistently overshot that target. The 2020 show ran three hours and 36 minutes, while last year’s pandemic-dampened telecast clocked in at three hours and 19 minutes.
In response to the decision, many have argued there are other ways to cut time from the show, including trimming musical numbers and film clips. Some say the academy’s new fan favorite award, where fans will be able to vote for their favorite movie of 2021 via Twitter, with the winner to be announced on the show, only adds insult to injury.
But amid talk that some nominees are considering skipping this year’s Oscars in protest of the changes, Rubin and Hudson indicated that a reversal of the decision — which was collectively reached by the academy’s 54-member board, its awards committee and this year’s show’s producers — is unlikely.
“It would be a shame if they missed an opportunity to celebrate the great work of this year and give us an opportunity to celebrate their great work,” Rubin said. “Change is challenging. But, we’re all doing this for one goal, which is to allow as much celebration of the year’s movies on the live broadcast as possible. And everybody involved in that first hour is a huge contributing factor to our ability to produce this great show.”