The Oscars are changing — and it’s enraging the industry they celebrate: ‘It’s a slap in the face’


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correction

A previous version of this story incorrectly said Alan Heim won an Oscar for editing “Network.” He was nominated for “Network”; he won for “All That Jazz.” The article has been corrected.

Alan Heim was positive he wasn’t getting the Oscar.

“I absolutely knew I wasn’t going to win,” he said, recalling the 1980 Academy Awards in which he was nominated for editing Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz.”

He practiced his speech in the shower anyway, figuring that if the miraculous happened, he didn’t want to forget to thank anyone. It didn’t hurt that Fosse had faith, giving him some advice, despite his protestations: “No matter how cool you are, when they call your name, your body will freeze up and you’ll turn to stone.”

“And, basically, that’s exactly what happened,” Heim said.

In Heim’s distinguished career, he’s edited a wide range of beloved movies (“Network,” “American History X,” “The Notebook”). But winning the Oscar for “All that Jazz,” standing onstage in front of his peers on live television, and being recognized for editing — a craft that often doesn’t receive much attention — stands out as a particular highlight.

“It’s a wonderful experience to walk around with that thing, to carry that wonderful statue,” Heim said. It also led to more work editing movies. “It’s a perfect experience,” he added. “And it shouldn’t be denied.”

Yet for many this year, it will be.

In a move that Heim, who now serves as president of the Motion Picture Editors Guild, referred to as “degrading,” a “snub” and a “slap in the face,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced in late February that eight categories would be removed from this year’s live telecast: best original score, film editing, production design, makeup and hairstyling, sound, documentary short subject, live action short film and animated short film. Instead, those awards will be given out in a taped ceremony before the telecast begins, which will then be quickly edited and broadcast as truncated clips during the live show. (A similar idea was suggested in 2019 but abandoned after fierce backlash.)

The academy also announced #OscarsFanFavorite and #OscarsCheerMomenttwo fan-voted categories whose winners, selected online, will be announced during the ceremony (and its voters entered into a sweepstakes with prizes ranging from free movie tickets to giving out an award at the 2023 event).

These moves come after a decade of declining viewership — last year’s telecast was the lowest-rated in history — which has found the academy making or proposing several changes, including the expansion of best picture nominees from 5 to 10 and the quickly retracted plan in 2018 to have a popular movie category.

Netflix’s “The Power of the Dog” collected 12 Academy Award nominations on Feb. 8, including those for best picture and best director. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

ABC, which owns the broadcast rights for the Oscars, jointly made the decision to shake up this year’s ceremony with the academy, according to a person familiar with network discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Representatives from the academy did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Washington Post.

“The academy is looking to get a bigger audience, but I don’t think they know where the audience is,” Heim said.

Guilds such as the Cinema Audio Society, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, the Alliance for Women Film Composers, and the Set Decorators Society of America have released statements urging the academy to reverse course. A letter to AMPAS President David Rubin signed by more than six dozen film professionals — including industry titans such as James Cameron, Kathleen Kennedy, Guillermo del Toro and John Williams — stated that the decision is “valuing some filmmaking disciplines over others and relegating those others to the status of second-class citizen.”

In sidelining eight Oscar categories, the academy announces its own irrelevancy

Scott Bomar, an Emmy-winning composer who has worked on “Dolemite is My Name,” “Hustle & Flow” and “Black Snake Moan,” was also one of the letter’s signees. “Like many, I was extremely disappointed and even shocked” by the telecast changes, he said. “It’s the most prestigious organization for highlighting the craft of filmmaking, but yet you’re going to diminish these eight categories and instead air a Twitter vote instead? To me, that’s almost adding insult to injury. … And I think it really diminishes the integrity of the academy.”

Part of the appeal of awards shows, Bomar said, is the “thrill of discovery,” and often that discovery comes in the categories where movies that might not be up for best picture can still be recognized.

“This whole thing is making the academy less relevant instead of more relevant, which is what they’re going for,” he said. “It’s actually having the opposite effect.”

Ostensibly, the reasoning for the change is to keep the historically long broadcast to a clean three hours in an attempt to increase ratings after 2021’s record low of fewer than 10.5 million viewers. (For comparison, the 2011 ceremony a decade earlier drew approximately 39.5 million.) But many question how these changes would boost numbers — and if it’s even possible to reclaim that audience.

“Last year, when the ratings were announced, I remember thinking to myself, ‘That is your core audience, your ride-or-dies,’ ” said Matt Neglia, who runs the Next Best Picture website and podcast. “Anyone who tuned in last year to watch your show are the people that you’re going to get every year, no matter what. … You either have to accept that this is the way things are, or you can keep trying to change things and alienate your core audience.”

Mark Harris, a journalist and author of several books on film history, has become one of the most ardent critics of the academy’s decision. “The holy grail of the Oscars has become this imaginary ABC viewer who is eagerly waiting for there to be fewer awards, no old people, no artsy movies, a super-fast pace, and Spider-Man,” Hey tweeted the day the changes were announced. “And I guess the Academy is going to chase that mirage right over the edge of a cliff.”

Harris, who referred to the decision as “panic-based” and a result of “several flaws in thinking” in an interview with The Post pointed out that ratings across all awards shows and television have been declining for years — not just the Oscars.

Where to watch this year’s best-picture Oscar nominees

“Nobody ever made a good decision about a television program by catering primarily to people who don’t like the show, and that’s what happening now,” Harris said. “These people are all allergic to a basic truth, which is that we live in a much more culturally fragmented universe than we used to and there are many, many more options for things to watch besides the Oscars.”

“What’s happening to the Oscars ratings is due to cultural forces that can’t be undone or engineered by the people who make the Oscars,” he added. “The Academy Awards are one of the very few times, for one night, that achievement in all areas are put on a fairly level playing field. If you are a sound engineer or a maker of shorts or a visual effects technician, you get your moment the exact same way that an actor who’s paid $20 million for a movie or a famous director gets their moment.”

They have also been a place for the academy, which has been heavily criticized recently for its lack of diversity, to celebrate historic wins. In 2019, Hannah Beachler to become the first Black woman to win best production design for “Black Panther” and Domee Shi became the first woman of color to win best animated short. The next year, “Joker” composer Hildur Gudnadóttir became the first woman to win best original score.

Oscar producer Will Packer, along with other academy board members, insist that viewers won’t notice a difference. At the same time, Rubin has defended the decision by saying it’s “a critical year where we knew we had to make changes” to find a “large audience” that the ceremonies “have not been attracting, and we’re looking to have a bigger tent to bring everyone in.”

“The meanest thing I can say about the Oscars is not as damning as that pair of statements,” Harris said, noting their inherent contradiction. What is the purpose of change that no one will notice?

Nevertheless, ratings for this year’s ceremony will almost certainly be higher this year than last year’s, which arrived midway through a pandemic that saw movie theaters shuttering across the nation and studios holding major tentpole movies in anticipation of their reopening.

“The danger is since the ratings are probably going to go up anyway, the people who have advocated for this silliness will be empowered to say, ‘See, it works,’ ” Harris said.

Trevor Gureckis, an award-winning composer who wrote the score for “The Goldfinch” and has repeatedly worked with M. Night Shyamalan and who signed that open letter alongside Cameron and Kennedy, worries decisions like this could lead crafts workers to pursue other industries.

If the mission of the academy is to support filmmaking and educate the public about the craft, this decision shows “they don’t have a respect for your craft,” he said.

Gureckis has begun composing for video games, an experience “much more interesting and fulfilling than getting an Oscar now, if they’re going to put it on the back burner,” he said.

“I just think it’s really unfortunate that they would go down this route,” he added. “Why is it on us to be kicked to the curb?”

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