TORONTO – If there’s one Canadian who understands the consequences of an Oscars show that runs too long, it’s J. Miles Dale.
The Toronto producer’s best-picture acceptance speech for “The Shape of Water” at this year’s Academy Awards was unceremoniously cut off by music because the show was running too long and needed to squeeze in a comedy bit involving a Jet Ski at the very end.
As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences attempts to shorten the show to three hours and add a “popular film” category as part of changes announced earlier this week, Dale and some other Canadian academy members question the direction the Oscars are headed in.
Dale says while he understands the academy is trying to include more mainstream fare with the new category and reach more Oscars viewers after years of slumping ratings, it’s also possibly compromising what it stands for.
“I think the academy has to decide what it is and what purpose it serves,” Dale says.
“These are people working at the top of their craft who are deciding what they think about these movies…(but) for Disney and ABC, it’s about TV ratings. So what is it about? That’s a conflict.
“This isn’t the People’s Choice Awards, and if it was, that would be a different story.”
The academy announced plans for a shortened broadcast and new film category on Wednesday, along with an earlier Oscars airdate on ABC of Feb. 9 for 2020. The changes are among several the academy has made in recent years as it attempts to diversify its membership and keep itself and the Oscars “relevant in a changing world.”
While the academy has yet to reveal details on the new category, many in the industry say it’s an attempt to boost ratings and include box-office tentpoles such as the kind ABC owner Disney makes.
“I think it’s counterintuitive to what the Oscars represent,” says Glen Gauthier of Toronto, who was nominated for an Oscar for sound mixing on “The Shape of Water.”
“I don’t understand the point of the popular vote. Isn’t that what the Golden Globes does? You can have a best picture that’s also the most popular picture, so why now do you need to separate them?”
Dale notes “The Shape of Water” was actually quite popular, making about $65 million in the U.S. and almost $200 million around the world.
“We’re an art movie and a commercial movie and I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive,” Dale says.
Toronto production designer Paul Austerberry, who won an Oscar for his work on “The Shape of Water,” says he doesn’t think there should be a new category but understands that it might lure in more viewers.
“The one thing is, I now imagine that a blockbuster will probably never win best picture, because it will have its own category,” Austerberry says.
Burlington, Ont.-based animator Nancy Beiman, who has been in the academy since 1996, supports the popular film category. She says she doesn’t think it’s that different from the current Academy Honorary Award, which is given at the discretion of the Board of Governors and not necessarily awarded every year.
“It’s just a matter of nomenclature, because by saying ‘popular film,’ it’s to me a little patronizing,” says Beiman, who is also a producer and director.
“I thought, ‘Popular? Who votes on it?’ Well, if you made it an honorary Oscar, it would be the governors. The idea of the award is great.”
But Beiman and others are concerned that the shortened broadcast will result in certain smaller categories being cut from the broadcast and presented during commercial break.
“It is a tremendous boost to the independent short film, if it wins; it can actually make or break a career,” Beiman says.
She and the others also say there are ways of shortening the broadcast to three hours without eliminating categories, such as cutting out many of the musical numbers and comedy bits and paring it down to mostly just awards, like the BAFTAs does.
Dale notes this year’s show could have been shorter if host Jimmy Kimmel hadn’t taken a group of A-list actors across the street to a packed theatre that was screening of Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time.”
Perhaps he would have had time to give his speech, too.
“The fact is, academy members don’t pay dues, which is great, and the academy gets a vast percentage of their revenue from the broadcast,” Dale says.
“So I don’t want to say it’s an irreconcilable issue but it’s kind of an issue. They just they need to decide what purpose they serve and I think that’s the big thing.”