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Into the Oscar®verse
We've got first-time Oscar® voter Cameron Bailey on the podcast, and it's time for me to fix the big show
IS EVERYBODY EXCITED?
Perhaps you don’t even know what there is to be excited about?
Well, I’m here to enlighten. First, I’m going to post some hard news about Ottawa politics tomorrow, having finished that book project I’d been working on. So that’s exciting.
But what I mean to discuss here today is all the excitement about one of the world’s biggest annual cultural rituals. Sunday will see the 95th — 95th! — Academy Awards ceremony broadcast over there on the big ABC television network by the Academy® of Motion® Picture® Arts® and Sciences®, and like you, I am still trying to decide which of the three (3) nominees I have actually seen is my favourite for Best Picture.
Like you, I’m also trying to gauge my legal liability if I fail to put a little “®” next to any occurence of the words “Oscar,” “Academy,” “Bad Opening Musical Number,” or “Really Hoping Nobody Gets Hit This Year.” This page on the Oscars® website makes me nervous, especially its reference to “its trademarks and service marks, including “OSCAR®,” “OSCARS®,” “ACADEMY AWARD®,” “ACADEMY AWARDS®,” “OSCAR NIGHT®,” “A.M.P.A.S.®” and the federally registered “Oscar” design mark.”
The three (3) nominees I have actually seen are Top Gun: Maverick; The Banshees of Inisherin; and The Fabelmans. Films about troubled friendships, you might call them. The other seven nominees, because for several years now the Oscars have believed it would help their case to have up to ten Best Picture nominees, can be divided into “films I feel guilty about not having seen yet” (Women Talking, Tár); “films I am proud to say I will never see” (Avatar: The Way of CGI); and “films I watched on streaming, but not right to the end” (All Quiet on the Western Front; Everything Everywhere All At Once). There are two leftover nominees for which I can contrive no emotional or cognitive response.
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I have movies on the brain because this week’s guest on The Paul Wells Show is one of Canada’s most prominent emissaries to and from the world of cinema, Cameron Bailey.
Cameron is the CEO of TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, which drives up hotel prices in Toronto every September and maintains an impressive year-round screening facility on King Street, The TIFF Bell Lightbox. TIFF is a major driver of deals and trends in North American cinema, a key destination on the social calendar for half of Hollywood, and reliably one of the country’s biggest annual highbrow/ lowbrow/ middlebrow cultural events. And because its business model is based on existing in a world where people are comfortable sitting next to one another, of course it was absolutely walloped by COVID-19. Both in its own existence — like all cultural industries, TIFF’s continued existence depended on government sustenance programs and a big shift to streaming while most of us were under orders to stay home — and more broadly in the ways we all think about the world, because those changes are reflected through a hundred funhouse mirrors in the plots and themes of movies, as social changes have always been.
One of the themes of Season One of the Paul Wells Show has been: What the hell do we do now?, with the post-pandemic and the Build Back Better? and the rest. So when I booked a week’s worth of live events at the University of Toronto’s Munk School in January, Cameron Bailey was one of the guests we were most eager to get.
It was also a wee reunion for two alumni of what apparently we’re supposed to call Western University. Back in the 80s I was one of two entertainment editors at The Gazette, the campus paper of the University of Western Ontario. Our fondest hope each week was that Cameron Bailey would offer to review a movie. He was a little older, his really intense involvement with The Gazette was behind him, but a few times a semester he’d drop off two or three typewritten pages of impeccable prose about some movie. Usually one playing down at The New Yorker, the repertory cinema at the bottom of Richmond Street that closed in the late 1990s.
Nothing that has happened in Bailey’s career since those days has surprised me. He was always impressive. One of the things we discussed in our interview was his experience of becoming, this year for the first time, a voting member of the Academy, which means he’s probably seen more of this year’s nominated movies than I have.
Here’s all the stuff I give you every week about the podcast, but after that, I want to give you my plan for fixing the Oscars. It’s a radical plan, based on what the Oscars are supposed to be about: Loving movies.
Here’s this week’s episode of The Paul Wells Show, with my guest Cameron Bailey, on Apple Podcasts:
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The Founding Sponsor of The Paul Wells Show is Telus. Our Title Sponsor is Compass Rose. I’m grateful for the support they all provide. In Toronto, I’m the inaugural Journalist Fellow-in-Residence at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, where this interview with Cameron Bailey took place. Our Ottawa partner is the National Arts Centre. Antica Productions handles production for the podcast. The Toronto Star and iPolitics distribute and promote The Paul Wells Show.
Now let’s fix the Oscars
Here’s everyone showing up at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the Academy Awards in 1971. There’s Jack Nicholson, George Segal and Ginger Rogers looking like a million bucks on the red carpet.
Everyone knows the Oscars matter less now in the culture than they did then. Reasons include:
The monoculture has exploded. When most people had access to only five television channels and a couple of local newspapers, there were fewer things to talk about. So by the time the Oscars rolled around, most people had heard of Patton, Love Story, M*A*S*H, Five Easy Pieces and Airport. (Airport was terrible, by the way, in case you find yourself in an argument with one of those “They don’t make movies like they used to” types.) These days it’s entirely reasonable that people could get to Oscar week without having any idea what Tár or Triangle of Sadness are — or, indeed, just about any film on the list that doesn’t have Tom Cruise in it.
The main appeal of Oscar night — a chance to see George Segal in a tux — has vanished. These days, people who get a kick out of seeing celebrities dress up are well served by Instagram.
Most important, the “movie industry” is now dozens of industries with very little in common. As varied as the 1971 nominees were in tone and topic, they were all comparable in budget, cast and production technique. Three or four of them probably used the same caterer. George C. Scott could have been in M*A*S*H, Ryan O’Neal could have been in Five Easy Pieces, Jack Nicholson could have been in Airport. The gap between the highest- and lowest-grossing movies wasn’t huge — blockbusters were less of a thing, as was micro-budget art-house cinema. All these people knew one another, and our ancestors knew all of their products. You could tune into the pinnacle of their year, a slightly clunky televised award show every spring, with a sense that you knew what was going on. But now? You could make 50 of Nomadland for the cost of one Avatar: The Way of Water. The gap in their box-office gross was even bigger. Just about nobody who sat through Nomadland would want to watch an Avatar sequel, and vice versa. They’re just different conversations. If Tár wins Best Picture on Sunday, the people whose careers depend on the Oscars staying relevant will be in big trouble.
So for the last several years, a steadily-shrinking share of the global audience tunes into an award show featuring a combination of people they know very well, via their smartphones, and people they’ve never heard of. They strain to draw connections between projects that have nothing to do with one another. (“Well, Top Gun: Maverick and All Quiet on the Western Front are both about pushing yourself to the limit, aren’t they?”) And because the main goal of the whole enterprise is to recoup massive investments, starting with Disney’s for the broadcast rights, everyone’s constantly terrified. You see it on the show. Rarely do ten minutes go by before somebody’s making nervous jokes about the show running over time, or about Tár winning Best Picture.
I’ve believed for some time that the Oscars’ biggest problem isn’t the quality of the films. It’s not the choice of host or producer. It’s not the balance between comedy and schmaltz in the scripting. It’s the assumption of commonality, the way the whole enterprise is predicated on the doomed notion that for four hours a year, we can all mean the same thing when we talk about “the movies.”
How do you fix that?
First, by telling the stories behind the year’s movies. The stories we used to know automatically because we were swimming in a monoculture and Hollywood had a near-monopoly on making movies.
Second, by taking the time that telling those stories will take. Which means almost certainly longer than one night.
Basically I’m saying Disney, if it’s Disney that keeps the franchise, should do to the Oscars what it’s done with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Star Wars franchise: Blow it up big.
Daniel Joyaux in The Ringer this week was close, but still too timid, with a proposal for a five-hour Oscars show that would be divided into highbrow, spectacle and major awards. And the screenwriter of the latest MCU misfire was closest to the spirit of an Oscars overhaul when he said:
“I think we need to step away from the viewership question. Who gives a shit about how many people watch a four-hour award show? Why are we making that such a big deal? Don't cut off the poor sound designers who worked for two years to make a beautiful movie. I think, actually, the Oscars should lean in the other way and really showcase the humans who are making this stuff. We see celebrities literally every single day. I couldn't learn more about Austin Butler if I tried, you know? I want to see the cinematographers, and I want to see [what] the weird costume designer ladies are wearing, who brought their dad there. I think if they pivoted towards the human creative side of it, that would make it incredible. And obviously, you have the pageantry and you have all the Hollywood stuff. I'm sure movie stars will show up. But quite literally, celebrate the movies. When's the last time we just celebrated the movies, man?”
I know it’s counterintuitive to build a celebration of movies around the people we’re likeliest to know the least about. If it’s any consolation, the Oscars have no choice. Every year there will be more people we don’t know, and fewer people we know. Fortunately there’s a model for a TV show that makes us care about strangers engaged in high-stakes competition. It’s the Olympics.
Dick Ebersol revolutionized coverage of major-league sports, and then in the 1990s of the Olympics, by realizing that people only care about the outcomes when they feel a stake in the participants’ stories. When I was a kid, coverage of an Olympic final would begin four minutes before these strangers started hurtling off ski jumps or jumping their horses or out-volleyballing one another. Suddenly you were getting a 10-minute documentary about some (usually but not always American) shot-putter who got her kidney in a transplant from her beloved aunt, and then they’d show you the event. Emotional stakes skyrocketed.
Last year when his film Another Round won the best International Feature award, Thomas Vinterburg paid tribute to his teenage daughter, who died in a traffic accident when he had just begun shooting the film. To me the fact that the audience didn’t know that story before the presenters read Vinterburg’s name was a huge missed opportunity. Dick Ebersol would have made sure they did.
Of course teeing up that story would take a few minutes. And there’s no guarantee Another Round would actually win. And there are probably 20 such human stories behind the nominees every year. Which leads to the question I’ve been asking myself for a few years: Why the hell do they try to cram it all into a single night?
A mostly pre-produced Oscars Week, with thematic shows streaming (one presumes on Disney+) every night, leading to a live and star-studded (but archived for further streaming) ceremony at the end for the half-dozen biggest categories, would take advantage of the trends that have so far been Oscar’s enemy. The splintering of audiences. The near-disappearance of appointment television. The smaller, but highly motivated, market for serious cinema, which has so few outlets because news coverage, like cineplex space, tends to go overwhelmingly to Marvel superheroes.
The future of Oscars will look either like continued decline, as another generation of producers tries to breathe new life into a single-night broadcast ceremony model that’s seventy years old this year — or it’ll fragment to chase fragmented audiences.
Five nights of Oscars. An episode about the way movies look, with cinematographers and editors and costume designers. Documentaries about these creative people, three of them interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel, whatever. Open envelopes and hand out statuettes at the end. A second episode about how movies sound, with Original Song writers sharing what they love best about each other’s songs. Sound mixers discussing advances in sound mixing, whatever. An episode about writers. Who they are, how they learned to write for movies, which old movies have the dialogue that taught them most about the craft. An episode about documentaries and animation. Finally, the traditional Sunday night confab with Brie Larson, Beyonce and Daniel Kaluuya cheering the Best Supporting Actress winner. Except all week, there’ve also been mini-documentaries about all those categories, so audiences already have some idea what’s going on when the big night rolls around. And then archive the whole thing for repeated viewing, which should be automatic because that’s how we experience movies these days anyway.
Sure, a lot of it would be nerdy. If you don’t think there are movie nerds in this world, ask yourself how TIFF got to be so big. One of the things I believe most strongly in journalism is that I’m going to have better luck if I write stuff for people who want to read, instead of cutting my prose to ribbons in hopes of attracting people who hate reading. This distinction is applicable in other settings as well. I grew up loving the Oscars, and I’m tired of watching the Oscars apologize for movies. There could be another way.