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Film In Memoriam: With the latest category shift, the Oscars are truly dead

Remember back in the heady early days of 2017, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences engineered a mix-up so colossal that it left a man who voluntarily nicknamed himself the Rock stunned beyond words? After the Oscars mistakenly awarded La La Land best picture over rightful winner Moonlight the evening of Feb. 26, 2017, I believe society collectively agreed that moment was the nadir of the Academy Awards. Surely, things could only go up from here.

On Monday, the Academy’s board of governors took out a shovel, dug a hole, and jumped so deep inside this new, previously unimaginable low that their voices could be barely heard above all the dirt steadily showering itself into their gaping maws.

Was that overkill? I would apologize but the hyperbole fits the disastrous decision by those in charge of this year's Oscars to completely kill whatever it is that makes the soon-to-be 91-year-old awards ceremony interesting and, most importantly, worthwhile to those in the arts it was designed to honour. Starting with this year's televised event, four categories will be presented off-air, during commercial breaks, as if they weren't even worth recognizing at all. Not that any one category is deserving of being shunted off to the side, but the fact that the Academy has decided that cinematography and editing, of all elements, are less essential to the filmmaking process? That infuriates as much as it confounds.

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According to Academy president John Bailey (himself a cinematographer, and apparently content with tossing his colleagues exactly zero bones), four to six different categories will be selected for this off-screen presentation style in future years, on a rotating basis. This year, the live-action short and hair and makeup categories will join cinematography and editing on the cutting-room floor – and, yes, the irony on that latter point is overwhelming.

Although I have had issues with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, the Shape of Water director was absolutely right when he tweeted on Monday night that “cinematography and editing are at the very heart of our craft. They are not inherited from a theatrical or a literary tradition: they are cinema itself.” Films, and televised awards shows it should also be noted, do not just shoot and cut themselves. To deny those artists who are part of the basic language of film a spotlight on the industry’s undisputed biggest night is cruel, and short-sighted. (I can also only wonder how those who handle the hair and makeup duties for the Academy Awards telecast itself will react to the news.)

There is ignorance at play here, but also a manic desperation. All of these and the many other recent Academy bungles – trying, and failing, to get an actual host; trying, and failing, to introduce a “most popular movie” category; trying, and failing, to limit the best-song performances to only a fraction of the nominees – have been justified, explicitly or not, as necessary course-corrections to boost ratings. But it’s unclear how producing a slimmer, less substantive production will capture new, younger, presumably sexier audiences. It is not as if there’s a whole demographic of millennials out there who have simply been biding their time all this while, waiting for that magical moment when the show slid under the three-hour mark.

So forget the fact that this is not the instant viewership catnip that the Academy or television network ABC assumes it is. And forget the convenient fact that, as journalist Mark Harris pointed out on Twitter, none of this year’s off-screen categories has nominees owned by the corporate parent of ABC (Disney’s Black Panther is up for six Oscars, all in categories that will be aired live during the telecast). And please do forget that this year’s cinematography slate is the most non-Hollywood in years, with three foreign-language films (Roma, Cold War and Never Look Away) vying for that award.

It is simply clear that the Academy, or ABC, or both working in tandem, have determined that the Oscars are not a celebration of artistic crafts, but lean infomercials for the shiniest and easiest of Hollywood product. Perhaps after nine decades of Oscar shenanigans, this isn’t the shocking surprise that I’m making it out to be. Maybe the constant barrage of bad and industry-sullying ideas coming out of the Academy over the past 12 months is simply fuelling a raging inferno inside my movie-addled brain. Whatever the truth of the matter is, I cannot fathom how this year’s ceremony will be anything but a disgraceful tire fire.

But if the Academy is still open to ideas, one final suggestion: Tweak the always controversial “In Memoriam” segment. It’s simple. All that needs to be done is to place the words “Academy Awards” right at the beginning of the mournful video montage. Because the Oscars, well, they’re dead.

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