Graham: Oscars game of hopscotch continues

The Academy Awards are in a mess of trouble, and the hole keeps getting deeper

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
Oscar statues are seen backstage during the 88th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on February 28, 2016 in Hollywood, California.

The Oscars folded again. 

After the uproar over Oscar producers deciding to present several categories during the commercial breaks of the Feb. 24 Academy Awards broadcast, the show caved, and will now present every category live on the show

Cool, that should fix everything. 

The news, which came early Friday evening, is the latest PR disaster this year's Oscars have faced in what has been an arduous, embarrassing year, and the show is still eight days away.  

Let's see, there was the introduction and elimination of a "Popular Film" Oscar category, as well as the kerfuffle over Kevin Hart as Oscar host. How far have the Oscars fallen? They don't even have a host this year. The biggest gig in showbiz has become the job that nobody wants.

With the reaction to the news that the show would present four categories — cinematography, film editing, live-action short and makeup and hairstyling — during commercial breaks of this year's show, you'd have thought the Academy was dishonoring the craft of filmmaking and burning film reels in the streets, that they were lining up nominees' mothers one by one and pushing them down a hill.

(The plan was to air the winners' speeches later in the broadcast, and the categories would be streamed live online for those who wanted to see them.) 

The reaction to the news was one of shock and disgust, with nominees, filmmakers and casual film fans logging their complaints one Twitter character at a time. “In the history of CINEMA, masterpieces have existed without sound, without color, without a story, without actors and without music. No one single film has ever existed without CINEMAtography and without editing,” wrote Alfonso Cuarón, himself is a Best Cinematography nominee for his lens work on "Roma."

But the category was never canceled, and handing out the award during a commercial wouldn't have made it any less meaningful. But it may have made for a tighter television broadcast, and that's what the Academy was trying to achieve.  

Big picture, the Oscars are in trouble. Ratings have plunged in recent years, and in all likelihood, they'll plunge again this year, too. There any many reasons for this, one of them being that the Oscar show is too damn long and too damn boring. Joe and Jane Popcorn want to see the four acting categories and Best Picture, and those awards are usually given out late into a long broadcast. 

You want to see Best Picture? You better hang on through Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Documentary Short Subject and a dozen other categories whose appeal doesn't spread far beyond the nominees, their families, and readers of Film Comment magazine. 

It doesn't mean the categories aren't essential to the craft of filmmaking, which they 100 percent are. But Oscar producers are trying to make an entertaining broadcast while also honoring the best in film and that's not an easy thing to do. 

Yes, the Oscar show is also bloated and messy. They'll float film montages of the best movies from 1975 out there for no reason other than they're celebrating some sort of anniversary. (Films celebrate an anniversary every year, this isn't novel.) There are often painful musical numbers, and yes, sometimes the winner of Best Costume Design goes on a little bit too long, has to be played off, and then everyone feels awkward.

And true, it ends too late. Two years ago, when "La La Land" was mistakenly named Best Picture over "Moonlight?" That happened at 12:09 a.m. in the Eastern time zone, after many viewers had already conked out for the night. 

But another major reason for the ratings dip is the erosion of the monoculture. The Academy Awards were a huge deal when there were three television channels and they were the only time you got to see the stars. Now there's 55 awards shows leading up to the Oscars, and every movie star has their own Instagram page where you can swipe through and vote on which outfit you want them to wear at the big show. Television audiences as a whole are falling, and will continue to fall as people cut their cable cords, stream the shows they want when they want to stream them and get their news delivered to them via social media. 

The Oscars, in essence, are chasing an audience that doesn't exist anymore.

Already in a tailspin, they decided to cut four categories from the broadcast. The Grammys hand out 75 of its 84 categories before the show, and no one makes a fuss (and this year's show was pretty darn good to boot). But people hate change (and they love to complain!), and this move checked both boxes, and even though the categories have been reinstated, the incident is another black eye on a show that's already got a pair of broken legs and its arm in a sling. 

Empires don't fall quietly, and the disaster we're watching unfold with the Oscars is indicative of where the business has been, where it is today and where it's headed. They need to change with the times, but the show's leadership refuses to stick to its guns, and the institution comes out looking weak. They're trying to fix a crack in a dam, but a flood is coming. Better grab a life vest.