In 1953, the twenty-fifth annual Academy Awards made history as the first Oscars ceremony aired on television. This was done as a response to studios pulling their funding from the ceremony and it quickly prompted a discussion in the press about the role the Oscars played in the industry, whether popular or prestige films were more deserving of winning Hollywood’s highest honor, and how Hollywood should react to changing audience practices as more and more people were choosing to consume content at home rather than go to the theater. Sound familiar?
Although the film industry now is different from the industry in the 50s, we still see Hollywood and the Academy struggling with problems about which films deserve recognition and how the Oscars ceremony and the films themselves can appeal to audiences. The 2019 Oscars have been marred by chaotic decisions and regrettable nominees that undermine what should be the goal of the award show: to recognize the craft of filmmaking and the artists who create the movies we love.
There’s no doubt that the Academy is going through a crisis and it’s going to take a lot for the Oscars to recover from some of the events that have transpired this year. As Hollywood looks to improve in the future, it could help to look back. Taking the ’53 Oscars as a case study is a valuable way to learn from the past and hopefully not repeat it.
In January 1953, Warner Bros., Columbia Pictures, and Universal Pictures pulled their financial support from the Oscars because they agreed that they were spending too much money on films that were intended to be Oscar contenders and they weren’t seeing a significant enough boost in box office numbers if those films did win. Basically, they argued that Oscar bait wasn’t paying off anymore.
In response to the funding being pulled, the Academy struck a deal with NBC. The network would provide financial support for the show and in exchange would get exclusive broadcast rights. In the press, this turn of events was viewed as a positive thing. People argued that by supporting the films, viewers had earned the right to partake in the ceremony and to be part of the celebration by being able to view it from the comfort of their own home.
The conversation about audience involvement in awards season quickly turned to the matter of how this could influence the winners. Director Mervyn Leroy argued that there should be an Oscar poll where viewers decided the winner and pointed to a poll that had recently been conducted by Twentieth Century Fox where audiences picked The Greatest Show On Earth as their favorite film of 1952. This was somewhat controversial because, at that time, the front runner for Best Picture was thought to be High Noon, the critically acclaimed Western that is still beloved today and regarded as one of the best in the genre. The Greatest Show On Earth, on the other hand, is a bloated, over-long, meandering film that invests too much screen time on circus acts as spectacle in order to cover its half-baked and uninspired plot. It was the highest grossing film of the year and made three times more than High Noon. It won Best Picture.
This certainly wasn’t the first or last time that mass audiences had been swayed by the promise of spectacle and entertainment over quality. But the Best Picture win feels especially on the nose during a year where Hollywood was preoccupied with questions about how to best appeal to audiences during a time of industry transition. One answer that the majority of Academy voters seemed to agree on was giving the highest honor to a film that audiences loved, even if it wasn’t actually the best of the year.
It’s easy to draw a parallel between 1953 and 2019 as we are currently witnessing the Academy wrestle with whether or not a proposed and then swiftly postponed Popular Film Oscar category would be a good idea. It’s also easy to look at the ’53 ceremony and argue that the selection of a big budget, commercially successful film for Best Picture was a mistake and that the Oscars never should have been so intent on appealing to mass audiences. However, as much as there were things the twenty-fifth Oscars got wrong, there were things they got right. In both cases, the ceremony can tell us a lot about how to improve the modern Academy Awards.
Part of the appeal of televising the Oscars was that the show was sure to gain viewers because audiences at home wanted to share in the glitz and glamour of the night. It’s why there were two ceremonies that the live feed cut between, one in LA and one in New York so that stars appearing on Broadway wouldn’t be missing from the ceremony. There’s no longer bi-coastal ceremonies, but we can see the same sentiment in how extravagant the red carpet is for awards shows now. People want to feel involved in what they’re watching and they want to get as full of an experience as is possible.
This means that the way to attract viewers to the Oscars telecast isn’t to hold it back from what it’s meant to be. Cutting categories from the broadcast, trying to make the show shorter, limiting musical performances — none of these strategies will work. The Oscars only happen once a year and there’s nothing wrong with making them an extravagant celebration. The best way to inspire audiences to tune in isn’t to act like the show’s grandeur is something it should be ashamed of. When the Academy first announced a plan to cut categories from the broadcast they created the idea that those categories and the awards as a whole don’t really matter that much. This decision has since been changed, which is good for this year, but the mentality as a whole has to be altered if the 2020 Oscars are going to be better than the 2019 Oscars. If they sell the Oscars as being a big deal, if they stop apologizing for how long the show runs, if they emphasize the fact that every category from Best Picture to Best Editing does actually matter and that people should care then people might actually start to care. Peer pressure can be a hell of a thing.
Airing the show on TV was also a way to utilize a medium that was threatening the film industry. The convenience of television ensured that more people who wanted to watch live were actually able to do so. We’re currently seeing a similar situation play out with the rise of streaming. Something the Academy might want to take into consideration is that there are lots of potential viewers who don’t live in the US and who don’t have a cable subscription or even a television. Although the film industry might currently feel threatened by streaming services, these services could be utilized by the Oscars to make the ceremony accessible to those who want to tune in.
Of course, the Oscars need movies to award and the films that win will always play a role in how any given year is remembered. This is why the Academy needs to expand its membership and create a more diverse voting body. If the same people pick the same Oscar bait movies every year the show becomes stale. If movies win because they’re popular at the time or because they feel like a safe choice we end up with Best Picture upsets like The Greatest Show On Earth and Crash over films like High Noon and Brokeback Mountain. And that’s just embarrassing.
These things seem simple enough: sell the idea that the Oscars matter, make the broadcast as accessible as possible, and give awards to deserving movies. But we’ve seen time and time again that Hollywood isn’t always great at dealing with crises that arise from transitional periods and changing audience practices. The Academy has 90 years worth of history that they can try to learn from going forward. I suggest they start with 1953, but mostly I just hope they start somewhere.