The Oscars omnishambles: how this year’s disaster unfolded

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Robbie Collin
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Kevin Hart lasted mere days as the host of this year's Oscar ceremony - Getty Images North America
Kevin Hart lasted mere days as the host of this year's Oscar ceremony - Getty Images North America

“If we have learnt anything over the past few months,” Dawn Hudson, the Academy’s chief executive, said earlier this week, “it is that people feel very connected to the Oscars.” For those of us on the sidelines, the lesson has been that the Academy apparently doesn’t.

This was the year the film industry body set out to salvage its annual awards show’s falling ratings once and for all – and the ensuing litany of bad calls suggests it has little idea why any of us watch in the first place. Since 2000, the live Oscars audience has tended to bob between 30 million and 40 million.

But after 2014, a pattern of decline set in, while the #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo social media campaigns gave the ceremony a cultural significance that was far from straightforwardly feel-good. So when last year’s event reached a record-low viewership of 26.5 million, it was decided that the time for change had come.

Here is the full sorry story of how the Academy tried to enact it. You may wish to tie up your trouser legs: multiple reverse ferrets lie ahead.  

August 8 2018

Because successful nominees mean strong ratings, an expanded Best Picture field was introduced in 2010, in the hope that it would make space for deserving blockbusters. But when that strategy failed to bear fruit – voters largely just nominated yet more conventional awards-bait – the board of governors took what presumably felt like the next logical step: a brand-new category dedicated to box-office smashes.   

The Academy didn’t ever explain how its Best Popular Film award was going to work. But presumably a shortlist would be drawn up on financial grounds, and then members would vote for their favourite. The backlash was instant because the problems were obvious. It created a patronising “kids’ table” at the ceremony, gave members even less reason to vote for blockbusters in Best Picture, and implied that Best Picture was now effectively an award for Best Unpopular Film.   

September 6 2018

So, just a month later the Best Popular Film category was “postponed”. The climbdown was embarrassing at the time, but looked even worse a few months later when three of the eight Best Picture nominees turned out to be Black Panther, A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody, all of which had taken more than $300 million (£230 million) worldwide.  

December 4 2018

Smartly, the 2019 telecast’s producers, Donna Gigliotti and Glenn Weiss, had prioritised finding a host, and initially approached Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, even brainstorming an opening musical number with the popular action star. But Johnson’s busy filming schedule wouldn’t mesh with rehearsals, so Gigliotti and Weiss turned to his Jumanji co-star Kevin Hart. 

On paper, Hart was a good alternative, with his background in stand-up and a sizeable young fan base who might not tune in otherwise. Alas, no one thought to carry out even a perfunctory social media health check and, within hours of his appointment, a potpourri of old homophobic tweets came to light.

Two days later, in an Instagram video apparently filmed in bed, Hart framed the outrage as a bore, and rambled about being “in a great, mature place where all I do is spread positivity”. A day after that, he posted a second video, this time fully clothed, in which he announced he had just turned down the Academy’s request that he apologise for the tweets, and would not be proceeding as host. 

The fiasco only bolstered the growing perception of the gig as a poisoned chalice: the fee is meagre (two-time host Jimmy Kimmel said he was paid $15,000 per year), the time commitment intense (it involves six weeks’ work), and the scrutiny feverish.  

January 4 2019

As the above was unfolding, the Academy didn’t publicly clarify its position, and it soon lost control of what PR types call “the narrative”.  Long after everyone had assumed Hart was out, up he popped on Ellen DeGeneres’s chat show, apparently on the first leg of a semi-official rehabilitation tour. DeGeneres, herself a two-time Oscar host, told viewers that Hart’s name was still in the frame, claiming: “The Academy is saying, ‘What can we do to make this happen?’”. Yet the next week, during an interview on breakfast television, Hart proclaimed he was “over it” once and for all, referring back to an apology that it wasn’t clear that he’d ever actually made. 

Again, more silence from the Academy, which waited another month to confirm that it was, in fact, going hostless, only adding to the impression of backstage panic. (It didn’t help that the last time the Oscars went host-free, in 1989, the show featured Rob Lowe singing with a dancer dressed as Snow White, and was described in an open letter from members as “an embarrassment to the entire motion picture industry.”)

Behind the scenes, Gigliotti and Weiss had decided to embrace Hart’s departure, partly because no one else would step in, but also because having no host would slim down the show by a few precious minutes. Getting it done in under three hours had become a talismanic target, in part because the unpopular 2018 edition had been almost an hour longer.

January 24 2019

Another time-saving wheeze: the Academy announces that only two of the five nominees for Best Original Song – Kendrick Lamar’s All The Stars from Black Panther and Lady Gaga’s Shallow from A Star is Born – would be performed live at the ceremony. 

On Twitter, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who co-starred in one of the slighted films, Mary Poppins Returns, describes the decision as “truly disappointing,” adding: “Host-less AND music-less? To quote Kendrick: Damn.”

January 31 2019

Whoops! All five songs will feature in the broadcast after all, the Academy announces, with the Mary Poppins Returns number performed by a special guest, later revealed to be Bette Midler. The catch: each song will be allocated a mere 90 seconds of screen time, thanks to that onerous three-hour time limit.  

February 12 2019

While announcing the much-ridiculed Best Popular Film category back in August, the Academy had also mentioned that, by the by, some Oscar categories would no longer be presented live on air, as another time-saving measure. Instead, winners would be called up during the ad breaks, and their speeches cut into a montage to be broadcast later in the show. 

Six months on, it was explained which categories these would be, and all hell broke loose. Live-action short and make-up and hair – well, fair enough. But cinematography and editing? Cold-shouldering the two building blocks of cinema for the sake of ratings is not a strong look. Two days later, an open letter signed by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino describes the move as an “insult”. The membership is in open revolt.  

Feb 16 2019

With one week until showtime, the Academy performs another U-turn: all 24 categories will be broadcast live after all. In an interview with The New York Times, Gigliotti says she was asked by officials if she could still bring the show in at under three hours. “The answer was no,” she declared.