If you don’t care about the Oscars then this column is for you.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has heeded your lack of interest and moved to get you back watching. This year an informal citation will celebrate Lady Gaga getting rogered against the Venetian blind in House of Gucci. There's more. A dental nurse from Cleveland and a systems analyst from Great Bend will, in 2023, hand out the Oscar for best documentary short. Or something like that. Remember how folk music in church got the kids racing back to Mass? It's the equivalent of that. Make sure to book March 28th off work. You now know what you'll be doing in the small hours of that morning.
Sordid business drags up memories of the ill-fated Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film from 2019
This is all so undignified. In an attempt to reverse plummeting ratings, US Twitter users will be invited to mention their favourite film alongside the hashtag #OscarsFanFavourite. Punters can vote up to 20 times a day (just so freaking classy, right?). The winning title will be announced during the ceremony. A parallel Twitter contest invites voters to select their #OscarsCheerMoment. It is not out of the question that Gaga – idol of a famously zealous fanbase – could end up being honoured for that noisy coupling in Ridley Scott's chaotic fashion epic. Better still would-be entertainment writer Carrie Wittmer's suggestion of "When Phil calls a horse a whore" in The Power of the Dog. But the most likely victor is Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire appearing from parallel universes in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
The sordid business drags up memories of the ill-fated Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film from 2019. Inaugurated to work blockbuster cinema into a supposedly recherché line-up of nominations, the innovation was laughed into cancellation within weeks of its proposal. Adding irony to embarrassment, Black Panther that year became the first superhero film to secure a nomination for best picture. Had the Popular Film option been available, the Marvel flick might not have made the grade. The current hashtag proposal will, in theory, allow marquee cinema a place at the table without passing actual Oscars on to beneficiaries of special pleading.
A few years before the Popular Film debacle, the academy, wincing at the failure of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight to secure a best picture nod, made a more subtle attempt to widen the net by increasing the number of nominations for the top prize from five to 10 (then, confusingly, to a maximum of 10, and, from this year, back to the full 10 again). In the event, the extra places were more often taken by independent features than by box-office behemoths. That effect was heightened when, in the aftermath of the #OscarsSoWhite debacle, the academy invited large numbers of younger and more diverse members to join. Hence Parasite, in 2020, becoming the first film not in English to win best picture. Hence Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car this year getting a nod for best picture ahead of Spider-Man: No Way Home. Hence the #OscarsFanFavourite and #OscarsCheerMoment fightback.
To further increase the impression of a billion-dollar gameshow, three hashtag voters will win a trip, all expenses paid, to present an award at next year’s ceremony.
The vulgar online hustings have already begun. Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters, as her fans dub themselves, are making their manoeuvres. The same digital mob that persuaded Warner Brothers to re-edit Justice League into “The Snyder Cut” are getting behind “Flash turning back time” (we haven’t space to further explain what that’s about) for #OscarsCheerMoment. Spider-Man: No Way Home, the sixth-highest grossing film of all time, is certain to figure in both competitions.
It seems likely we will end up with an award for social media slacktavism – remember everyone can vote 20 times – rather than any measure of genuine popular feeling. It might be best if, in the spirit of “Boaty McBoatface” winning that 2016 poll to name a British polar research ship, some joke title took the prize for fan favourite. At time of writing, significant weight is being put behind the candidature of kiddie flick Clifford the Big Red Dog. That is all the innovation deserves.
And yet. One has sympathy for the academy’s dilemma. Independent producers will still fight their way towards the creation of smaller, innovative features. While the streaming goldrush continues, Netflix, currently favourite for best picture with The Power of the Dog, may yet produce the odd thoughtful, big-budget drama. But the prospect of winning Oscars is the only thing persuading the traditional studios to invest in grown-up films on a larger scale. If viewer figures of the ceremony continue to plummet then even that incentive will wither. Not every highbrow would celebrate the arrival of Spider-Man to the best picture race, but, if that increased awards night viewership – and the ratings are at their highest when the nominees are well seen – then it would, counter-intuitively, do something to stop superheroes and their ilk eating mainstream cinema alive.
If #OscarsFanFavourite and #OscarsCheerMoment really can manage a similar trick (you never know) then the loss of dignity may have been worthwhile. But we don’t have to enjoy the bitter, bitter medicine.